Why Macron Doesn’t Fear France’s Unions

France, Macron

The first street protests against Emmanuel Macron’s proposed labor-market reforms have been underwhelming. Several major unions stayed away. Estimates of the turnout varied — from 223,000, according to fairly reliable police figures, to 500,000, according to the CGT, France’s biggest union, which called for the march. Whatever the real number, French unions are divided, and this helps Macron’s reform efforts.

This is unusual. France’s unions are traditionally a united front against pro-market reforms of any kind, especially labor-market reforms. Despite a history of radicalism, Jean-Claude Mailly, secretary general of the Force Ouvriere (FO), has all but endorsed the bill, while criticizing it. The moderate CFDT union, which most observers expect to eventually support the bill, has not yet taken an official stance, saying it is still studying the matter. Meanwhile CFE-CGC, usually a moderate union, has denounced the bill in terms more fitting for a far-left tract. What’s going on?

Some of this is just habitual political squabbling: Mailly, traditionally allied with the bigger, formerly Communist Party-affiliated CGT, is said to be tired of playing second fiddle and is therefore looking for opportunities to distinguish his group from his senior partner. But there are structural factors at play: the fundamental realignment of French unions as they become more responsive to their members’ concerns.

French unions are famously radical and resistant to all reforms. After World War II, French leaders wanted to create a German-style “social market economy” whereby workers would be represented on boards and be key stakeholders in corporate decisions. A system of “representivity” was set up whereby a company, industry sector or government must negotiate labor rules with those unions that the law deems “representative” of the workers concerned. In sector-wide or national negotiations, any proposed reform must meet a certain threshold of approval by unions, and each union’s vote is weighted by its representivity.

The cardinal sin of the post-war system in France is that the law simply set out which unions were deemed “representative,” whatever their results in elections or their membership numbers, thereby giving them a legal lock on the process and freeing them from accountability to their own members and to employees. Most workers, employees and managers don’t actually want to strike and protest over every little thing — even in France. But unions were not accountable to them, and were not incentivized to cater to them.

Unions therefore became little more than political machines. With no incentive to provide services to workers, most of the people drawn to join them were either ideological radicals or civil servants, because civil service rules incentivize union membership, giving unions the ability to bring the whole country to a halt by triggering strikes in key public services. This led to an oft-noted paradox: France had extremely powerful unions, but also the lowest percentage of union membership of any major economy.

In 2008, a crucial reform changed the rules around representivity for unions so that election results were taken into account in the formula for their representivity. The consequences of this systemic shift have been slow in trickling through the system; participation in union elections slowly increased as everyday employees found out their vote actually matters. In March of this year, an earthquake happened: In professional elections, the centrist and moderate CFDT union came in first, ahead of the radical CGT. It was the first time since World War II that CGT didn’t come in first.

Unions have slowly begun to realize that they cannot represent only their ideological activist base but must also reflect a broader swathe of French workers, lest they become irrelevant. FO, usually a radical union, has been treading a fine line, denouncing the bill in press releases and holding a non-binding vote against it, but also refusing to call for strikes and protests; the union has generally been moving in a more conciliatory direction, voting in favor of a deal with bosses on unemployment insurance in March, for example. It is said to be trying to find a middle way between CFDT’s image as always saying yes to everything, and CGT’s as always saying no.

This alone has significantly altered the landscape. Macron’s labor-market reform is essentially tailor-made to squeak through without too much disruption and to be supported by at least a few unions. It might be a missed opportunity to push more radical reforms, but by capitalizing on the structural changes to the landscape of French unions, all the signs are there for relatively smooth sailing.

(Bloomberg)

Before the Spark Breaks Out in Kurdistan

Kurdish people protest outside the Erbil International Airport in Erbil

On Sept. 25, the region woke up on a decisive moment with 92.7 percent of Kurdish people voting for independence from Iraq. Then events accelerated and the Iraqi government announced, in coordination with Ankara and Tehran, its willingness to restore control over four cross-borders (two with Turkey and two with Iran) and to impose an air-embargo on flights from and to Iraqi Kurdistan with scenarios of likely armed conflicts in disputed regions especially the oil-rich Kirkuk.

Two days before the referendum, the Iraqi Army advanced to launch an offensive on ISIS strongholds in Hawija – the scene foresees a spark of military confrontation that would break out anytime.

True that the local government in Kurdistan confronted the international community with its insistence to carry out the referendum, but the tension in Iraq and the region wasn’t caused only by it. Announcing the referendum is not something new, its date has been previously set and the Kurds reiterated several times their determination to separate from Iraq.

Kurds attribute this demand to years of abuse that have made them realize that it is time to establish their own state. Where was this international rejection before? (Especially that of the US, European Union, Turkey and Iran) Back then, none of them attempted to reform ties between Kurds and the central state, especially that Kurdistan government has been accusing the central government in Baghdad for years of depriving the Kurds from fair shares in power and resources.

Despite all that, the dispute was neglected and this pushed Kurds to insist on the referendum, whose outcome came as expected. This gives Iraqi Kurdistan a strong card to use in upcoming negotiations with the central government on natural resources as well as reinforcement of its political position as a self-ruled region.

The severe escalation by the Iraqi central government, Iran and Turkey with the unprecedented siege and threats of starving the Kurds, disregard the fact that Kurds announced earlier that the referendum is not an announcement of independence — it only acknowledges the necessity to move to the next step and to negotiate with Iraq and neighboring states in addition to the international community the conditions of separation, if it happened.

Confederation with enhanced conditions and possibly a new version of the current self-ruling which means that Kurds moved on with the referendum after they lost hope in any of the main powers to understand the situation. They moved on with a referendum that enhances their condition and urges European countries to focus on reforming ties between Kurds and the central government.

It should be mentioned that it is difficult for Kurdistan dream of independence to become true amidst this regional and international rejection. Geographically, the anticipated Kurdish state has no navy border and is surrounded by states that reject its independence.

Economically, Kurdistan government economy depends on oil transported via pipes that pass through Turkey or is exported via the central government. Iraqi Kurdistan exports around 550,000 bpd – out of daily produced 600,000 bpd – via a pipe in Turkish Jihan’s Port overseeing the Mediterranean Sea. All these basic-income sources would be hindered if the tension remains. How would Erbil establish a state without the ability to export its oil?

With the referendum card in its hand, the government of Kurdistan has a strong negotiation card that permits it to move on with a confederation that maintains its status, doesn’t marginalize its people -as it is the case now- and ensures that Iraq remains united as everyone wishes.

This would contribute to finding solutions for pending topics, including the disputed regions between Erbil and Baghdad based on the Iraqi constitution and providing joint market and currency as Kurdistan maintains its independent cultural, economic, political and foreign policies.

Baghdad’s Reform to Halt Iraq’s Secession

Give the Kurds a real stake in Baghdad’s government, and then they will let go of the separation idea. Right now, they are conferred honorary posts without powers just like many components of the Iraqi state, which was founded, post the invasion, on a participatory parliamentary system.

Almost all the countries in the region oppose the idea of any territory’s separation, which will not let Kurdistan’s plan easy to be achieved. There is increased fear that the central Iraqi authority, along with Iran and Turkey, will wage a war against the Kurdish ‘state,’ especially after 92 percent of the Kurds in Kurdistan region supported the separation from their country, Iraq.

Separation is a long and dangerous political route as it includes military confrontations and a painful economic blockade; At the same time, the Kurds are determined, and even if they hold back somehow now, they will pursue it later.

The reason why the Kurds’ project is worrisome is that the rest of Iraq’s provinces and governorates are dominated by separatist ideas that will eventually lead to the end of Iraq as we know it. An Iraq we have known since 1920 – the country whose borders were set by the Britons and the French.

Solutions exist if there is a sincere intention to stop the separation that threatens to destroy Iraq and the region.

The political parties in Baghdad should grant the Kurds the powers and guarantees that they are not only a memorial image but also partners in the government. If that happens, the justifications will end.

The Kurds, like the rest of Iraqi parties on which the new Iraq project was based, were marginalized and their presence was eliminated by the governing partners, political figures and other Iraqi parties after the Americans, who were guarantors of the political project, left the country.

Baghdad is the capital of the entire state and is supposed to be run by all groups that represent the country to reflect the participatory governance project, which was designed by the Americans.

The imbalance began in the era of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki when the government’s powers were seized and given to Maliki only.

After that, the parties that have an armed presence in Baghdad imposed their demands, and the capital became ruled by armed militias, backed by Iran, which was successfully able to legitimize them under the Popular Mobilization Forces’ banner.

Similarly, there are religious references that some are trying to impose as a political reference. Now, the fatwa given by these religious references precedes the parliamentary vote and the government’s decisions.

What is the value of the state’s legislative institutions, such as the parliament, if it is incompetent, and the Supreme Court is subject to what the political leaders want while the current government cannot impose its decisions when opposed by parties supported by armed groups?!

In this perspective, why do we expect the Kurds, and any other political group, to commit themselves to a state without identity or full powers?

This is why the Iraqi state, not only the government, needs to reform its status through supporting its legal authority, respecting its constitution and pledging to treat everyone equally under its law.

Iraq must not only chase ISIS militants and separatists from Kurdistan but should also fight whoever violates its rules and regulations.

During the years of war against terrorism, the slogan was that the Iraqi state would not allow anyone to carry arms other than its military institution and that it would not accept any territory or governorate to be run by illegal groups.

Wars were waged under this promise; Anbar and Salah al-Din provinces were cleansed, and Mosul and many other cities were liberated.

However, in southern and central Iraq, state authorities were weakened. The head of the Popular Mobilization Forces became more important than the prime minister, and Vice President Maliki voiced his opposition and incitement against the prime minister.

This is how they weakened the state until the Kurds decided that the time has come for their independence.

To stop the separation conflict, give the Kurds real powers not only theatrical acting roles. This will also stop the ongoing conflicts among some Sunni Arabs in Anbar and some Shiites in Basra – who are waiting for Kurdistan’s separation so they can wage their own war.

Unless Baghdad is a state for all Iraqis, secession will not stop.​ ​

Trump Evangelizes for American Exceptionalism

Trump

If you want to get a sense of the enduring power of American exceptionalism, watch President Donald Trump’s address Tuesday to the United Nations General Assembly. Here we got a clear message from the candidate whose foreign policy platform was “America first”: He implored the regimes of weaker rogues to clean up their acts, or else.

The president threatened total destruction for North Korea. Its leader, whom Trump called “rocket man,” is on a “suicide mission for himself and for his regime,” Trump warned. “The United States is ready, willing and able, but hopefully this will not be necessary.”

Iran? The deal his predecessor struck to temporarily limit the nuclear program was an “embarrassment to the United States.” But it doesn’t end there.

Trump says that sooner or later revolution is coming to the Mullahs. He asserted the whole world “understands that the good people of Iran want change, and, other than the vast military power of the United States, that Iran’s people are what their leaders fear the most.”

This was just the warmup. Trump went full neocon for Venezuela. Its leader, Nicolas Maduro, is a dictator “stealing power from his own people.”

Whereas Trump was vague about what his plan was for North Korea and Iran, for Venezuela he came very close to calling for regime change. “The United States has taken important steps to hold the regime accountable,” Trump said. “We are prepared to take further action if the government of Venezuela persists on its path to impose authoritarian rule on the Venezuelan people.”

For a moment, I closed my eyes and thought I was listening to a Weekly Standard editorial meeting.

To be sure, this is not quite a return to the days of George W. Bush, who in 2005 made it briefly US policy to seek democratic transformation for friend and foe alike. Trump offered no critiques for the illiberal systems and strongmen that rule Russia or China. He briefly called out threats to the sovereignty of Ukraine and the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, without mentioning Russia and China by name.

And yet Trump, who ran in part against the folly of neoconservative nation-building, is also not quite ready to give up the power of America’s values in determining its interests. He calls his approach “principled realism.” And on the surface it nods to the respect traditional foreign policy realists pay to national interests. But there is also a paradox. Trump still wants nation states to serve the interests of their people.

Consider this line from the speech: “We do not expect diverse countries to share the same cultures, traditions or even systems of government, but we do expect all nations to uphold these two core sovereign duties, to respect the interests of their own people and the rights of every other sovereign nation.”

On the one hand, Trump is correct. States with governments that respect their own people are almost always less bellicose than states ruled by authoritarians. Dictators like Vladimir Putin often must start foreign wars to distract from their own corruption at home.

At the same time, Trump’s formulation leaves a lot of wiggle room for what traditional foreign policy realists deride as military adventurism. After all, who determines when a nation is respecting the interests of its people? Trump certainly isn’t saying that is for the UN to decide. He spent a good portion of his speech threatening unilateral action against Iran, North Korea and Venezuela.

Trump’s newfound enthusiasm is familiar to the public. America has been spreading its gospel for centuries, according to Robert Kagan’s 2006 book, “A Dangerous Nation,” which traced US foreign policy from the founders to the dawn of the 20th century. Kagan argues persuasively that because America is a country founded on democratic revolution, it has always threatened unfree countries by its very existence. From the very early days of the republic, US leaders have supported a kind of American exceptionalism we usually associate with the 20th century.

Trump’s speechwriters are beginning to understand this. It’s a lot better than some of Trump’s early signals on foreign policy, when he ingratiated himself to dictators like Filipino strongman Rodrigo Duterte.

Let’s hope Trump sticks with this new approach.

Bloomberg

Kurdish Referendum: What is the Lowdown?

Despite many efforts to stop or postpone it, the Iraqi Kurdistan referendum has become a fait accompli and must be taken into account in shaping future developments, and Masoud Barzani, the man who orchestrated the exercise, must be as pleased as Punch.

In contemplating the future, it is important to know exactly what we are talking about. Supporters of the referendum have pinned their flag to two concepts: independence and self-determination.

They say Iraqi Kurds want independence. However, like all other Iraqis, Iraqi Kurds already live in a country that is recognized as independent and a full-member of the United Nations.

The concept of the quest for independence applies to lands that are part of a foreign empire or turned into “possession” of a colonial power. Legally speaking, at least since 1932, that has not been the case in Iraq. If, Iraq isn’t independent, then we must assume that Kak Masoud, rather than being a prominent leader contributing to the development of Iraq’s new but fragile democratic process, is a satrap for an unknown empire or an agent for a mysterious colonial power. But Kak Masoud isn’t a satrap precisely because his country, Iraq, is independent.

Then we come to the concept of self-determination which is recognized as a right under international law. It was first developed in the wake of the First World War and the beak up of the Ottoman and the Austro-Hungarian Empires. The idea was that people in the component parts of those empires should determine their own future, especially by deciding whether or not to form states of their own. The Wilson Doctrine and the so-called Briand-Kellogg Pact (between France and the US) further refined the concept.

Later, in the wake of the Second World War the concept was used to provide a legal framework for decolonization as British, French and Dutch Empires broke up. In the past 100 years, thanks to the concept of self-determination, over 120 new independent countries have appeared on the global map.

Self-determination was established as the right of all peoples to choose their own governments and pass their own laws rather than be subject to distant foreign rulers and lawmakers.

Seen in that light, Iraqi Kurds already enjoy self-determination because they choose their own local and national governments and lawmakers.

The first thing to understand is that the recent referendum was about independence and self-determination is bogus, to say the least. Used to hoodwink public opinion could lead to dangerous complications in the future.

So, what was the referendum really about? It was about secession which is not the same thing as self-determination or independence. Its organizers want to detach the areas where Kurds form a majority and set up a new separate state.

However, while self-determination is universally recognized as a right, secession is not.

Secession is an option, not a right. At best, it could be regarded as a desire and, at worst, a folly.

But seeking secession, though unlawful in both national and international law, isn’t a crime. Also, it has little to do with the degree of democratic development of societies. The United Kingdom is a well-established democracy but still faces secessionism on the part of large number of Scots. There are secessionists in several other democracies: the Quebecois in Canada, the Corsicans in France, the Basques and the Catalans in Spain, the Frisians in Denmark, the Kashmiris in India and even Porto Allergens in Brazil.

The important thing is that in all those cases, parties that support secession say so openly, seldom trying to disguise their ambition as a quest for self-determination and independence.

So, the first thing that Kak Massoud should do is to stop doing taiqyeh, call a spade a spade, and openly admit that what he is seeking is secession.

He should say that his aim is to break up Iraq, which is a multi-ethnic republic, in order to create a mono-ethnic Kurdish state. Interestingly, the word Iraq, which means “lowland”, is a geographic term with no ethnic connotations. Iraqi citizenship is a civic concept, transcending ethnic, religious and racial identities.

Many countries in the world are named after their majority ethnic component. In our region Turkey is the land of the Turks and Armenia the land of Armenians. All the “stan” countries refer to ethnic majorities there. Beyond the Middle East, all but 12 of the European states are also named after ethnic components: Germany is the land of Germans and Russia the land of Russians.

However, none of the Middle Eastern countries that emerged from the break-up of the Ottoman Empire are labeled with ethnic identities. They are known under historic and/or geographic names and regard the presence of various ethnic and/or religious communities within their borders as a given. Even Israel, though a special case for obvious reasons, fits into that pattern if only because 27 per cent of its citizens are not Jews. They are Israelis but not Israelites.

The Middle East has been the sphere of multi-ethnic empires for some 25 centuries: Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Roman, Byzantines, Umayyad, Abbasid, Ottomans etc. So, the Kurdish state that Kak Massoud wishes to create would be the first over 2000 years in the Middle East to claim a purely ethnic identity.

Let’s give an example of the difference between independence, which is the right of all peoples under foreign colonial or imperial rule, and secession. Morocco and Tunisia were both under the domination of the French Empire in the name of colonial protection. In the 1950s they exercised their right of self-determination and obtained their independence without a minimum of hassle. Algeria, on the other hand, was regarded as two provinces of the French Republic itself, elected its own members of parliament and enjoyed full French citizenship rights.

Thus, its demand for independence was regarded as secession and could only be granted with the agreements of the French state, later ratified in a national referendum throughout France. But before that happened, Algerians had to fight a 5-year war, with perhaps half a million dead, and go through a two-year negotiating period.

Other states have treated secession in different ways.

Canada and the United Kingdom have organized referendums in Quebec and Scotland giving the local populations a chance to reject secession. In Czechoslovakia and between Malaysia and Singapore, secession came through negotiations producing divorce by consent. In the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, secession was organized by Great Britain as the colonial power. South Sudan’s secession was ratified by the Khartoum government after 20 years of war and six years of negotiations.

The international community recognizes the outcome of any secession only if it is achieved with the consent of the country concerned. Montenegro seceded from Serbia through negotiations and was immediately admitted into the United Nations. Kosovo also seceded but without consent and still remains in a limbo, rejected by the UN and recognized by only a handful of nations.

Holding referendums does not automatically bestow legitimacy on secessionist programs. Russia has held referendum in Crimea, which it snatched from Ukraine, and in South Ossetia and Abkhazia which it took from Georgia. However, no other country recognizes those secessions.

The reason is that there is no mechanism in domestic or international law to recognize non-consensual secession. The International Court of Justice at The Hague made that clear by refusing to certify Kosovo’s independence. In Canada the High Court has ruled against Quebec secession and in France Corsican secessionist demands have been thrown out by courts. In Iraq, the Constitution, drafted with the full and enthusiastic participation of Masoud, excludes unilateral secession in articles 107 and 116 and 13.

Finally, secession does not feature in the programs of any of the dozen or so parties active among Kurds who live in Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Iran, Armenia and Azerbaijan. So the next step that Masoud must take is to enshrine secession in his party’s charter and manifesto for the next Iraqi general election in 2018. If he does that and obtains mandate to seek secession he could then demand that the central government in Baghdad enter into negotiations on the issue of secession.

In other words, any attempt at a unilateral declaration of independence could lead only to impasse, a deadly impasse.

Too Much Democracy may Damage your Health!

One quote widespread in the Arab region, a few decades ago, was that it was facing the danger of ‘partitioning what has been already partitioned. Those days, several Arab capitals were run by leaders who cover their tribalism and sectarianism by claiming to be ‘Pan-Arabists’ as well ‘Anti-imperialist Globalists’!

No doubt the region was affected by the demise of the Arab Nationalist project after the defeat of 1967, and later the end of the ‘east – west’ rivalry in the late 1980s and 1990s as a result of the collapse of the ‘Berlin Wall’ and later the USSR. Thus evaporated all fake slogans, and emerged the true chemistry of most of these regimes.

It did not take long before the discourse of armed ‘Political Islam’ began establishing itself at the expense of that of ‘Arabism’ and the ‘liberation of Palestine’ as well as globalist discourse of the Socialist Left and Liberal Right. However, there was no place for any armed groups under state authority; which meant that this kind of armed ‘Political Islam’ – namely, Sunni –, bolstered by some electoral successes, became the ‘democratic choice’ in the struggle for political change against regimes unwilling to accommodate reform. On the other hand, the states’ legitimate armies and security forces (and later Shi’ite militias, as we have witnesses in Iraq and Syria) became the effective means of stemming the tide of Sunni ‘Political Islam’.

What has been called the ‘Arab Spring’ has been a turning point.

While many Arab intellectuals continue to debate the true meaning of this term, many have been questioning and arguing some serious issues, such as:

Why seek change if the human, political and economic cost was so high? What’s wrong in tolerating dictatorships if the alternative is chaos? Aren’t we immature nations that hardly deserve democracy anyway .. so why ask for what we don’t deserve? Why must we show empathy with other suffering Arabs who trouble us and let us down instead of looking after our own interests? And last but not least, what’s wrong in being weak – even against regional challenges – when we can always rely on Super Powers that are always ready to protect us?

I reckon that being able to address these questions would ‘enrich’ our political culture, and refocus our outlook to the challenges faced by the Region and its peoples. On a negative note, however, we are approaching these questions neither in a responsible way nor with a commitment to accountability.

For example a lot has been written about the Palestinian Conflict and the ‘nature’ of Israel to the extent that many have lost interest. Later, we lived and continue to live under the Iranian project for hegemony which today runs four Arab capitals. We also read and follow Turkey’s tumultuous hankering to go back to Ottoman times after turning the page of the Ataturk Experiment with all its possible regional ramifications. In the meantime, Arab division and disintegration gather pace, against a back drop of inflated snippy individualism, and delusions about what the future might hold for the Region.
In Sudan, the South has already seceded and this may only be the beginning; and in some North African ‘Magharebi’ countries there are stirrings of dormant factional problems.

In Yemen, too, the Houthi phenomenon, coming hard on heels of the Qaeda phenomenon is surely a worrying sign. However, the real catastrophe is that taking hold of Iraq and the Levant.

The Kurds have decided on full independence from Iraq, and had things been more conducive, would have done the same in Syria. The truth is that as ‘inventing’ ISIS has brought down the Syrian popular uprising and rehabilitated Al-Assad Regime under US-Russian auspices and Iranian firepower, the transgressions of the reigns of Saddam Hussein and Nuri Al-Maliki have provided the leaders of Iraqi Kurds ready-made excuse to seek an independence that had really worked for all along, regardless of what they diplomatically claim today.

Sure, there is no moral or political justification to oppose the Kurds’ right to seek independence, whether in Iraq or Syria, or even Iran and Turkey for that matter. But, as it is often said, ‘the devil is in the detail’. What sort of country will the new Kurdistan be? What are its borders going to look like? What political system will it have? What are non-Kurds to expect in a ‘nationalist’ Kurdish entity?

The early signs in the ‘disputed areas’ are not encouraging.

Indeed, during ‘the war on ISIS’ Iraqi Kurds made haughty pronouncements such as “the Peshmerga (the powerful Kurdish militias) will never withdraw any territory they liberate”; and then there is the volatile situation in the oil-rich mixed-race city of Kirkuk, and the issues of Tel Afar and the towns of the Nineveh Plain, without forgetting the bouts of ethnic and sectarian ‘cleansing’ in Diyala Province.

Not to be outdone, Syria’s Kurds are steadily working to establish their ever-expanding Rojava ‘autonomous region’ at the expense of Arab, Turkmen and Syriac/Assyrian/Chaldean towns and villages; changing their mostly Arabic names in the process.

Mr Masoud Barzani, president of ‘Iraqi Kurdistan Region’, who has insisted on including the ‘disputed areas’ in the independence referendum, is continuing to reassure world leaders that the new independent ‘Kurdistan’ would be a Northern Europe-style pluralistic democracy… but under the arms and banners of the Peshmerga. The Kurdish parties working for a Kurdish ‘autonomous area’ in northern Syria, which are also trying to impose its hegemony over mixed areas, claim they too are committed to ‘democracy’ and have been conducting ‘elections, under the watchful eye of what is attractively called “Syrian Democratic Forces’ which are actually dominated by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia.

This brand of ‘democracy’ does not reassure many living whether within or outside the Kurdish dominated areas. In fact, if helpless minorities find themselves willing to accept a ‘lesser of two evils’ when faced with two worse options: either living under Iran’s Shi’ite militia led by Qassem Suleimani or under ISIS, others do not feel compelled to accept such a scenario.

Honest aspirations and goodwill, aside Kurdish leaders today face many serious doubts and strong opposition, and if Arab lamentable weakness cannot save the identity and sovereignty of Iraq and Syria, Iran’s and Turkey’s national interests may be capable of disturbing Kurdish calculations, and impose conditions of their own.

On their part, it may be in the interests of the Kurds to be cautious in over-relying on international promises of support. They may be wise not to burn all their boats… even with the Arabs who are now the weakest player in the Near East.

Saudi Arabia: Women to Drive after Community Persuaded

Similar to other historic decisions, some are petrified of announcing them, supporters anticipate in boredom while conservatives persistently warn of such moves. Once the clock ticks and the time is adequate to take the decision, the fear of people vanishes.

This is what happened when King Salman issued a reformatory decision in allowing women to drive as part of an overall process, which began on the first day of his leadership in January 2015, to empower Saudi women.

Saudi passwords are always on time. This has been the case in the past two years and nine months during which great decisions have been taken. Many were intimidated by them and probably warned of them, but surprisingly decisions were issued in remarkable flexibility.

I don’t agree with those who describe this decision as political in the first place. Any political decision on a community-linked cause first needs a suitable environment for it to be accepted based on
cultural and intellectual consensus.

Had it been purely a political decision, it would have been implemented long time ago. The problem throughout the past period was that some movements continued to exploit the matter and exaggerate the consequences of issuing such a decision.

When removing the aura around those who spread such ideas, the Saudi community appeared pragmatic, and it was supported by the stance of the Council of Senior Scholars that saw no problem in permitting women to drive.

Therefore, we can’t deny the huge organized work done during the previous period to provide an adequate environment in which the community accepts the decision. I don’t think the surprise is in issuing the decision itself – the development taking place in Saudi Arabia indicates that women getting behind the wheel is absolute.

Because the social reform is on track in Saudi Arabia without any slowdown and because the historic moment was set to come even if late, the woman in the kingdom now drives a car after a reform-based decision by the Saudi leadership that has not stopped making drastic changes politically, economically and socially within a short period.

Why do we say finally? Because the Saudi community has finally got rid of previous stages’ consequences that had led to delays in taking such a decision. During the past three years, the Saudi community has proven its readiness to develop and accept community reforms that were considered prohibited for long decades.

Besides the social and economic benefits of this step in Saudi Arabia and its contribution in a comprehensive project to empower women as part of the economic and social reform process, the topic of allowing women to drive, which used to be stirred while discussing any political issue on every occasion, has now been dropped.

We can say that this decision is better than dozens of billions of dollars worth media campaigns in the West. Its positive outcome won’t be restricted to one day, month or year but the kingdom will yield its positive influence for several years to come.

When launching the Saudi Vision 2030, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman answered a question on the matter of women driving cars saying that he relies on the society’s wish between granting the women this right or not.

He later noted that future decisions are built on social change. True, when the change happened, society witnessed a long-anticipated historic decision. The password was: social change; this is the magical equation and real power for the launching of a new Saudi Arabia that was once mentioned by Mohammed bin Salman: “In case the Saudi people were convinced, then skies are the limits of our ambitions.”

More than Just Driving Cars

These are happy and historic days in Saudi Arabia! There are positive changes that would have never crossed our minds after years of despair.

For decades, every time an obstacle was removed, social and political battles would erupt tackling education, employment, sports and the media.

Mother of all battles was granting women their right to driving cars. King Salman intervened, signed and adopted the decree, and with that the biggest and toughest obstacle is removed.

The king’s decision was brave and wise which will be long remembered by history. He is the man who ended an era and began a new one.

The history will also remember Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in charge of development in the kingdom and the architect of the “vision” of the new state and its future.

Ever since Vision 2030 was announced, decisions were made one after the other; decisions we never thought possible because for long decades we were running in a vicious circle.

The message we can conclude here is that we are before a new modern kingdom discovering its status among civilized nations by adopting more welcoming standards that include everyone and is building a new and competent generation of men and women amid a real economy based on real developing aspects.

Many decisions and activities issued came as a surprise to the Saudi society because up until recently, they were considered almost impossible. Combined, they all reflect the transition plan evident to those considering the entire picture.

I believe, and after fierce opposition, that allowing women to drive cars is of great significance. However its political and social aspects are much bigger than that.

The king’s decision is a clear message to the society that the government will carry on with the path of change and modernization and will not allow those objecting to obstruct it.

Many years were wasted waiting for the society to change, especially the conservative members who refused any progress until hopelessness took over us. They objected any initiative or any hint to allow women to go out or drive cars or work or participate in social life.

Saudi Arabia cannot adopt an ambitious plan like Vision 2030 without acknowledging women as partners in it.

With the King’s courageous decision to allow women to drive, skeptics’ excuses tumble. Such decisions are not popular and are not looking to please one part at the expense of another; They aim to serve the greater good of the country and society.

For years now, driving ban was never based on convincing social or religious reasoning, but was applied following the desire of a category that wants to form the society according to its desires. Those isolated men who obstructed social and economic development can no longer lead an entire nation.

In order to not generalize, let’s note that those objecting the historic decision can be divided into two categories: a conservative category raised on traditions and wanting to maintain them, whose opinion we respect but is not binding, and another politicized category that wants to lead the society according to its own agenda.

The latter can no longer have a place in the kingdom. It is an extremist category with ill intentions, opposing every move and project because it wants Saudi Arabia to remain a disabled, depressed and obstructed state until it fails.

This category better understand the message: no one will allow it to stop the wheel of change.

Facebook Marks the End of Social Media’s Wild West

The news that Facebook will turn over details of Russian ad buys to Congress recalls a column written by my colleague Eli Lake early year. He wrote that in forcing National Security Adviser Michael Flynn to resign, President Donald Trump “caved in to his political and bureaucratic opposition.” That February column warned: “Flynn is only the appetizer. Trump is the entree.” In the case of Facebook Inc., the 3,000 advertisement buys turned over to Congress are indeed the appetizer. Regulation carrying the force of law is the inevitable entree.

It was only 16 months ago when reports surfaced that Facebook employees were removing stories of interest to conservative users from its trending news section. Facebook responded by automating the section, removing humans from the editorial process. Thus began Facebook’s uneasy journey into self-regulation.

Of course, removing humans from the editorial process and allowing unfiltered content to be distributed has its own issues, as Facebook learned during the election last year. Allegations of “fake news” influencing the 2016 presidential election were widespread after Trump defeated Hillary Clinton. The site was accused of being played by foreign entities promoting false articles. Facebook responded by pledging to take steps to combat fake news.

Increasingly, Facebook is finding itself in an impossible position as it tries to remain, in spirit at least, a content-agnostic platform that allows everyone to have a voice. Sometimes the company faces scrutiny when it allows certain content to remain, as in the case of fake news or neo-Nazi propaganda. Other times it faces scrutiny for removing content.

Recently Facebook’s algorithmic ad targeting has been faulted as well. ProPublica reported last week the disturbing finding that algorithms allowed the existence of an ad category for anti-Semitic content. The story also noted that algorithms correlated the behavior of anti-Semites with those in a “Second Amendment” category, a finding that upset gun-rights advocates who don’t want to be seen as anti-Semites.

What’s apparent in the past 16 months is a Wild West of self-regulation. Time and time again, Facebook has shown that if confronted with a challenge, the company will listen and often respond. Partisan trending topics, fake news, neo-Nazis, Russian meddling — if it generates enough outrage, it’ll get addressed eventually.

But Facebook’s power and influence seem likely to grow beyond the “self-regulation” phase. That’s why markets are willing to give the company a valuation of $500 billion when its 2017 profits will be in the neighborhood of only $15 billion. (Bloomberg data shows analysts expect Facebook’s revenue to grow to $76 billion in 2020, almost doubling projections for 2017.) The question remains how long self-regulation will be acceptable to the public and Congress.

Now Facebook has tipped its hand. Large, multi-national corporations don’t turn over documents to Congress out of the goodness of their hearts. Facebook’s statement about why it’s turning over information to Congress goes to great lengths to emphasize it was the company’s own decision, and that the first priority is to protect user privacy. Don’t be fooled. Self-regulation will fail, and real regulation will begin. This is how it starts.

Bloomberg View

Germany’s Nationalists Join the 13-Percent Club

The Alternative for Germany’s 12.6 percent result in Sunday’s election wraps up an important political season for European nationalist populists. It’s a showing that has worried many both in and outside Germany; but, all things considered, it’s another defeat for the far right, which appears to have hit its ceiling in Western Europe for now.

The AfD was promptly congratulated by Geert Wilders, whose Party for Freedom (PVV) won 13.1 percent of the vote in the Netherlands in March, and by Marine Le Pen, whose National Front won 13.2 percent in the first round of the French legislative election in June. Many see the the AfD’s performance as more significant than that of the rest of the 13 percent club, since it’s a German party and German nationalism has an especially scary history. But 72 years after the Nazis’ defeat, they’re no more dangerous than those in neighboring countries.

The AfD had an advantage compared with their allies in the rest of Western Europe. Germany contains its own eastern European nation — the former German Democratic Republic. It’s poorer than the rest of the country and subject to the same post-Communist trauma as Poland or Hungary, and thus prone to elect either leftists or nationalists. The AfD’s success is largely based on gains in the east German states. But otherwise, the parties in the 13 percent club are rather similar — not just in their anti-immigrant, anti-European Union ideology but also in the ways they win, lose and react to the wins and losses. 

The AfD, the National Front and the PVV attract a lot of attention, and millions of votes, as parties — but voters don’t seem to like their candidates in direct elections. The French nationalist party ended up with just eight seats in the National Assembly. In the Netherlands, where people only vote for parties, a vote for the PVV is a vote for Wilders, the only official member the party has. 

Germans get two votes in an election — one for a party and one for a candidate in a constituency; the AfD only managed to get three people elected directly, all in the eastern land of Saxony. One of the party’s two leading candidates, Alexander Gauland, ran as a direct candidate in the neighboring eastern state of Brandenburg, where anti-immigrant sentiment also runs high — and lost to Martin Patzelt, a candidate from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party who had opened his home to two Eritrean refugees. In fact, Merkel’s party, the Christian Democratic Union, and its Bavarian sister group, the Christian Social Union, won an overwhelming majority of constituencies; had the German electoral system not prioritized the party vote, the AfD would have done worse than the National Front this year and only a little better than United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) in the U.K. in 2015, when the nationalist party won one parliament seat.

Constituency voting is a test of political professionalism: It involves very personal campaigning, door-to-door, at local fairs and pubs. Plenty of nationalist parties don’t do that very well. But it’s not required to collect the protest vote, which ebbs and flows with little regard to a party’s effort, driven by news events. That’s what these parties pick up to achieve their best results; some 20 percent of AfD voters backed leftist parties in the previous election — they are hardly principled nationalists. The identity-based parties use similar techniques to keep people angry and collect their votes — they all had the highest levels of Facebook activity and engagement in their respective countries this year — but the outcomes showed the limitations of this approach, especially given low levels of penetration by social networks in Western Europe.

The dependence on voter anger can play ugly tricks on the parties: The PVV, for example, went to 10 percent in 2012 from its record high result of 15.45 percent in 2010. The AfD is in line for a similar disappointment unless there’s a steady stream of strongly negative news about immigrants and the EU.

A shortage of direct, local support has meant there is little to force these parties to behave constructively in parliament. The PVV has sponsored almost no legislation, but it has distinguished itself as a relentless questioner, putting thousands of questions to cabinet members — far more than any other political force. It has also proposed more (failed) votes of no confidence in government ministers than anyone else. That is likely the kind of activity, aimed at exploiting the parliament as a stage, that one can expect of the AfD in Germany: Gauland has promised to “hunt” Merkel so that “people on the street come to believe the parliament plays a role again.” Theatrics are guaranteed — but, in fairness, there’s not much a party can achieve with 13 percent representation except make some noise.

That tactic is not conducive to good teamwork. Internal conflicts and ego flare-ups are the norm. On Monday, one of the AfD’s three directly elected legislators, Frauke Petry, surprised her comrades by declaring at a joint press conference that she wouldn’t be part of the AfD faction in parliament. Petry represents the AfD’s moderate wing; she’s said the party would have a better future if it distanced itself from the more controversial nationalist ideas. There are others like her, who will be scared off by Gauland’s unashamed brinkmanship.

The scene starring Petry was reminiscent of the recent departure of Florian Philippot from the National Front. Philippot was once Le Pen’s right-hand man, the party’s top strategist. Like Petry, he fretted about his shrinking role in his party’s leadership.

There’s not much for the nationalists left to win or lose this year. In Austria, the Freedom Party, which led in the polls until last summer, is down dramatically — a pattern both the PVV and the AfD have also followed. Though it’ll probably do better on Oct. 15 than the 13 percent club, it won’t win the election.

Identity-based parties counted on better results after the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump. Their representation in parliaments confers no real power on them, though by being in the limelight, they become bigger targets for more established, more professional and less odious rivals. The backlash can be punishing in the next electoral cycle. Their only hope is that life in Western Europe will get far worse so they can avoid backsliding.


Bloomberg View