Welcome to Wednesday, where Democrats are on course for U.S. Senate control, Hong Kong cracks down on activists and the Czech Republic launches its own "COVID currency." Meanwhile, Persian-language daily Kayhan-London takes a look at what has changed (and what hasn't) in Iran, a year since the killing of top military commander Qasem Soleimani.
SPOTLIGHT: THE NEXT CATASTROPHE HAS ALREADY BEEN PREDICTED — AGAIN
Before it even began, the pandemic was already on the radar of big risks — and yet we were unprepared. Will it be the same for cyber security and environmental threats? asks Jean-Marc Vittori in French daily Les Echos.
The epidemic surprised us, but it was predictable. In the risk report regularly published by the World Economic Forum (WEF) for its annual Davos summit, infectious diseases were listed every year as one of the 10 biggest threats. The report's description of a virus spreading uncontrolled around the world was exactly what played out in 2020.
There were frequent discussions at Davos about this type of danger. For example, in 2016, after the damage caused by Ebola, the general director of the World Health Organization, Margaret Chan, sounded the alarm about the next pandemic. Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank, drew a parallel with the Spanish Flu, evoking the risk of an illness that killed 30 million people. Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft-cum-health philanthropist, insisted on the necessity of training teams in public health management and logistics.
If this health crisis is causing so much suffering, it's because we refused to seriously prepare for it. We didn't follow the advice of the philosopher and engineer Jean-Pierre Dupuy, who pushes us to think about catastrophe to prevent it from happening. "The paradox of the prophet of doom is that he announces impending misfortune so that his audience can find the energy and intelligence to avoid it," he explained last summer in the French daily Le Monde.
The time has therefore come to think about the next global catastrophes — the less predictable ones. "If you want peace, prepare for war" goes the old Latin adage. Luckily a major conflict among allied nations, seen in the last century, doesn't seem as likely today. Yet there are major military interventions to come, surely in the Middle East, and potentially around Taiwan …
Without a doubt, there will also be social crises, but they'll probably remain localized. The global proletariat still hasn't followed the orders engraved in gold on Karl Marx" tomb — they don't unite. Sooner or later, there will be financial tensions provoked by the uncontrolled accumulation of private and public debt, or an uncontrollable return of inflation.
The major perils — the ones that could create worldwide catastrophes — are of a different nature. The ten risks considered the most threatening to the Davos folk illustrate this idea. Except for infectious diseases and weapons of mass destruction, they all fit into two categories: digital and natural. And what happened with the pandemic can help us prepare for both.
The digital world has two dangers: system malfunctions and cyber attacks. Google's worldwide shutdown on December 14th after a problem with its identification system gave a glimpse of what this kind of massive outage could look like, and the consequences weren't just a missing search bar. "I'm sitting here in the dark in my toddler's room because the light is controlled by @Google Home," tweeted Joe Brown, Editorial Director of the publisher Hearst.
The lesson here is clear: As auto manufacturers (re)discovered when the epidemic began in Wuhan, China, where many automobile parts are manufactured, resilience requires diversification. It's similar to the old maxim, "Don't put all your eggs in one basket." It is for this same reason that preserving biodiversity in agriculture is important, as crops too dependent on a single variety could be wiped out with one big disease.
Cyber attacks have also become a permanent threat. One of them, surely Russian in origin, is currently hitting the United States. In September, a cyber attack caused the death of a patient in Düsseldorf, Germany, as it paralyzed the IT system of the hospital where she was being treated. A similar strike could block the digital systems controlling water, electricity, airports, part of the internet … even if the network was created by a military project aiming to ensure the continual transmission of information. Vigilance against these attacks must be permanent. The same is true of viruses.
The other genre of catastrophic events is environmental: extreme weather, water shortages, natural disasters … "Climate: the next threat?" proclaimed the Toulouse School of Economics in their latest review. "In the long term, no challenge is greater or more urgently requires evidence-based action than climate change," declared Christian Gollier, the school's director.
Unlike the pandemic currently invading everyday life, it's difficult to convince the greater public of the need to act swiftly on these looming challenges that still seem too abstract. But as Gollier notes: "The COVID-19 crisis showed us that when there's a collective will, everything is possible."
Progress can accelerate at a stupefying pace. Money can fall from the sky. Perhaps we can't completely avoid the next catastrophe, but it's within our power to limit the damage.
— Jean-Marc Vittori / Les Echos
THE SITUATION: 7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW
• COVID-19 latest: The U.S. has broken yet another record with over 3,770 deaths reported in one day, as about 70% of vaccine doses go unused. The Netherlands kick off one of Europe's last vaccination programs, just as the EU's safety monitoring agency is expected to greenlight Moderna as a second vaccine (after the Pfizer-BioNTech one).
• U.S. Senate runoff elections: Democrat Raphael Warnock beats his incumbent rival, making history as Georgia's first Black U.S. Senator. The other Georgia runoff is still too close to call, but if Jon Ossoff's slim margin holds it will give the Democrats control of the U.S. Senate. Meanwhile in Washington, Joe Biden's presidential win is set to be confirmed later today in Congress despite an unprecedented effort by outgoing President Donald Trump and fellow Republicans to block a certified national election.
• Hong Kong crackdown: Hong Kong arrests 53 pro-democracy activists and politicians under a controversial new security law which classifies their actions as "subversive."
• China blocks investigation: WHO's Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has expressed "disappointment" in China after they denied entry to the international scientists going to investigate COVID-19 origins.
• Bird flu in India: Four states in India have reported the H5N8 strain of bird flu. While it is unlikely to be contagious to humans, people have been advised not to touch birds.
• Czech cash for COVID: The town of Kyjov will launch its own corrent currency. The first pilot will give residents 400 Czech crowns (15 euros) to spend at participating businesses hit by the COVID-19 lockdown.
• Reality TV drama: Kim Kardashian and Kanye West have reportedly separated and are in divorce talks after Kim expressed disappointment that Kanye, "wouldn't appear in any of their Instagram shots' at her birthday party.
Colombian daily El Espectador shows its readers "The vaccine route" on its front page, a day after the country approved the emergency use of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
ONE YEAR ON, KILLING OF GENERAL HIGHLIGHTS IRAN'S WEAKNESS
The Iranian regime's plans to be the power broker in three Middle Eastern states have withered since the United States killed its key regional operative Qasem Soleimani on January 3, 2020, writes Ahmad Ra'fat in Kayhan-London.
Soleimani, who headed the Iranian Revolutionary guards' international Quds force, was targeted by a drone missile outside Baghdad airport. The elimination of this key agent of Iranian ambitions in the Middle East has proven to be a crucial blow to the Islamic Republic. Because it was Soleimani, not Iran's government or foreign ministry, who forged and implemented its regional plans.
The Islamic Republic sought before, but especially after, Soleimani's death, to carve a hero out of him. He was to become a symbol of religious nationalism. It has even fooled some regime critics into hailing the man as a "national general" or comparing him to seminal figures of Iran's constitutional revolution in 1905. His regional adventurism and terrorist activities were thus redefined as efforts to safeguard Iran's security and territorial integrity. But as time has shown, they have merely brought Iran instability.
A year after Soleimani's death, Iran's influence in regional states has also sharply declined. His elimination was undoubtedly a cause among potential allies, but his successor Qaani lacks charisma and falls short on knowledge of regional affairs and personal relations with Iraqi militia chiefs. If we add the impact of U.S. sanctions on Iran's public coffers, and protests in Iraq and Lebanon against Iranian interventions, the decline is clearer.
➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com here.
Bitcoin broke a new record high, trading above $35,000 for the first time. The world's most popular cryptocurrency has risen more than 800% since March.
Brazil is bankrupt. I can't do anything.
— Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro told a group of his supporters outside his residency in Brasilia that he was unable to change the schedule of tax cuts to resolve the country's economic crisis, blaming the press for "fuelling" the virus.
The military has seized control in one of Africa's largest countries, which until recently had made significant progress towards transitioning to democracy after years of strongman rule. But the people, and international community, may not be willing to turn back.
This week the head of Sudan's Sovereign Council, General Abdel Fattah El Burhan, declared the dissolution of the transitional council, which has been in place since the overthrow of former president Omar el-Bashir in 2019. He also disbanded all the structures that had been set up as part of the transitional roadmap, and decreed a state of emergency.
In essence, he staged a palace coup against the transitional authority he chaired.
The general's actions, which included the arrest of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, are a culmination of a long period of tension between the civilian and military wings of the council.
A popular uprising may be inevitable
The tensions were punctuated by an alleged attempted coup only weeks earlier. The days leading to the palace coup were marked by street protests for and against the military. Does this mark the end of the transition as envisaged by the protest movement?
Their ability to confront counter revolutionary forces cannot be underestimated.
The popular uprising against Bashir's government was led by the Sudan Professional Association. It ushered in the political transitional union of civilians and the military establishment. The interim arrangement was to lead to a return to civilian rule.
But this cohabitation was tenuous from the start, given the oversized role of the military in the transition. Moreover, the military appeared to be reluctant to see the civilian leadership as an equal partner in shepherding through the transition.
Nevertheless, until recently there had been progress towards creating the institutional architecture for the transition. Despite the challenges and notable tension between the signatories to the accord, it was never evident that the dysfunction was so great as to herald the collapse of the transitional authority.
For now, the transition might be disrupted and in fact temporarily upended. But the lesson from Sudan is never to count the masses out of the equation. Their ability to mobilize and confront counter revolutionary forces cannot be underestimated.
The transitional pact itself had been anchored by eight arduously negotiated protocols. These included regional autonomy, integration of the national army, revenue sharing and repatriation of internal refugees. There was also an agreement to share out positions in national political institutions, such as the legislative and executive branch.
Progress towards these goals was at different stages of implementation. More substantive progress was expected to follow after the end of the transition. This was due in 2022 when the chair of the sovereignty council handed over to a civilian leader. This military intervention is clearly self-serving and an opportunistic power grab.
A promised to civilian rule in July 2023 through national elections.
In November, the rotational chairmanship of the transitional council was to be passed from the military to the civilian wing of the council. That meant the military would cede strong leverage to the civilians. Instead, with the coup afoot, Burhan has announced both a dissolution of the council as well as the dismissal of provincial governors. He has unilaterally promised return to civilian rule in July 2023 through national elections.
Prior to this, the military had been systematically challenging the pre-eminence of the civilian authority. It undermined them and publicly berated them for governmental failures and weaknesses. For the last few months there has been a deliberate attempt to sharply criticize the civilian council as riddled with divisions, incompetent and undermining state stability.
File photo shows Sudan's Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok in August 2020
Generals in suits
Since the revolution against Bashir's government, the military have fancied themselves as generals in suits. They have continued to wield enough power to almost run a parallel government in tension with the prime minister. This was evident when the military continued to have the say on security and foreign affairs.
For their part, civilian officials concentrated on rejuvenating the economy and mobilizing international support for the transitional council.
This didn't stop the military from accusing the civilian leadership of failing to resuscitate the country's ailing economy. True, the economy has continued to struggle from high inflation, low industrial output and dwindling foreign direct investment. As in all economies, conditions have been exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19.
Sudan's weakened economy is, however, not sufficient reason for the military intervention. Clearly this is merely an excuse.
Demands of the revolution
The success or failure of this coup will rest on a number of factors.
First is the ability of the military to use force. This includes potential violent confrontation with the counter-coup forces. This will dictate the capacity of the military to change the terms of the transition.
Second is whether the military can harness popular public support in the same way that the Guinean or Egyptian militaries did. This appears to be a tall order, given that popular support appears to be far less forthcoming.
The international community's appetite for military coups is wearing thin.
Third, the ability of the Sudanese masses to mobilize against military authorities cannot be overlooked. Massive nationwide street protests and defiance campaigns underpinned by underground organizational capabilities brought down governments in 1964, 1985 and 2019. They could once again present a stern test to the military.
Finally, the international community's appetite for military coups is wearing thin. The ability of the military to overcome pressure from regional and international actors to return to the status quo could be decisive, given the international support needed to prop up the crippled economy.
The Sudanese population may have been growing frustrated with its civilian authority's ability to deliver on the demands of the revolution. But it is also true that another coup to reinstate military rule is not something the protesters believe would address the challenges they were facing.
Sudan has needed and will require compromise and principled political goodwill to realise a difficult transition. This will entail setbacks but undoubtedly military intervention in whatever guise is monumentally counterproductive to the aspirations of the protest movement.
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