Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for June, 2008

Looking Backwards and Forwards in Brussels

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 30th June, 2008

On the Eurostar from London this morning I was called by the BBC World Service to see if I could do a live comment on Anwar Ibrahim’s fresh troubles in Malaysia, so my first port of call on arriving in Brussels was the International Press Centre where I used to work for Reuters. I still have a cheesy photo of myself (with a suitably 1970s hair-style) and the late King Baudouin of Belgium when he came to open our office there.

The broadcast done, I walked to the European Parliament to sit in on a Round Table on Freedom and Security in Integrated Management of the European Union’s Borders (the EU has always had a knack of devising catchy titles), at which London’s current LibDem MEP (Baroness) Sarah Ludford was speaking. I’ll be spending three days here, learning the ropes, in the hope that this time (i.e. June next year), I really will be elected.

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Egypt’s Paradoxical Press Situation

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 29th June, 2008

Compared wth several other Arab countries, Egypt has a varied and robust press. Almost every day, not least in the independent and English-language newspapers, one sees articles highlighting human rights abuses (notably torture and extortion/bribery at the hands of police) or criticisms of the way that the Emergency Law — in place for the last 27 years! — gives the president the right to arrest and detain inidividuals without abiding by basic guarantees enshrined in the constitution. But behind the superficial impression of freedom of expression lies a much more complex reality.

For one thing, journalists are sometimes subject to detention or assault and there are ‘red lines’ which anyone working in the mainstream media knows (s)he must not cross, notably not mentioning the elephant in the room: namely, what will happen when the 80-year-old President Mubarak dies or is incapacitated or decides to retire. With each month that passes, this is a matter of growing concern, not least because many people fear that there is no viable political alternative. Uneasy at the prospect of a hereditary succession by Mubarak’s son, Gamal, they see either a surge by the Islamists (who have 88 members of parliament, sitting as independents), or a military takeover once again.

The increasingly vibrant blogging scene in Egypt shows that many young people, in particular, have very little confidence in politicians, whatever their party. It’s in the blogs that one finds some of the most trenchant analysis of the current situation, as well as the reporting of events which might not otherwise get accurately recorded. One brave journalist, Kamal Murad, notably collaborated with bloggers to produce evidence that led the a policeman guilty of torture being brought to justice. But for his efforts, Mr Murad, of the opposition newspaper Al-Fajr, was reportedly subsequently physically and verbally assaulted by three policemen in a revenge attack, had his mobile phone memory card (including pictures of police beting peasant farmers)  and notes confiscated, and was then charged with attacking police officers. He was later released, but his material was retained.

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Liberalism in Egypt

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 28th June, 2008

We had an excellent day seminar in Cairo today, on the challenges facing Liberal values in Egypt, organised by the local Democratic Front (a newly registered Liberal party, which is an observer member to Liberal International), with financial assistance and participation from the UK Liberal Democrats, with assistance from the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. Among the approximately 100 Egyptian participants were not only members of the Democratic Front, but also representatives of the venerable El Wafd party and the much newer (and currently somewhat besieged) El Ghad, as well as academics and journalists.

I gave two presentations: on the history of the British Liberal Party, and on the question of whether values of human rights, freedom and democracy are universal. The latter is something I often lecture on at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), and it’s a burning issue in the Middle East. George W Bush has been trying to export an American template which, as I said, is not wholly accepted in Europe, let alone elsewhere in the world. Democracy, in particular, has to be fashioned in a way that corresponds to the specific realities of each individual country, though the broad principle of bottom-up legitimacy of power is something that can be generally valid.

Of course, it is much more difficult to promote Liberal values in developing countries with high levels of poverty and illiteracy, where the prime concern of most people — including in Egypt — is day-to-day survival. So it is likely that Liberalism has quite a long haul in Egypt, even though the country actually had a rather vibrant Liberal political environment before the British squashed it in 1882. The country is very much in transition, however — even if most people appear to be unsure of where that transition is going.


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Challenges for Middle Eastern Democracy

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 27th June, 2008

Baroness (Kishwer) Falkner and I were the guests on Nile TV’s Politics Show recorded this afternoon (for broadcasting tomorrow), on challenges for democracy in the Middle East and the wider Islamic world. In a wide-ranging discussion, moderated by presenter Nihal Saad, we covered a wide spectrum of issues from poverty and education to authoritarianism and the attitude to women’s role in society among some conservative Muslim groups, not least in the Arabian Gulf. Kishwer worked as the International Relations Officer of the Liberal Democrats and then for the Commonwealth Secretariat in London before being elevated to the House of Lords, where she speaks on home and justice issues, among other things. Having been born in Pakistan and having spent substantial time in Arab countries as varied as Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, she was a well-informed and sometimes quite provocative (in the positive sense of the word) co-debater.

Both on the TV show and in conversations with others during the day here in Cairo, I’ve been struck even more than ever by how agrieved people even in a country such as Egypt feel about certain aspects of Western policy, not just the unjust and illegal Iraq War, but also matters such as double standards on Israel-Palestine and concerns about the difficulty of obtaining visas and the perceived wariness of both Europeans and North Americans vis-a-vis Arabs since 9/11. Kishwer (who describes herself as a ‘secular Muslim’) rightly pointed to an excessive tendency among some Muslims to see themselves as victims. But in certain instances, that’s what they really are.

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Euro 2008 on the Nile

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 26th June, 2008

I’m in Cairo for a political seminar, but this evening the organiser took me to one of the riverside restaurants on Zamalek island, right on the point, with a wonderful panorama of the Nile and its rivercraft. Being Thursday, and thus the start of most people’s weekend, there were lots of lively parties going on on boats, and at one point a surreal gigantic illuminated Sprite can drifted past. Maybe not the most sophisticated form of advertising, but highly effective!

The restaurant is popular with an upmarket shisha crowd, but today it was all laid out for Euro 2008. As we were greeted we were asked to choose either Russian or Spanish flags to wave, and given whistles. As my own adoptive team this year, Turkey, has already been disqualified, I opted for Spain, who deservedly won a thumping victory. It was obvious from the noise at the end of the match that almost everyone else in the restaurant had opted for Spain as well. Odd, really, considering that Egypt now receives more than one million Russian tourists a year. Or maybe it was because  Egypt receives more than one million Russian tourists a year… 

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Hungary: Sick Man or Dynamic Hub?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 25th June, 2008

Hungary’s charismatic State Secretary for the Economy, Abel Garamhegyi, was in London today and gave a presentation at Eversheds’ splendid new offices near St. Paul’s on his country’s economic performance since it joined the European Union in 2004. He’d just been at Bloomberg TV, where he was asked bluntly whether Hungary is the new Sick Man of Europe (a term applied to the Ottoman Empire in its closing days). But he was going on to British Telecom, which has invested heavily in Hungary, where he could be assured of a more upbeat welcome. His task at the briefing with corporate lawyers and other City types (plus me) was to portray Hungary as the dynamic hub of a European sub-region, notably looking east and south, with heavy involvement in places such as Montenegro and Romania.

It is true that Hungary’s growth rate is well below that of some of its neighbours, but Mr Garamhegyi argued that this masks a reality in which the state sector has been shrinking (including a reduction in the number of teachers, as school enrolments have declined), whereas the private sector has been blossoming. Certainly there has been some encouraging inward investment, the biggest catch so far being a giant project by Daimler Benz. Moreover, despite its small size, Hungary attracts 15 per cent of all new Research and Development jobs in Europe, second only to the United Kingdom.

As everywhere, Hungary has been hit by rising energy and food prices and there are certainly significant macro-economic problems at the moment. Things are not helped by the strength of the Hungarian currency, the forint. Given its high level against the euro, there is little prospect of Budapest opting to join the eurozone soon.

The seminar was arranged by International Financial Services London

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David Steel Reveals

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 24th June, 2008

No less than three of us LibDem Eurocandidates for London were at the Slovenian National Day reception at the Institute of Directors in Pall Mall this evening. With just a few days of the Slovenian presidency of the EU left to go, one could almost hear the sighs of relief emanating from Ljubljana. The Slovenians had hoped to go out with a bang, with the successful ratification of the Lisbon Treaty, but the Irish referendum put the kaibosh on that. Nonetheless, they have done nobly, and as the first of the ‘new wave’ of EU member states to hold the presidency, they have put up a more than creditable performance.

I had to leave early, to attend a Central Camden LibDem do at the National Liberal Club (NLC), at which the guest of honour was (Lord) David Steel. In case anyone is wondering what on earth David has to do with Camden, it transpires that he launched his (successful) leadership bid for the old Liberal Party there, in Hampstead — which was a bit cheeky, as his rival, John Pardoe lived, and indeed still lives, in Hampstead Town.

David’s link with the NLC is more obvious. Apart from attending numerous Club functions over the years, he actually lived there for a while, when he, like several other Liberal MPs, used it as his London base. The Club was distinctly scruffy at the time — I remember it well, with Young Liberals sitting on the floor of the David Lloyd George room, backs to the wall, swigging beer from the bottle — and the bedroom accommodation upstairs was distinctly rudimentary. As David recalled this evening, he and fellow residents would be shaken awake in the early hours of the morning in winter by the clanking of the radiators. Tactfully, he did not mention other disturbances during the night, when bedroom doors opened and shut with surprising regularity.  

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Another Tory Banana Skin

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 23rd June, 2008

Boris Johnson has been in office for less than two months and already he has lost one of his key advisors: his deputy chief-of-staff, James McGrath, who fell on his sword when it became obvious that there was no way of excusing his comment to a black journalist that elderly Caribbean residents of London should go back home if they don’t like it here, now that Boris is in charge in City Hall. I do not for one moment believe that James McGrath is a racist, nor Boris Johnson for that matter. But they, like several other senior Tories, have chalked up quite a record of saying unfortunate things that can harm race relations. I do not think that we need to have the sort of rigid political correctness which Ken Livingstone sometimes espoused. But everyone even remotely connected with politics in the capital these days has to acknowledge that we live in one of the most multicultural cities on earth, and that that diversity is something to be celebrated. Talking about people ‘going back home’ was for many people a hurtful thing to say, even if that was not James McGrath’s intention, just as Boris Johnson’s earlier written comments about ‘picaninnies’ and ‘water-melon smiles’ were not greeted with the jocularity in which he no doubt intended them. If the Conservative Party aspires to run not just London but Britain, it needs to send some of its senior figures on a cultural awareness programme. Remarks that might have gone down well in certain suburban golf clubs or the changing rooms of public schools a generation ago are unacceptable in the UK now.


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Total Politics for Anoraks

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 22nd June, 2008

MPs and councillors will find a new publication landing on their desks soon: a magazine called ‘Total Politics’, which is being launched by the Tory blogger Iain Dale. The enterprise is backed by (Lord) Michael Ashcroft, which is a bit disconcerting, as he is the man who has been pouring tens of thousands of pounds into parliamentary constituencies the Conservatives are hoping to snatch at the next election. But Iain Dale is insistent that it will cover the whole political spectrum, so there will be something for everyone. The cover story of the first issue (July) is an interview with Gordon Brown, who looks marginally less zombie-like than he has on television recently. Polly Toynbee is there, as is one of those questionnaire-thingies with Mark Oaten, MP, who reveals that his favourite view is crossing into Manhattan from JFK airport, and that he gets up to dance to Sister Sledge. Sigh. But there is some meatier stuff.

Unelected political anoraks, including former politicos like Ken Livingstone who are suffering withdrawal symptoms, can purchase the new mag from newsagents and certain bookshops. Or take a look online:

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Winning Hampstead and Kilburn

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 21st June, 2008

A general election may be almost two years away, but in target parliamentary seats, preparations are underway in earnest. In London nowhere is that more the case than in the new seat of Hampstead and Kilburn, which is made up of most of the current seat of Hampstead and Highgate — held by the Brownite Labour MP, Glenda Jackson — and a slice of Sarah Teather’s Brent East. In the new seat, there are notionally only 474 votes between Labour and the LibDems, but when one looks at the local election picture, it is much more stark for the government: 20 LibDem councillors, 9 Tories and a sole Labour one. This all means a fierce fight to come.

Today, the constituency LibDems held an ‘Away-day’ at the friendly and tasty food-wise William IV gastropub in Kensal Green (right opposite the cemetery where Oscar Wilde’s mother, the Irish nationalist Speranza, is buried), at which the briefings included a presentation by Mark Pack, who was Lynne Featherstone’s field commander in the successful campaign to win Horney and Wood Green in 2005. If Ed Fordham and his team fail to emulate that success in 2010 (or whenever), it won’t be through lack of trying.  

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