What does 2006 have in store? (part one)

Isabel Hilton
22 December 2005

Forty-nine of openDemocracy’s distinguished contributors, from Mariano Aguirre to Slavoj Zizek, Neal Ascherson to Jonathan Zittrain – offer their predictions for the coming year. Since this is openDemocracy, we did not expect them to agree. We were not disappointed.

Dave Belden and Michael Edwards take differing positions on faith. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, Ramin Jahanbegloo and Khaled Abou El Fadi see different prospects in the middle east. In the United States, Todd Gitlin, Anatole Lieven, Gregory Maniatis and Colin Greer have divergent views on the year's prospects.

Eric Hobsbawm takes the long view, Neal Ascherson maps his hopes and fears and Mary Robinson pleads for a change of attitude to migration and development. Read different visions of Europe’s future from John Palmer and Krzysztof Bobinski, find out why a woodpecker matters to Charles Chadwyck-Healey and browse the diverse predictions of Ariel Dorfman, Leszek Kolakowski, Michael Naumann, Gwyn Prins, Roger Scruton, Bill Thompson, Tony Judt and many others.

How many of our predictions will be proved right? Stay with us in 2006 to find out.

A very happy New Year from openDemocracy.

Isabel Hilton, Editor


Mariano Aguirre Charles Chadwyck-Healey Roberto Espíndola Neal Ascherson Alfred W Crosby Todd Gitlin Timothy Garton Ash Georgi Derluguian Colin Greer Gopal Balakrishnan Ariel Dorfman Jeremy Hardie Patrice de Beer Michael Edwards Caspar Henderson Dave Belden Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe Diego Hidalgo Krzysztof Bobinski Khaled Abou El Fadl Eric Hobsbawm Maria Livanos Cattaui Mats Engström Saad Eddin Ibrahim


Mariano Aguirre: The need for regime-building

The tension between national and multilateral interests will be one of the crucial fields in the international relations of 2006. In other words, a joint and universal approach to transnational problems will continue to be in confrontation with old-fashioned, single-state oriented visions and policies.

This is neither a new development nor an original prediction, but 2005 has been dramatic in the fields of regime destruction. The agreements on environment and trade have been weakened, torture and “extraordinary renditions” have been practised by the United States in worldwide centre of illegal detention, the people of Darfur are still waiting for a coherent response from the international community (not necessarily the use of force), and the United Nations’ world summit in September produced almost nothing except a peace-building commission that could end empty of any meaningful content.

Maybe in 2006 the concept of regime could be restored to one of its most important meanings. A regime is a consensual agreement around one issue reached by many actors. The narrow definition indicates that states agree “on implicit or explicit principles, norms, rules, and decision-making procedures” (Stephen Krasner, ed., International Regimes, Cornell University Press, 1983). An updated practice and definition (and controversial for some realists) includes also non-state actors because of their influence on states.

Kofi Annan, some governments and civil-society actors hoped that the UN world summit would open the discussion on a more advanced international regime that could deal with threats and challenges in the international system. The need for cooperation among states in security, human rights, trade, terrorism, environment and international crime comes from the connection between them and the fact that no individual state can deal with these problems alone. The world needs regime-building.

An obvious remark. But one of the most dramatic paradoxes of our time is that the majority of the most powerful states use the multilateral system to advance their national interests. The problem is that the boundaries between national and international are diffuse. Common security is a concept to return to. Pure national interest and security are not viable. By acting as if the world system of states was that of fifty years ago, I’m afraid, some governments in 2006 will drive us deeper into chaos and disorder.

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Neal Ascherson: Fears and hopes

For 2006, I fear:

That the hopeful people of Iraq who go out to vote against all the threats of death and destruction will see their country fall apart into new destruction created by foreign meddling and megalomaniac clerics;

That the provincial fools who rule Iran will betray their long-suffering subjects, by driving the country into follies which will tempt Bush and the neocons to strike at them;

That Israel will press forward with the colonisation of the West Bank, until yet another Palestinian uprising and yet another wave of Israeli military reprisals postpones Palestinian statehood;

That China's growing demand for energy, raw materials and food will overwhelm all the world's efforts to conserve the rainforests and reduce the consumption of fossil fuels;

That the European Union will fail to replace its abortive “constitution” or to reconstruct the budget crippled – in the fiasco of the British presidency – by Tony Blair's unforgivable obsession with the rebate, and will begin to drift backwards towards disintegration;

That the Blair government, faced with more illegal outrages by the Bush presidency, will once again fail to protest and shame us with another display of hand-wringing servility.

For 2006, I hope:

That the people of China will gradually bring together all their countless acts of protest, in the factories and the countryside, into an unstoppable upheaval of democracy;

That the Israeli government will release Marwan Barghouti, and let him unite the Palestinian factions into a formidable, credible force which can make hard bargains but can guarantee that they will stick;

That the European Union will learn the lessons of the disastrous British presidency, and move towards the inevitable: an integrated core Europe which will insulate itself against British reluctance and intrigue;

That Lebanon will complete its liberation from Syrian interference;

That the Turkish people, in the name of a modern democracy, will at last challenge the forces of reaction, controlled by the military and intelligence nexus, which use ignorance and blind chauvinism to maintain their grip.

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Timothy Garton Ash: High hopes, low expectations

You ask what I hope and fear in 2006. I hope – against hope – for an agreement in the Doha round of the world trade talks and for further movement from the United States on climate change. These seem to me probably the two most important things for the world at the moment. I have read somewhere that John F Kennedy had two in-trays on his desk, one marked “Urgent” and the other marked “Important”. It's a vital distinction: too often the urgent crowds out the important. These two, however, are both important and urgent; with the added difficulty that the urgency of doing something about the industrialised and industrialising countries' contribution to global warming will not be apparent to most people until it's too late. So that's what I hope. (When I say “hope” I don't mean “expect”.)

What do I fear? I both fear and expect many more horrors in 2006, some of them unavoidable. Let me single out just one threat, because it seems to me avoidable. This is the unnecessary curbing of free speech. The British government is still trying to introduce an ill-conceived, ill-drafted bill on Incitement to Religious Hatred which would plainly reduce our freedom of expression. A woman gets a criminal record just for standing at the end of Downing Street reciting the names of the British war dead in Iraq. Another receives a police caution for speaking critically of homosexuality. Soon they'll be turning Speakers' Corner into a police training-ground.

Meanwhile, one of Turkey's leading novelists is dragged through the courts, and threatened with a three-year jail sentence, simply for saying what is historically, factually true, that “a million Armenians and thirty thousand Kurds had been killed in Turkey”. And - to be consistent – I'm not very happy about David Irving being locked up in Austria. I find his denial of the Holocaust deeply offensive, but what's sauce for the goose should be sauce for the gander. So long as it does not result in direct harm to others, people should be free to say what they like – wildly, offensively, even abusively – about religion, history and politics. Here is important ground on which we must stand and fight, with the help of openDemocracy, in 2006.

Happy New Year!

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Gopal Balakrishnan: An englobing, plebiscitary logic

2006 will provide a few occasions to assess the true extent of American power and the resilience of the international ranking system of power and wealth on which it stands.

What explains the catastrophic strategic miscalculations that led to the debacle in Iraq? All the main trends of the previous decade seemed to point to the dawning of another American Century: ever-widening spheres of geopolitical action, a new wave of technological dynamism powered by financial markets, and the steady advance of the liberal-democratic mission civilisatrice.

Across the political spectrum most observers assumed that, for better or worse, the next chapter of world history would remain legible in terms of the intersection of these three secular developments. Accordingly, “globalisation” was the master category of the first post-cold-war decade. The scrambling of this picture in the aftermath of 9/11 has created an historical context whose elements have yet to settle into an intelligible pattern. What are the starting points of an investigation into the conjuncture that began with 9/11 and is now entering a new and dangerous phase? I would like to propose the following three.

The first thing to register is the opacity surrounding the operations of increasingly imbalanced global financial markets that price the value of assets – and thus the wealth of entire nations — on the basis of ever edgier methodologies of risk assessment. The latter have spread from the world of business and accounting into the control centres of strategy and intelligence.

The second thing to consider is the post-cold-war breakdown of a balance-of- power scheme that previously compelled the United States to measure its capacities and assess geo-political risk in a more transparent, conventional strategic field of relative power positions. Lastly, one must register the impact of what Guy Debord called “the Spectacle” on the contemporary practice of imperial statecraft. The strategic direction of the US state has become increasingly subject to an englobing, plebiscitary logic of incessant televisual staging and spinning.

For Debord, this cretinisation, so advantageous to rulers, owners and rentiers, nonetheless comes at a price for would-be empire builders: “Once the running of the state involves a permanent and massive shortage of historical knowledge, the state can no longer be led strategically.” An observation by US secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld encapsulates this moment in history: “We lack the metrics to know whether we are winning or losing the war.”

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Patrice de Beer: Looking forward or backward?

I am probably not alone in remembering the late 1970s or early 1980s, when everything seemed to go awry after the three decades of steady economic progress that had followed the second world war, and the end of America’s Vietnam war. I thought then that I would leave my children a better world than I inherited. How presumptuous I was. Only poets should be allowed to predict the future. I’d rather look back in anger at a past which is also difficult to apprehend. Predicting the past is less risky.

The Chinese say that New Year is the time to settle all debts. But governments are piling up debts to appease their disgruntled voters, to pay for their own lack of courage and imagination, or just because they have grown too big for their boots. They govern on credit, leaving their bills for our children, who won’t be able to hold them to account. Chirac, Blair and Brown, Schröder (and no doubt his successor Merkel), Berlusconi or Bush all add “pork” to soften the bitter pill of economic liberalism.

But Chirac is not De Gaulle, Blair is no Churchill, nor George W Bush JFK or Reagan. He is not even Bill Clinton, who restored a budget surplus after decades of deficit, only to see it squandered after he left the White House. Today’s world has become the world of the common man. History is not the flavour of the season.

Why, for instance, did Chirac not celebrate the bicentennial of Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz – the French counterpart of Britain’s Trafalgar – though he sent the aircraft carrier Charles De Gaulle to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Nelson’s triumph over the same Napoleon six weeks earlier?

Why did he not commemorate the 1905 bill that separated church and state and paved the way to a peaceful relationship between God and Caesar, at a time when Europe is unable to deal with its Muslim minorities?

The continuing war in Iraq is far from bringing peace and democracy to the middle east or elsewhere in the world. The Montreal conference on global warming ended up with a figleaf compromise because of US objections to any meaningful measures, despite warnings that action is urgently needed. The European Union limps through a crisis that threatens its survival as a political entity after the rout of its constitutional ambitions; haggling over the budget, the British “rebate” and the Common Agricultural Policy shows how the ideal of Europe is withering away in the face of petty national interests.

The World Trade Organisation’s Hong Kong conference started with a clash of egos between the United States and the European Union while Africa waited for a sign that affluent countries cared for its fate in action rather than in words. “The vision, stupid”, Bill Clinton could have said. May 2006 prove the pessimists wrong and turn the clock back to the future. Meanwhile, I am going to visit an exhibition called Mélancolie in the newly- renovated Grand Palais in Paris. “Tout un programme”!

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Dave Belden: Straws of liberalism in the evangelical wind

If democracy is extended in any way in the coming year, in any part of the world other than Europe, it will largely be thanks to religious believers. This may be a bitter truth for some secular folk, but the logic is obvious. Most people outside of Europe are believers. Democracy cannot be imposed by a small educated elite, who may be more secular than the general population, any more than it can be imposed by foreign armies. If the people make democracy, then believers make democracy. It’s strange that this should even have to be said.

It’s even happening in the United States. Secular liberals are so mesmerized by the fact that the most avowedly Christian administration in US history is promoting torture and war, that they forget that the strongest whistleblower on that torture, Captain Ian Fishback, is a devout Christian. Fishback follows Christian precepts rather more closely than does his commander-in-chief, whose own church is against the war.

The religious left is waking up in the US. The trade-union-based WakeUpWalMart campaign, to force the highest revenue US company to treat its workers right, is making much of the religious support for its campaign. I am looking to see Rabbi Michael Lerner’s The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country from the Religious Right do as well in 2006 as born-again Jim Wallis’s left-leaning God’s Politics – fifteen weeks on the bestseller list – did in 2005.

Even more surprising in 2006 will be signs of liberalism on the religious right. In March the conservative Cal Thomas felt he had to write against this dangerous tendency in his widely syndicated column: “The religious left has long tried to sway evangelicals into embracing its social agenda. It would appear they are finally succeeding.” He was referring to Reverend Ted Haggard, president of the conservative National Association of Evangelicals, who got worried about global warming after scuba diving coral reefs. Haggard said about global warming, "We do represent 30 million people, and we can mobilise them if we have to."

Evangelicals in recent decades have been deeply involved in global campaigns against slavery and religious persecution. Now, through initiatives like the One Campaign and bestselling Christian author Rick Warren’s PEACE campaign, they are being alerted to Aids and extreme poverty. These campaigns may seem a little naïve, if you are on the left. But then, hasn’t a lot of left activity also been naïve? It’s the intent and the energy that counts, and the learning takes place through the doing. American evangelicals are discovering world poverty and plague: be grateful.

In 2006 I would love to see an end to the Iraq war and a significant Walmart pay raise. None of these will happen. But I am expecting more signs of what will eventually be the most powerful antidote to fundamentalism, religious totalitarianism and religious terrorism: a reawakening of religious liberalism.

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Krzysztof Bobinski: Europe’s time of reflection

Don’t expect too much. Exhausted by the 2007-13 budget deal and wary of the challenge from the youthful if deeply eurosceptic David Cameron, the Blair/Brown duo will take the United Kingdom even further to the margins of the European Union. France, flushed with its success in repairing relations with Poland, will mark time while it waits for its next presidential election in 2007 and ponders how to retain as much of the Common Agricultural Policy as possible in future.

Angela Merkel showed at the Brussels summit that Germany intends to play a constructive role in brokering EU compromises. This does not mark a return to the munificence of Helmut Kohl, but sets the stage for a working relationship of the Weimar three – Germany, France and Poland. With the United Kingdom on the edge of the picture, this could also mean that prospects for liberalisation will dim as all three in Weimar show little enthusiasm for labour market reforms.

What role for the other “bigs”?

Italy, obsessed with internal politics, shows little enthusiasm for playing a European role while Spain, grateful that it was allowed to retain a net inflow of EU funds in the 2007-13 budget period, will go quiet for a time at least.

So a time for reflection after the fiasco in 2005 of the constitutional treaty. This, in effect, means that the politicians will forget about Europe and concentrate on their domestic concerns, while think-tankers will, as ever, mull over the question of “whither Europe”. The issue, as ever, will be how to combine “deepening” – keeping an expanding if increasingly parsimonious EU on the road – with “widening”, which means working out ways of integrating a growing number of candidates who still want to join despite the angst on the EU which appears to be affecting the founding states.

The Austrian presidency, maybe subconsciously fixated on recreating the Austro-Hungarian empire within the framework of the EU, will press for the inclusion of Croatia, which means that Bulgaria and Romania will make progress to member status, while at the same time fending off the Turks. That begs the question of who will speak up for the Balkans. In the second half of the year Finland gets to steer the ship which signifies that the EU will be encouraged to look north and east and, to the delight of the eurosceptic Polish administration, that means work on a coherent EU policy towards Russia and a common EU energy policy – the sole eurofederist project currently on the drawing boards in the European Commission.

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Maria Livanos Cattaui : An optimistic overview

Energy: I am not worried about energy- the oil and the resources are there, though not always used to the full. It is a question of getting it out of the ground and distributed. This is an economic and a technical problem, not a profound crisis.

Democracy: I am concerned with the rise of populism, nationalistic economies and protectionism. Barriers go up to the free flow and transfer of knowledge, intellectual-property protection goes down, poverty goes up. The internet is scrutinised and censored and rule of law goes down, not only in traditional populist armed dictatorships. Populism can always win votes, and it’s playing to false ideas in Europe, Latin America and elsewhere.

I worry about the naivety of “just-let-people-vote-and-you-have-democracy”. We may see more democracies established without the underpinnings that make democracy stable: the rise of Muslim extremism, for instance, where the democratic door is open for a moment. In 2006, the long-term building of institutions has to be more a priority than voting.

Science: this is the century of the life sciences, in which several kinds of technologies marry to promote the sciences of living things. Next year will be a critical year in this convergence. The health summit in Seattle in 2006 will look at the nexus between new technologies, new sciences, new breakthroughs and the necessary public policy, to change the handling of health issues, from individual responsibility to how to measure and finance preventive medicine. Right now no hospital or public institution is geared towards health. This change will emerge strongly in 2006.

Trade: barriers remain high between developing countries. Next year will come a realisation that agricultural subsidies are as harmful to developed as to developing countries. More and more developing countries are also moving into manufacturing and services and the aim is not just to force open markets but to make new markets more competitive, consumer-oriented, and able to create jobs. I’m not at all pessimistic. It’s been difficult but if we continue to be pessimistic we will keep on looking to the problems rather than finding areas in which opposing viewpoints and philosophies can meet.

Distributive networks: next year will see the rise of the power of distributive networks, for instance via the internet. It’s a latent enormous, unorganised resource as important as the strength of the market and well-governed state power. This is will become very influential in the new year: self-correcting knowledge, self-building, fast-breaking news and commentary and opinion.

Competition: Japan’s renaissance will come on stream and its lead in robotics may unleash financial, manufacturing and technological creativity. We look at China as a manufacturing hub, but its wage levels will become expensive and it will start to outsource. China is buying companies abroad for its own technological, managerial and economic advancement. The US and Europe are becoming wells of technological and managerial creativity, bought into by companies from the developing world.

The environment: as the middle classes rise they demand a higher quality of environment. Unless citizens demand sanitation, water, and efficient use of energy and materials, treaties will not change the environment. The more you grow, the more energy you consume, but with economic vitality comes citizen-led demand for higher quality of life, and more efficient use of energy.

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Charles Chadwyck-Healey: Hopes and fears

I am buying a house in Orford on England’s Suffolk coast, on the marshes within a few hundred metres of the sea, so I am hoping that the effects of global warming will remain indiscernible. I expect that bird flu and global warming will continue to be over-discussed and hope that both will remain firmly in the future so that we can tell each other how important they are without having to do anything about them.

I am hoping that in the United Kingdom the Conservative Party will become a credible opposition and that new leaders in the UK and France will join Angela Merkel in bringing energy and intelligence to Europe’s sclerotic economies. I expect that General Motors will file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and that Microsoft will make a major acquisition to protect its position.

In the UK the decline of the old industries and the growth of the new will be seen in the newspaper business where the migration of classified advertising from print to electronic will erode the profitability of regional newspapers and the viability of the national dailies they support.

The discontinuity between content and technology will show in the continuing decline in the quality and variety of programmes broadcast by the traditional UK networks while IPTV (Internet Protocol Television, in which digital TV programmes are delivered via broadband) will be adopted by consumers. This will transform the TV from a passive viewing box to an interactive gadget for downloading films, viewing and emailing digital photographs and home video and gaining access to an ever-increasing range of channels – with no guarantee of any improvement in content.

Digital photography will entirely eclipse chemical photography in 2006 and I am hoping that new papers, new printers, better inks and better digital cameras will compensate for the disappearance of old favourites made by Kodak, Ilford and Agfa. Old and new technologies can coexist. Irving Penn rediscovered and mastered the 19th century techniques of platinum/palladium printing in the 1970s and the exhibition of these prints at the National Gallery of Art in Washington in 2005 confirmed him as our greatest living photographer.

I am hoping that by the fifth anniversary of 9/11 Americans will understand that their government’s reaction has been more damaging to western democracies than the event itself. I fear that by the end of 2006 Guantánamo Bay will still have inmates and that the US government will have been forced to admit that “extraordinary renditions” have taken place in Europe.

The first sighting of the ivory-billed woodpecker since 1944 in the swampland forests of Arkansas in 2004 was the most exciting US ornithological event for sixty years since the bird was thought extinct. The woodpeckers are the most important thing to come out of Arkansas since the Clintons. A team from Cornell University are now searching for them before the trees are back in leaf. I hope that 2006 will be the year they find them.

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Alfred W Crosby: Oil – the long and short of it

Oil is a miracle fuel to which we are understandably addicted. It has roughly twice the energy value per unit of weight of coal and takes up per available calorie of energy much less space than natural gas. It is a liquid and as such is easily stored and transported. It can even be pumped from one airplane to another in flight. The west’s demand for it in 2006 will not diminish and the developing world’s thirst – China’s and India’s most impressively – will increase.

In the short run we in the west have no choice about participating in the worldwide competition to find and tap new sources of oil, and therefore of colliding with other nations in the oilfields of central Asia and under the waters of west Africa. We should anticipate those collisions with pre-emptive negotiations: the alternative is an increase in the likelihood of war.

In the long run we must defang energy rivalries by moderating the world demand for oil. That certainly won’t happen in 2006, but at least we should be able to slow its rocket rise. We must adopt the more fuel-frugal internal combustion engines, turn away from private automobiles to public transportation, exploit the so-called “renewables” — biofuels, sun energy, wind energy, and so on — hoping that these measures will suffice to fend off a pandemic of armed conflict until a plentiful, cheap, and energy-rich substitute for oil can be found. Hydrogen is currently the most popular nominee for the role of energy-manna from heaven.

It might help if we recognize that Moses did not descend Mount Sinai carrying a jerry can of gasoline. Queen Elizabeth and George Washington may have dabbed their chapped lips with a bit of oil, but did not use it as a fuel. Our addiction to oil is not much over 100 years old. We are like a beer and ale fancier who has recently discovered vodka and cannot imagine a world without it.

In 2006 oil will influence all our major decisions, for instance, on where we choose to live — city or suburbs — and on whether we munch on apples raised locally or mangos imported from far away. It will also, if we aren’t very wise, dictate why, where, when and with whom we fight.

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Georgi Derluguian: Intellectual breakthroughs

There is little worth predicting in my native part of the world, the former Soviet Union.

The politics of personalistic venality will continue to generate periodic scandals and palace intrigues against the backdrop of demobilized and redundant people. The demographic vibrancy of the Caucasus and central Asia, in the absence of more hopeful possibilities, will erupt in desperate acts of violence.

I would love nothing more than a huge surprise to send me back to the sociological drawing board. Who, including its original sponsors, could have predicted the tremendous surge of Ukraine’s “Orange” revolution? Like all revolutions, this one was betrayed and yet, like all revolutions, the really important consequences will arrive in the longer run, by changing the structural perceptions of the possible.

This is, however, not my hope for 2006. My hope for the coming year lies elsewhere. It is in social science, my professional turf. We are living, by many indicators, in a period characterized by the rapid accumulation of new knowledge and emotional energy which, as Randall Collins argues, is the driving force of creativity and innovation. Energy is building up under the crust of mainstream scholasticism and post-modernist solipsism. But in social science we can recognise the breakthroughs only long after the fact, when the initial small hole in the wall becomes the gate for a new generation.

The conditions are there. We can see the world more clearly because the walls of cold-war ideologies have crumbled. Evolving networks spur the global diffusion of ideas. The sheer boredom of academic social science serves as a condition for innovation: a great many younger scholars feel today like the East Germans at the beginning of 1989. Social science has so little of use to say today — and yet it can say so much!

This contradiction, I believe, cannot last. I want to toast the intellectual breakthroughs which we do not yet notice!

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Ariel Dorfman: A Morse code for 2006

The only certainty I have about 2006 is that any prediction I make is bound to be wrong. I mean, if I had been asked at the end of 1905 to anticipate the events of the following year, would I have been able to foretell the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 and the far more devastating one in Ecuador? Or the tsunami that ravaged Hong Kong? Or Mount Vesuvius erupting and Naples in flames? Or race riots in Atlanta and bread riots in Stockholm? Not a chance.

And yet, and yet. . . Maybe the best way to divine the future is to scrutinize the Siamese mirror of the past. Armed with the malevolent benediction of hindsight, 1906 might indeed provide some guidance as to what awaits us in 2006. Perhaps we won’t collect the same number of landslides or explosions in coalmines as a century ago, but who can doubt that this coming year, given our planetary warming (and the simultaneous freezing of our collective intellect), we have an excellent chance of being host to an even wider variety of assorted disasters than ever before.

As to that catastrophe called warfare, it’s likely we’ll grow even more adept at killing. It is sobering to think that back in 1906, the world celebrated the great Santos Dumont lifting his plane up into the air for a good sixty metres. A hundred years later, the conquest of gravity should again be in the news, though its incarnation will be less peaceful. You don’t have to be a wizard with a crystal ball to discern how the most powerful nations on this earth would prefer to wage war: from a distance.

So I don’t envisage 2006 bringing another ruinous invasion of yet another hapless country by ground forces, but rather some sort of apocalyptic onslaught, just as ruinous, by hordes of airplanes, bombing villages and cities, and thereby creating yet more victims, yet more survivors, yet more potential terrorists, sullying the skies which were so innocent for Santos Dumont all those years ago. .

And what of hope? If we listen carefully, can’t we hear a whisper of encouragement from the past, is there not a model from back then which we could use to confront our current cycle of calamity and violence?

In effect, it happened to be in the year 1906 that our species decided to establish a distress signal that everybody on earth and on sea could recognise. Anyone who heard Three Dots Three Dashes and Three Dots on a wireless transmission would henceforth know, regardless of language, beyond the barriers of nationhood, that someone was calling for help, someone was transmitting an SOS, was asking that a ship be salvaged, a soul be saved, succor sent out.

Surely there is a lesson for us in that remote determination by our ancestors to find a way, agreed upon by all, to rush to the rescue of those in need.

As if they somehow knew that one hundred years later we would be the ones in need, we would be the ones desperately trying to invent a new and different distress signal respected by all nations, we would be the ones to cry out in the night and ask for help, someone to come and rescue our wounded humanity in the year that marks the sad centenary of the birth of Adolf Eichmann.

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Michael Edwards: Burying Gandalf’s ghost

How many times have you watched The Lord of the Rings, and what’s your favourite scene in the movie? Mine comes at the end of the battle for Helm’s Deep, in the second film of the trilogy, The Two Towers. Down the mountainside comes the white wizard Gandalf (or maybe it was beige?), sweeping away the army of evil orcs in a breathtaking display of righteous and unambiguously successful military intervention. Except, of course, this is a fantasy. In reality, there are no unambiguously righteous or successful interventions in life, military or otherwise.

Yet the myth of the saviour, casting out darkness with one sweep of their mighty sword, remains an immensely powerful leitmotif in our imaginations, however sophisticated our claims to the contrary. In its most virulent form, it is driving western attempts to remake the middle east, and in other less virulent varieties it continues to pollute our attempts to practice international cooperation, reform the foreign aid business, create more democratic forms of global governance, build civil societies worthy of the name, or even turn our personal and professional relationships into healthier and more democratic encounters. If I was to ask Santa for a Christmas present or make a new year’s resolution it would be this: let’s bury “Gandalf’s ghost” for once and for all.

So what would replace it? Not inertia, isolationism or complacency but “critical friendship” – “the loving but forceful encounters between equals who journey together towards the land of the true and the beautiful”, as I put it in Future Positive. Applying that philosophy to the World Trade Organisation or to massive human-rights abuses is not easy, but it would certainly provoke a refreshing, honest and potentially much more successful conversation about the design and application of rules, standards, conditions, trade-offs and compromises in the international arena. Call me romantic, but at some point in the not too distant future the world will surely rejoin its long march to international cooperation, and the last five years will come to be seen as a temporary blip in the course of global affairs.

If you want an alternative and better model from the The Lord of the Rings, then how about the elves who appear to bolster the sagging army of humans as the orcs approach the gates of the Helm’s Deep fortress? They arrive when you need them, leave when you ask them to, provide the help you actually want rather than the help they think you ought to have, behave consistently across the ages (and we’re talking thousands of years), and value their own culture while declining to impose it on others. And they have those lovely pointy ears.

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Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe: Time for reflections

Undoubtedly, 2006 begins on a more optimistic note for Africa. With the failure of the 2005 G8-Live8-Make Poverty History initiative, it is clear that the blueprint for African transformation will neither be scripted nor actuated in London, Brussels, Washington or New York. The answer remains firmly lodged in Africa.

2006 will be a year of intense reflections across Africa on the continent’s genocide-state. The year marks the fortieth anniversary of the beginning of the Igbo genocide, during which the Nigerian state slaughtered 3 million Igbo citizens – a quarter of the total Igbo population. This genocide shattered the capacity of the state to capitalise on the resources of multinationality and multiculturality as it embarked on redevelopment after sixty years of the British occupation.

This was the foundational genocide of post-conquest, European-occupied Africa. Africans elsewhere remained largely silent on the gruesome events in Nigeria but did not foresee the grave consequences of such indifference. Just as the Nigerian operatives of mass murder appeared to have got away without censure from the rest of Africa, other brutal African regimes soon followed in Nigeria’s footpath, murdering those in their countries considered “opponents” or “undesirables.”

The haunting killing fields stretched from Igboland to Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea-Bissau, southern Guinea, Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Congo-Brazzaville, Burundi and Rwanda. The 12 million murdered in the latter bloodbaths would probably have been saved if Africans had intervened robustly to stop the initial genocide against the Igbo people.

Forty years and fifteen million murders on, Africans finally realise that there cannot be any meaningful advancement without the dismantling of the genocide-state. This state is the bane of African existence and progress. Africans on the ground are working tirelessly for the emergence of extensively decentralised state forms that ensure full democratic participation and representation of all constituent peoples.

It is within this context that the current heightened political developments in Nigeria, Uganda and Ethiopia become intelligible. The regimes here are working intensely to scuttle the pace and trajectory of democratisation. In the case of Nigeria, President Olusegun Obasanjo is on the verge of subverting the constitution to extend the life of his presidency.

It is in the longer-term interest of the rest of the world, especially in the west, to support African transformations initiated by its peoples rather than the helmsmen seemingly entrenched in the continent’s genocide-states.

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Khaled Abou El Fadl: Reversing present reversions

Since 2001, humanity has regressed in a fashion that has obliterated the coherence of annual divisions of time. The world is now in a primal condition in which the global hegemon, in the name of a higher truth, demands complete allegiance from the leaders of weaker states and treats them as satellites dedicated to carrying out its commands. It bears a painful resemblance to the historical division between the abode of Islam or the land of Christendom versus the infidels.

Worst of all, in my view, is the regression in the field of human-rights practice. The casualties since 2001 have not been limited to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Covenant for Civil and Political Rights and the convention against the practice of torture, but also the Geneva Conventions of 1949.

Human-rights activists used to shame authoritarian governments by referencing a morally objective and universal standard that prohibited the use of torture, extrajudicial killing, abduction and disappearance and imprisonment without trial. Today, authoritarian governments retort by citing the practices of the United States, Britain, and Israel, which include assassinations, imprisonment without charge, secret detentions, abductions, and torture.

Long before the terrorist attacks of 9/11, authoritarian governments justified such practices by claiming that they were necessary to defeat terrorism. This excuse is not new. But what is new and unprecedented is that authoritarian governments have a solid foundation for arguing that, far from being absolute and objective, human rights protections are circumstantial and relative.

This is one of the ironies of the present era: armed with a sense of absolute moral righteousness the hegemon shows an off-handed disdain for universal standards that restrict its ability to go about its business. This has undermined the very idea of objective moral standards and has taken humanity back to a relativism and even cynicism about any claim of universally applicable ethical standards. Increasingly, it appears that hypocrisy and crude pragmatism are the only truly universal human qualities.

We are living through an epoch that blurs the distinctions between one year and another. This year, like the one before it and the one to come, will be dominated by the same paradigms because all are part of a regressive historical period during which much of the moral progress that human beings struggled to achieve is coming undone. 2006 will, I’m afraid, bring more of the same. The same players will dominate the field, acting out the same roles. Instead of thinking of next year, we should focus on a new epoch in which the tragic reversions of the last five years are themselves reversed.

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Mats Engström: A broader coalition for human rights

My hope for 2006 is that the damage done to human rights by the "war on terror" be reversed. In 2005, it was confirmed that the prison at Guantánamo Bay is only one in an archipelago of prison camps where fundamental rights are not respected. In Europe, alleged CIA prison camps and "rendition flights" caused an intense debate at the end of the year.

European governments have agreed a number of new laws and policy statements to combat terrorism. Such dreadful acts as the bombings in London and Madrid must be prevented, but there is too much secrecy in the negotiations, and too few guarantees for fundamental rights. Independent experts have warned of the consequences for civil liberties of the hunt for suspected terrorists.

There is a sharp contrast between today and the proud statements made in December 2000 when European Union member-states signed the non-binding EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. The German foreign minister Joschka Fischer had argued that the charter should be legally binding. Individual citizens will be subject to more and more EU legislation, he argued. They will need legal protection for their rights.

His colleagues from other member states were sceptical. But Joschka Fischer was right. A binding charter would give citizens more protection against the plethora of new EU legislation aimed at combating crime in general, and terrorism in particular.

The charter was included in the proposed EU constitution, which now is in limbo, but a number of measures could be still taken to strengthen citizens’ rights. Better procedural rights of suspects in criminal investigations, for instance, would be a valuable measure, but the EU action on this has taken significantly longer to conclude than have a large number of tougher laws.

A more stringent directive on protection of personal data, increased transparency, regular reviews of member-states’ respect for human rights, laws on genetic integrity, and an EU ratification of the European Convention on Human Rights are other important measures the EU could take. Human rights must also regain its importance in European foreign policy. Autocratic leaders in Moscow and Beijing are using the arguments from the "war on terror" as a pretext for the repression of peaceful protests.

The consequences affect us all. When free trade unions are hunted down in China, the chances of a socially acceptable globalization are reduced. When green activists are threatened and imprisoned in Russia, prospects for environmental improvements everywhere are affected. Without a more democratic Russia and China, there will not be enough progress in global negotiations on socially acceptable trade and on climate change.

Around the world, trade unionists, environmental activists and human rights organisations are making great efforts. But there is a need for better coordination, for making human rights a cornerstone also in national debates and elections. There is a clear link between human rights in different parts of the world, between fair wages and surveillance of organisations in the name of fighting terrorism, between environmental hazards and the freedom of speech. Defending human rights in the " war on terror" must be a task also for trade unions and other social movements.

Stronger efforts to build such a broad coalition for human rights would be my wish for 2006.

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Roberto Espíndola: Latin America – The year of the ballot

2006 will be a year of elections in Latin America and the Caribbean: Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guyana, Nicaragua and Peru elect new presidents and parliaments. Chile (second round), Haiti and Venezuela also elect presidents and five Caribbean and Central American states will hold parliamentary polls.

It’s not the numbers that makes this record convergence of elections significant, but the progress towards democratisation. Marginalised sectors have emerged in politics previously controlled by a largely male, white elite. Michelle Bachelet seems likely to become the first female president of Chile, for the centre-left coalition Concertación, whose alternative candidate was also a woman, the Christian Democrat Soledad Alvear, who won a senate seat in December with the largest parliamentary vote.

In Peru’s April elections, women are also taking the lead. Christian Democratic candidate Lourdes Flores is well ahead in the polls, but others include Jeanette Enmanuel of the ruling Perú Posible and Keiko Sofía Fujimori leading the Alianza por el Futuro formed by followers of her father, former president Alberto Fujimori, under arrest in Chile awaiting an extradition ruling.

Evo Morales’s election in Bolivia represents ethnic groups until now absent from politics. That tendency will continue in 2006. In Peru a former army officer, Ollanta Humala, is second amongst presidential candidates. His Partido Nacionalista Peruano (PNP) has close connections with etnocacerismo, which claims to represent those of Amerindian descent, combined with a belief in the leadership of strong men. Both Morales and Humala are inspired by Venezuela’s president Hugo Chávez, but the authoritarian aspects of etnocacerismo distnguish it from the leftwing Morales and Chávez.

Another sign of democratisation will be greater electoral uncertainty. A key component of democracy, uncertainty, has been absent recently in Mexico where electoral results were preordained, or in Chile, where the Pinochet legacy prevented the right from being a credible alternative. Now, Michelle Bachelet is fighting for every vote in the second round with right-wing candidate Sebastián Piñera. Democratic uncertainty, too, in the Mexican presidentials of 2 July, where third-force candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, of the left-wing Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD) is well ahead. The two traditional parties, centre-left Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) and the conservative Partido Acción Nacional (PAN) fight for second place.

Even Haiti, with thirty-five presidential candidates for the 8 January poll (and a second round on 15 February), confirms the uncertainty trend. In Brazil, President Lula teases his supporters with re-election in November, but is likely to be deterred by the lead held by economist José Serra, Sao Paulo mayor and candidate of Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira.

Elsewhere results are predictable. In stable Costa Rica, such third forces as Partido Acción Ciudadana and Movimiento Libertario are not a real challenge and on 5 February Oscar Arias is the likely winner, although his Partido Liberación Nacional and the centre-right Partido Unidad Social Cristiana could lose their duopolistic control over congress. In Colombia and Venezuela, incumbents far-right Álvaro Uribe and left-wing Hugo Chávez are set to win re-election with ease.

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Todd Gitlin: A short wish-list

To harness hopes to practical prospects is the trick, and amidst the seasonal uplift I’d rather err on the hopeful side as long as I can walk there. So here are some hopes:

1. At least one Democratic house of Congress next November. The Senate looks more movable than the House, but if Bush doesn’t pull miracles out of his tin hat, either is (if remotely) possible.

2. A minimally decent Iraqi government that stands on its own tripod. Preferably one that can stitch together sensibles, secularists, and practical people of various tendencies with a conviction that they can manage without the Americans – or Iran.

3. Not unrelated to 2., an American commitment to renounce permanent bases in Iraq.

4. A new publisher of the New York Times, someone more grown-up than Arthur Sulzberger, Jr, less witless, less tolerant of servility in Washington. (For particulars, see Ken Auletta’s profile in the New Yorker (19 December 2005) and my own review of the Judy Miller/Bob Woodward follies in the January American Prospect.)

5. More indictments of high criminals and misdemeaniacs from Patrick Fitzgerald and other prosecutors looking into the malfeasances of Tom DeLay, Jack Abramoff, and other Republican grandees.

6. The Chinese Communist Party recognising that its legitimacy is in shreds and that the only way to recoup losses is to give free play to democratic currents – serious law, open debate, multiple parties.

7. A simultaneous decision by fundamentalists of all stripes that it’s long past time to tamp down their crazies.

8. From Europeans, deep recognition that integrating Muslims is hard – and necessary. From Americans, deep recognition that torture is a bad foreign policy. A lot less smugness all around.

9. Global post-Kyoto competition over who can invest more intelligently in sustainable, non-CO2-producing energy.

But before this list veers any closer to cloud-cuckooland, I’d better sign off. As the man said, you may say that I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.

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Colin Greer: Looking ahead

Senator Hillary Clinton recently introduced legislation to criminalise flag-burning, likening flag burners to Ku Klux Klan cross burners. She argued that the civil-rights offence of burning crosses and black people was equivalent to burning the flag. (Burning the flag has mostly been the act of those who protest against violence.)

The American flag is a Janus-like eagle. On the one hand, it is a bird of prey that organises the bubbling forces of economic insecurity and fear of attack into violent behaviour and paranoid organisational life. The other eagle is the one that the poet Ferlinghetti wrote about in the early 1950s. He, too, could feel the bubbling amid the McCarthyism and unreconstructed racism, and felt in it the possibilities that were gradually to emerge in the civil-rights movement, the women’s movement and Eugene McCarthy’s decision to step outside the lockstep of Congress and respond to, and call for, the public’s awareness and higher purpose.

Ferlinghetti wrote,

“I am waiting…
for the deepest South
to just stop Reconstructing itself
in its own image…
and I am waiting
for the American Eagle
to really spread its wings
and straighten up and fly right”

Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “waiting” was not a passive stance. It spoke to his sense of connectedness with the bubbling discontent rising in America. And he felt the forces of reaction raging like a staff infection through the body politic, and he anticipated that a new era was imminent.

As we enter 2006, the Democratic Party is in hiding behind its belief that the erosion of democracy is a necessary price to pay for staying in the political game. Hence, new limits on habeas corpus, exemptions on torture (even in the McCain bill) and the intrusion of Pentagon operatives into the domestic surveillance. Health care guarantees remain an anathema, and corporate corruption is treated like an itchy pimple, rather than the deep-seated destructive force that it is.

At the same time, the forthcoming 2006 elections will continue to bring into office young and progressive local elected officials, who are rebuilding the Democratic Party from the bottom-up, and who are reinventing government as an agent for addressing the health, jobs and environment issues that face communities all over the country. I certainly don’t expect the Congress to shift dramatically in 2006, but I think the forces for change will express themselves even more strongly in the cities and counties of America.

And I too, like Ferlinghetti, am waiting…for the American Eagle to straighten up and fly right.

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Jeremy Hardie: What has the US become?

For all except the Harold Pinters and the Donald Rumsfelds, who can live with any development in Iraq as confirmation of their blessedly certain views, what matters to most of us in 2006 must be the resolution of that terrible and bloody conundrum. So much ink has been spilled on why we were all wrong about weapons of mass destruction, whether it is all about oil really, whether Bush is wicked or stupid or incompetent or all three, that the central issue gets lost, whether Iraq can emerge as some sort of federal democracy. If only because that was the central idea of the neocons, it is hard for those hostile to, or bewildered by, the war to remember that now, that is all that matters.

So my best hope for 2006 must be that the heartwarming enthusiasm for free elections, the occasional glimmers of success for the Iraqi security services, the evident improvements in material prosperity, the continued restraint of mainstream Shi’a politicians, are not just the flickers of a dying fire, but evidence that this year, next year, but not just sometime, certainly not never, the Iraqis will get what they deserve.

Even more important, if that were possible, is what we all think of the United States when the dust has settled. William Shawcross has said that that if we have to be subject to a single global power, we should thank our lucky stars that it is the US, committed to freedom and the rule of law. That has been harder and harder to believe in 2005. Anyone can get intelligence wrong. Anyone can be guilelessly optimistic about reconstruction. No politician, however statesmanlike, can easily own up to mistakes. But Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo are not like that.

In Britain, the centre of the debate on torture has been the decision of the Law Lords that such evidence is not admissible, because the common law has, since the 17th century, held it to be dishonourable for the state to use such methods. The US debate has been almost entirely value free and instrumental, about how far you have to go to get what you need in the fight against terror. That is not the US that we were brought up to respect. Faking extra-territorial locations, such as Guantánamo, outside US law tears apart the principle that there should be a tight link between what is right and what is lawful. What kind of people have the Americans become?

So my best hope for 2006 is that we can come to answer that question happily, and that the US is still what we thought it was. That will matter more than the result of this or that military adventure, however tragic. My worst fear is that something has gone badly wrong with how the US believes it should and can conduct itself as the leader of what used to be called the free world.

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Caspar Henderson: Climate change and law

openDemocracy's invitation to make a prediction for 2006 came to me shortly after I read Louis Menand's report on expert political judgment by the psychologist Philip Tetlock. This shows pretty convincingly that human beings who spend their lives studying the state of the world are worse forecasters than monkeys throwing darts at a board that depicts a range of possible future outcomes.

So in my attempt to look like a wise monkey, I will go for something that looks as if it has some mathematical likelihood. Currently, there are about ten cases against major corporations and other entities for their role in causing damaging climate change (see Climate Law). With the scientific basis for attributing liability becoming increasingly robust, and what with there being so many cases in process, my prediction is that at least one judgement will find in favour of the plaintiff during 2006.

A polluter being found liable and being penalised for emissions of greenhouse gases could do more to stir up the political debate surrounding climate change than almost anything else to date (which is not hard, given that the recent talks in Montreal "will not open any negotiations leading to new commitments").

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Diego Hidalgo: The United States and the world

An important development that I am hoping for in the United States in 2006 is not exactly a dose of humility, but a gradual realisation by the Bush administration that its foreign policy, far from winning hearts and minds from people around the world, is alienating them, has weakened US soft and hard power and jeopardised US interests.

Moreover, the US electorate might react to the deteriorating situation in the important November mid-term elections. A change in Congress, already more visible than in the executive branch, could allow a serious dialogue between the US, the European Union and other important powers on issues of global concern. These include a concerted response to terrorism, already initiated by the Club of Madrid’s Summit on Democracy, Terrorism and Security in March 2005 (see the Madrid Agenda), followed up by the US Summit in September, the conflicts in the middle east, the deteriorating situation in many countries in Latin America, the International Criminal Court, the Kyoto protocol on the environment, the antimissile system, protectionism, and the decline in US foreign aid.

The participation of international civil society with institutions like the International Toledo Center for Peace, the Geneva accords and other actors is increasingly important to foster US and EU efforts in the prevention and resolution of conflicts.

Another hope is that a new leadership will emerge both in the European Union and in its main member states, after a disastrous 2005, and that, as a result, the EU will get back on its feet, face its challenges, and go on a path of economic reorganization and political integration.

My worst fear, other than unpredictable natural catastrophes or terrorist attacks, is that neither hope will materialise. Unless the United States changes course and the EU gets its act together, and both engage in a fruitful dialogue, I fear that 2006-2007 will see dire consequences.

First, a further serious and potentially irreversible deterioration in the middle east. The Israeli electorate may be under the delusion that unilateralism is the only approach that works. Ending efforts to reach a negotiated settlement could lead to a more serious intifada and more instability in the region. Israel may have temptations to deal on its own with Iran in the way Menachem Begin did in 1981. Iraq could easily become a failed state, fall into a civil war, and become a satellite of Iran.

Second, the Latin American crisis and Chávez’s success in Venezuela might extend to Bolivia, Ecuador and even Peru, which would produce a serious deterioration of democracy in the region and increase a destabilisation of the whole region.

Third, without a concerted effort between a more forward-looking and enlightened US administration and European Union, the efforts of Tony Blair, Bill Clinton's Global Initiative and Mary Robinson's Ethical Globalisation Initiative, among others, to find solutions for the growing despair in Africa could be thwarted.

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Eric Hobsbawm: What’s in store

Events are unpredictable, but trends are not.

In 2005 natural disasters were more destructive than those caused by humans: the tsunami, Asian earthquakes, hurricanes and Aids killed more people and destroyed more property than human conflicts. Nobody can predict whether this will continue but we shall certainly pay a rising price in 2006 for our failure to deal with the effects of uncontrolled economic growth on the environment.

The global decline of warfare continued in 2005, in spite of Iraq and Darfur, but it brought no diminution of human suffering. The number of refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced persons – 70-80% of them women and children – has shown no sign of decrease over the past few years, and, even in the Sudan, the number of those dying from malnutrition and disease is probably twice as large as those dying from violence. This situation is unlikely to improve in 2006, though major armed conflicts, while not impossible, are not very likely. Iraq has probably limited Washington’s taste for armed aggression. The casualties of global terrorism will remain statistically negligible.

An unusual number of national policies and international projects failed in 2005. The USA suffered severe setbacks both in Iraq and Latin America, the European constitution lies in ruins, while the unlimited expansion of the EU to any country other than Russia is treading water, as is the reform of the union’s finances. So, thanks to the resistance of the major developing countries, are the WTO negotiations, and, for different reasons, the attempts to deal with global warming, and to reform the United Nations. 2006 is very unlikely to bring a major breakthrough in any of these fields.

On the other hand, in economics and diplomacy, south and east Asia, south America and, thanks to oil and Putin, even Russia had a good 2005, though at the cost of steeply rising economic inequality, seen especially in China, the new century’s outstanding success story. In 2006 a common alignment of China, India, Brazil and Russia may prove to be a more effective restraint on US ambitions than a troubled European Union.

From the point of view of democracy, the major positive developments to be expected in 2006 should derive from the spectacular advances of internet communications which are increasingly beyond the effective control of either national governments or other centres of monopoly power, and from the resistance of law courts to political pressures in the developed countries, but unfortunately not (yet) in most of Africa and Asia. On the negative side we expect continuing corruption and spreading xenophobia, backed by anti-immigrant controls.

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Saad Eddin Ibrahim: Arab democratisation at the crossroads

The year 2005 was momentous in the Arab World. Palestine and Iraq held critical elections; Egypt witnessed the announcement of an overdue initiative of constitutional reform, which in turn triggered a series of democratic openings, including the country’s first contested presidential election in September and an overheated end-of-year parliamentary election. In February a tragic event befell Lebanon: the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, which rocked the country with tremors that have been vibrating in the region and beyond.

These dramatic events have so far yielded the following consequences: Syria’s forced withdrawal of troops from Lebanon after nearly thirty years of occupation; the holding of new parliamentary elections in Lebanon; and a UN-mandated criminal investigation into Hariri’s assassination. Even Saudi Arabia, long considered a political backwater of the region, had its first – admittedly modest – municipal elections. Kuwait finally granted its women equal political rights with men: they can now vote and run for public office.

Qatar passed its first political charter on the road to a constitutional monarchy. The United Arab Emirates announced similar constitutional changes toward more power sharing and accountable governance. President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen announced his intention to step down after more than a quarter century and called on his people to elect a successor from among multiple candidates. In late December 2005 two more elections were scheduled, in Palestine and Iraq, for municipal leaders and a new parliament, respectively.

Just one year earlier, not even the most pro-democracy optimist could have predicted these political developments, no matter how sorely they might have desired them. Some outside observers rushed in to proclaim an imminent “Arab spring” of freedom. Others, citing a long record of disappointments, dismissed the same events as a mirage. But, regardless of the designation, the events were real and are bound to resonate in 2006.

It is likely that in the coming year we will see the continued growth of the forces of Arab civil society, which have displayed remarkable vigour in 2005. Witness the sustained demonstrations, acts of civil disobedience, appearance of new independent media and determined local election monitoring in Egypt. Support for these trends emanates from both internal dynamics and external pressures.

Meanwhile, at home there is growing resentment of rigid autocrats (Mubarak, Ben Ali, Qaddafi, Assad, Saleh) and outright fear of fanatical theocrats (whether militants, such as those dominating headlines in Iraq and Palestine, or milder versions in Egypt and elsewhere). Ordinary citizens are searching for new political alternatives. Democrats think that they can provide the way forward, and a few, like this author, are encouraging moderate Islamists and secularists to begin speaking to each other in Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Iraq, and Palestine.

Herein lies the hope for a new social contract, one that can sustain an orderly transition to democratic governance. The worldwide community of democracies can – and should – lend them a strong, but discreet, hand in the coming year.

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