Dispatch

A Land Without a Rudder

Greeks are clearly relieved to have crushed a corroded old political system, but now there's nothing workable to replace it.

ATHENS – The only thing that's clear after the contentious and chaotic Greek parliamentary elections, which appear to be headed for a revote in June, is that Greeks are willing to go to extremes to find an alternative to the country's current malaise. Most Greek media have long vilified the Coalition of the Radical Left, known as Syriza, as crazed ideologues who incite riots. But late Sunday evening, all eyes were on Syriza's telegenic leader, a 37-year-old engineer named Alexis Tsipras. "The people of Europe can no longer be reconciled with the bailouts of barbarism," he told state-run NET TV. "European leaders, and especially Ms. Merkel, should realize that her policies have undergone a crushing defeat."

Merkel is sticking to her script, saying Greece still has to follow through on the tough terms of the bailout. Market analysts, meanwhile, continue to downgrade Greece's chances of surviving in the single currency.

Syriza got less than 5 percent of the vote in 2009, but on Sunday, May 6, the party emerged as the freshest face in Greek politics, finishing second with almost 17 percent of the vote -- its best-ever showing. It finished just behind conservative New Democracy and ahead of the long-powerful PASOK, the mainstream socialist party virtually demolished by the debt crisis. New Democracy and PASOK have jointly dominated Greek politics for the last four decades, but this time, voters blamed them for bankrupting the country and then accepting EU-imposed austerity measures in exchange for billions in bailout loans.

The economic crisis has dramatically reshaped Greek society, and these elections revealed just how fractured the country is right now. Both Tsipras and New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras failed to woo partners for a coalition government. Tsipras couldn't find allies for a governing alliance of leftist parties that would nationalize the country's banks and cancel austerity measures by reneging on the terms of the current loan agreement. He said he would only work with PASOK and New Democracy if they publicly renounced the bailout. The leaders of both parties refused. "Mr. Tsipras asks me to accept Greece's exit from the euro and the country's bankruptcy," Samaras told reporters on Wednesday.

The question that's paralyzing Greeks right now is essentially one about sovereignty. Since they don't want to accept the harsh terms that foreign lenders have imposed in return for aid, what's the other path they should take and what consequences will it have? And who is capable enough to lead them through it?

PASOK and New Democracy had a hard time handling even local problems, such as the rising crime and decay that have turned some central Athens neighborhoods into polarized, drug-infested ghettos where Greeks and new immigrants from South Asia and Africa -- many of them undocumented -- don't mix. More than 90 percent of Europe's illegal immigrants enter through Greece. Both the European Union and the Greek government have failed spectacularly to manage the rising social crisis stemming from the massive influx of jobless and often desperate people. Many end up stuck in Athens, homeless or living in severely overcrowded and unsafe buildings. Greek police attribute about 60 percent of the city center's crime to illegal immigrants, many of whom are trying to pay off the traffickers who brought them in. The growing fear of immigrant crime has fueled the rise of Chrysi Avgi, or Golden Dawn, an ultranationalist, fascist party that's best known for inciting violent attacks on undocumented migrants and employing Nazi-esque iconography. Leila Hassan, a 20-year-old mother of two from Somalia, said she was attacked by a gang of young men while walking with her toddler daughter. "They hit me in the face and yelled, 'Mavro! Mavro!'" she said, using the Greek word for black.

Golden Dawn says it's focused on protecting, not attacking. When I first spoke to spokesman Ilias Panagiotaros several months ago, he pointed out that elderly people in central Athens were too afraid to leave their homes because they would get attacked by "gangs of Afghans." Golden Dawn members escort grandmothers to ATMs, the supermarket, even church. "The police don't do anything here, so we have to do it ourselves," he said. "We are about action and we give results. People see that, and they will vote us into Parliament."

And that's exactly what happened on Sunday. In 2009, when Greeks still ostracized the party as neo-Nazi thugs, Golden Dawn got just 0.23 percent of the vote. Now rebranded as patriots for rabidly opposing the bailout and declaring, "Greece belongs to the Greeks," the party won a stunning 7 percent of the vote and 21 seats in Parliament. At a voting precinct in the central Athens neighborhood of Patissa, my mother heard several people, most of them elderly, proudly declare their support for Golden Dawn. "They're going to win and then the next day we won't have any debt!" my mother says she heard one old man exclaim to an approving crowd.

It didn't seem to matter that many of these same voters lived through the horrific Nazi occupation of World War II, which killed tens of thousands of Greeks. The night of the election, a taxi driver in his 60s actually told me that "World War II was a long time ago and these are different Nazis." The point, he said, is that Golden Dawn "will clean up Greece by force." Party leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos is an aging former army commando who gave the Nazi salute after being elected to the Athens municipal council in 2010. "Those who betrayed the motherland, you should be scared now," he said on Sunday, celebrating after his party's big win.

Mainstream politicians realized that Golden Dawn's anti-immigrant, tough-on-crime message was resonating with voters, so they adapted it for their own campaigns. New Democracy's Samaras declared that Greeks had to "take back our cities" from illegal immigrants. Michalis Chrysochoidis, a PASOK deputy who served as public order minister in the caretaker government, ordered the construction of dozens of detention centers to keep immigrants until they were deported. Former Public Health Minister Andreas Loverdos, also of PASOK, blamed immigrants and drug-addicted prostitutes for spreading infectious diseases. He and Chrysochoidis released the names and photos of 12 prostitutes with HIV but sidestepped questions by Greek journalists about the government's failure to curb the illegal sex and drug trades in Athens. "Targeting and stigmatizing people as health risks doesn't solve any problems," said Apostolos Veizis, head of the medical support unit of Medicins Sans Frontiers-Greece. "It's based on the most cynical kind of politics."

Though Sunday's elections have left the country in political deadlock, they did relieve the pent-up fury over the perception that the bailout agreement had usurped Greeks' rights to decide their own course. The most ardent anti-austerity protesters called former premier George Papandreou's elected government a junta for going along with EU-imposed austerity measures. When Papandreou resigned in November to make way for a caretaker government run by appointed premier Lucas Papademos, former vice president of the European Central Bank, the protesters ridiculed the coalition as "the Republic of Bankistan."

Many Greeks said they felt like foreign powers were forcing austerity down the country's throat. Papandreou, the American-born scion of Greece's most prominent political family, is a Europhile who believes that the European Union and Greece can work together. Last October, he declared that he wanted to put the bailout to a public referendum. He says he wanted Greeks to feel like they owned the program, which he believes will keep the country in the eurozone, but his announcement instead incited a wave of panic in international markets, in the corridors of power at the European Union, and in the apartments of bewildered Athenians.

Papandreou says he still thinks Greeks would have voted for the bailout, despite austerity's pain, because Greeks believe in the euro and the European Union. Polls show that almost 70 percent of Greeks want the country to keep the euro as its currency. "Austerity is killing my business, but I imagine the drachma would kill it more quickly," says Christos Tsoutsas, a 65-year-old metal shop owner in Athens. "I imagine we will go bankrupt and there won't be money to pay pensions or hospitals or even turn on the city lights. And, anyway, the euro shows we have become modern. It shows that we are part of something bigger and not just struggling on our own."

But that same poll shows that Greeks also want a euro without austerity. The bailout loans that are keeping the country solvent come from the troika of the European Union, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. The troika is most concerned about deficit targets, which the Greek government has tried to meet in part by imposing wage and pension cuts and hiking taxes. As a result, many Greeks are struggling to survive on sharply reduced incomes during a devastating recession that has now dragged into its fifth year. Unemployment has climbed to 21 percent. More than 100,000 small businesses shut down last year. Suicides have increased by at least 40 percent in the last two years, according to government data. It's not unusual anymore to see people rummaging through dumpsters for food or sleeping on ragged blankets outside storefronts. A couple of weeks ago, I saw a family of four begging for money near Syntagma Square next to a cardboard sign that read "Recently Homeless." The father, a sweet-looking man who looked to be his 30s, hung his head in shame as he held out a paper coffee cup and his pigtailed daughter slept on his lap.

"All the problems with austerity are starting to crystallize in the minds of Greeks," says Megan Greene, head of the Western Europe team at Roubini Global Economics. "They see that the medicine is killing the patient. They see that this path likely means at least a decade of depression. They want to know, is the euro even worth it?"

Syriza's double-punch to European austerity and Greece's fossilized politics blew open that debate. "There's another way to get Greece out of debt besides austerity," said Aris Papadopoulos, a 36-year-old computer programmer and Syriza voter. "I want us to have that debate. I want to see practical alternatives and not just this bailout-or-die discussion."

On Sunday evening, he and his girlfriend, an architect named Eliana Voutsadakis, celebrated Syriza's victory with about 500 supporters at the party's kiosk outside the neoclassical Academy of Athens. They hugged and shared Fix beers and waved at cars honking in approval. They cheered when Tsipras stopped by to thank the crowd.

Across town, Golden Dawn supporters celebrated their party's entry into Parliament by lighting flares and shouting. "Foreigners out of Greece!" and "Greece belongs to the Greeks!" When Michaloliakos walked in, beefy bodyguards sporting black T-shirts and shaved heads demanded that journalists stand to attention. One of those bodyguards, Giorgos Germenis, wears fake blood and spiked bracelets and wields knives as the bassist of a death-metal band. He's now a new member of Parliament representing Athens.

The two scenes show just how polarized Greece is right now. Greeks are clearly relieved to have crushed a corroded old political system, but they now see there's nothing workable to replace it. Maybe Sunday's vote was just a collective middle finger to a political elite that clearly lost touch with the people's travails. Maybe the next election will bring in more problem-solvers and fewer fascists. The nervous Europeans watching this volatile Greek drama hope that's the case. The Greeks living the drama just want it, at last, to end.

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Dispatch

Prison Island

Bahrain has badly botched its local version of the Arab Spring. And there seems to be no way out.

MANAMA, Bahrain — When the boys at the head of the column bolted, so did we. A colleague and I had been observing their nighttime march through Diraz, an older, poorer suburb of Bahrain's capital mostly populated by members of the country's Shiite majority. Teenagers and young men walked in front, women in black chadors behind them, chanting "down with Hamad" -- Bahrain's king. The protest was intended as a rebuke to the Formula One auto race Bahrain's ruling family was about to stage in late April to show the world that all was well in the Gulf kingdom after a ruthless crackdown on dissent and more than a year of unrest.

We watched as the youth of Diraz peacefully made their way toward a main road. The riot police waited for them there. Maybe we should have stood fast, on the notion that police chase those who run. But when Bahrain's finest suppress demonstrations, they often fire birdshot and tear-gas canisters directly into the crowd. And the magic words "I am an American" have an effective range far shorter than that of a riot gun.

So we sprinted away with the scattered marchers down one darkened alley, then another. When it was clear the neighborhood was surrounded, we took shelter in a house. The police broke in and pepper-sprayed our eyes; I spoke the magic words, which seemed to calm matters, though we heard screams coming from other parts of the house.

At the police station, we waited as they verified our permission to be in the country. Outside, police tear-gassed mothers of the boys arrested with us, who had come to demand their sons' release. The gas drifted into the station. Everyone -- police, protesters, and we two foreigners -- tasted the sting of Bahrain's crackdown on dissent and its inexorable blowback.

Two days later, we met Maj. Gen. Tariq al-Hassan, Bahrain's chief of public security. We chatted amiably about our experience, reassuring him that we were not mistreated. But we also told him about what we had heard from families in a village next door to Diraz. Their sons had been arrested after a demonstration earlier that week and were taken to the same police station where we'd been detained. Superficially, their story was the same as that of the protesters arrested with us, with two exceptions: No foreigners were watching, and according to multiple eyewitnesses, police had beaten them brutally after their arrest, throwing some off the roof of a building onto a neighboring balcony.

In November 2011, Bahrain had a golden chance to end this kind of police brutality for good. King Hamad had appointed the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, chaired by the esteemed international jurist Cherif Bassiouni, to look into the human rights violations committed when the country's pro-democracy movement was suppressed last year. Bassiouni wrote an honest report, documenting the arrest and torture of opposition leaders and urging far-reaching reforms to punish those responsible and end human rights abuses. To his credit, the king accepted the report and promised to implement it. The government dropped charges against some dissidents accused of speech "crimes," reinstated many people who had been dismissed from work and school for attending protests, and reduced abuse of prisoners in formal detention facilities.

Since then, the momentum has dissipated. There has been no real resumption of dialogue between the government and opposition to pursue what moderates on both sides agree is the only viable solution to Bahrain's crisis -- a constitutional monarchy in which government ministers are chosen by an elected parliament rather than appointed by the king. This course of action would necessarily give Bahrain's Shiite majority more say in running the country, a prospect that is anathema to portions of the island's ruling family as well as its regional backers.

The government has also not ended human rights abuses against protesters. As we would see during our visit, police torture and abuse have simply moved from police stations to the alleyways and back lots of Shiite villages. The courts have agreed to retry key opposition leaders, but the government still refuses to release them, though their convictions were based on nothing more than the content of their speeches and participation in meetings and rallies challenging the monarchy. Also, for the first time in months, there is no approaching milestone -- no committee to be appointed, or report to be issued, or deadline to be met -- that might give moderate leaders reason to ask their people to be patient. The absence of hope is radicalizing both sides.

Relentless messaging in official media has convinced many Sunni supporters of the monarchy that opposition calls for democracy are an Iranian plot to impose a Shiite theocracy on Bahrain. Some demand that the king reject any compromise. Additionally, there are growing whispers about Sunni jihadi groups taking advantage of these fears to gain a foothold on the island. Meanwhile, in opposition strongholds, protesters who are beaten and gassed only come back more angry and determined to confront the police. In this climate, the toughest boys, the ones who fight back, become the heroes. Opposition leaders who preach nonviolence risk being marginalized.

At the Interior Ministry, police officials showed us videos of protesters throwing Molotov cocktails at police. In the opening sequences, the gas bombs are thrown from a distance; as the weeks go by the protesters get closer, until they are right in the officers' faces before dousing them with flames. The officials wanted us to see what their police go through, and they succeeded. Inadvertently, they also showed us that their repressive tactics are failing. Protesters are not retreating -- they are losing their fear.

Much of Bahrain's police force consists of Sunni foreigners, recruited from countries like Syria, Pakistan, and Yemen. Sent to subdue Shiite neighborhoods that are alien territory, they seem bewildered by the youth who come at them every night. Some may also be transposing their homegrown prejudices onto Bahrain's struggle. A Bahraini college student told me that after being arrested at a protest, a Syrian policeman, obviously from that country's Sunni majority, beat him while shouting, "Do you like Bashar al-Assad? He is killing my family."

If King Hamad hopes to break this vicious cycle of violence, he will have to assert the authority he is so eager to preserve and make a bold gesture soon, even at the risk of angering his hard-line family and supporters. The best way to do this would be to release Bahrain's remaining imprisoned opposition leaders, including Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, a hero to the young Shiite protesters who has been on hunger strike for more than 80 days. If freed and given a stake in the political process, these leaders might have the moral authority to calm opposition supporters and restore their faith in peaceful struggle.

The hard-liners in the ruling family don't want to release these men because some called for replacing the monarchy rather than reforming it. But there may be another factor: Although most of the remaining high-profile prisoners are more uncompromising than the leaders of al-Wefaq, Bahrain's main legal Shiite opposition party, some are also arguably more secular. One, Ibrahim Sharif, is the Sunni leader of a secular-left party; another, Abduljalil al-Singace, is a human rights activist and political leader who studied under U.S. President Barack Obama's ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, at Stanford University.

Government hard-liners want the world to believe that the conflict in Bahrain is strictly sectarian, with all Sunnis on one side and all Shiites -- manipulated by Iran -- on the other. This helps them generate support from their base and from other Sunni monarchies, while making Western governments wary of the protest movement. It allows them to make the argument one government minister used on me: "The king wants an elected government, but first we need a nonsectarian opposition."

Meanwhile, they keep some of the strongest secular-minded leaders in jail.

Some critics of the Obama administration accuse it of siding with Bahrain's ruling family and being silent about its repression. The truth is more complex. Last year, State Department officials made an all-out effort to broker a compromise between the government and al-Wefaq, a deal that ultimately fell apart. When the king decreed emergency rule, the United States helped convince him not to ban the opposition party and, later, to appoint the Bassiouni Commission and release many detainees. But few Bahrainis in the opposition give the United States any credit for its actions because it has exerted pressure quietly, always leavened with public pledges of fealty to the U.S.-Bahraini partnership. The contrast with America's condemnation of abuses in Syria and Libya is, to them, obvious and painful. As one of Bahrain's most popular opposition figures, Nabeel Rajab, has said, "The Western governments have supported the other revolutions and are tough against dictators. We want one policy. We don't want to be treated differently."

Bahrain gets different treatment, of course, because it hosts the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, helping the U.S. military project its might in the Gulf and contain Iran. U.S. military leaders have backed up the State Department in urging King Hamad to reform, but balk at any statement or action that they fear would jeopardize their base. While they acknowledge that Bahrain's repression of its Shiite population plays into Iran's hands, they worry about what would happen if the Shiites won their rights. One U.S. commander recently told me, "If there were one-man, one-vote in Bahrain, we wouldn't be here."

In fact, the most prominent leaders of Bahrain's dissident movement say they do not oppose the U.S. military presence in their country. No one knows whether that sentiment will hold in the face of continued repression, but from the U.S. point of view, that is an argument for urgency in demanding reform, not caution. Bahrain's Shiite majority isn't likely to be kept down forever. It is surely in the U.S. interest to be seen supporting its legitimate aspirations before disappointment in the United States devolves into rage.

The problem with U.S. policy toward Bahrain is not that it takes geopolitics into account. It's that U.S. officials may be calculating the geopolitics incorrectly. There is a growing feeling in the Middle East that, however high-minded Obama's rhetoric about democracy may be, the United States will always line up with its autocratic Sunni allies in the Persian Gulf against their opponents, especially if those opponents are Shiite. To many, it looks like the United States opposes dictators like Syria's Assad not for the sake of oppressed people, but to aid one side in a Saudi-Iranian cold war. The Iranian government, as well as every anti-American group in the region, benefits from this perception. Bahrain is the place where America can disprove it.

In May 2011, Obama condemned the Bahraini government's use of "brute force" and said there could be no "real dialogue" in Bahrain "when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail." The administration should be projecting more of that kind of clarity and urgency today -- for the sake of both principle and national interest. Weapons sales to Bahrain should remain suspended until the government eases up on peaceful protest and resumes political reform. While it is true that the U.S. security partnership with Bahrain gives it a degree of influence with the ruling family, it is time to convey what is equally true -- that America's military presence on the island won't be sustainable if the government responds to protest by intensifying violent repression to an intolerable point. If Bahrain's rulers believe the United States will continue to depend on them no matter what they do, they will be less likely to heed U.S. concerns. Showing a willingness to reconsider the partnership may be the best way to save it.

When we were released from detention, we walked out to the courtyard of the police station, where Rajab, the activist, waited for us. A youth I later interviewed told me that police had made him shout "down with Nabeel Rajab" as they beat him after an arrest. But here was Rajab, having a good-natured conversation with policemen and government officials. Nearby, a well known blogger who had been arrested with us calmly debated a police official who was upset because the activist had accused him of torture on Twitter.

Bahrain is almost broken, but not entirely so. The government is persecuting its critics, but not killing them on a large scale as in Syria. As everyone we met told us, Bahrain is a small country: The protagonists on both sides know each other, and there still seems to be room for compromise. But the window is rapidly closing, and once it shuts -- as in Syria -- it will be hard to turn back. Preventing this outcome by holding Bahrain to the commitments it made to the Bassiouni Commission, and encouraging political compromise, is America's paramount interest in Bahrain.

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