Dispatch

The Rise of Germany's Tea Party

Could a brand-new, anti-euro political movement threaten Merkel's quest for a third term?

BERLIN — As if dysfunctional Italians, resentful Greeks, and reluctant Cypriots weren't enough trouble, German Chancellor Angela Merkel now faces an obstacle much closer to home in her efforts to save Europe's monetary union from collapse. And with elections upcoming, she might even have a game-changing challenger on her doorstep.

The new anti-euro Alternative for Germany (AfD) party is well-positioned to capitalize on rising voter discontent with tax-payer bailouts of mismanaged and corrupt southern European governments. The party's self-confident leader, Bernd Lucke, sees a chance to defeat Merkel's wobbly governing coalition in September's federal election. "Many of Angela Merkel's supporters will vote for us. And when she loses public support, this will be the end of her political life," Lucke said recently. If this happens, it could put Merkel's triage efforts, and perhaps the entire effort to save the eurozone, into jeopardy.

Lucke is a deeply sober and analytical 50-year-old economics professor at the University of Hamburg. He spent 33 years as a card-carrying member of Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union party (CDU), before founding AfD this February. For Lucke, the tipping point came in 2010, when Germany bailed out Greece in violation of the EU's founding document, the Maastricht treaty. He told the Telegraph that "It communicated the feeling that governments were not bound by law, and it introduced a policy which was economically misguided. It made me feel homeless in my party."

Now, his new party seeks to abolish the euro and return Germany to the Deutsche mark, which passed out of existence in 2002 with the introduction of the common currency. He argues that a phased-in process of currency reform could enable the Deutsche mark to again become Germany's currency by 2020. According to Lucke, this would relieve Germany of the burden of carrying the debt for bankrupt or near-bankrupt southern European countries and decrease the current tensions and resentments in Europe.

In April, the party's 1,300 members elected Lucke -- along with entrepreneur and chemist Frauke Petry and journalist Konrad Adam -- to lead AfD. And though it's still in its infancy, the party seems primed to take advantage of Germany's growing anti-euro sentiment. According to a 2010 Infratest Dimap poll, 57 percent of German citizens regret the introduction of the euro; more than one-third would like the Deutsche mark to be, once again, immediately reinstated as the country's currency.

Still, Lucke's new party has a ways to go. According to an April poll by the research institute INSA-Meinungstrend, the AfD could secure 4 percent of the vote in the federal election. And yet the numbers show the AfD cutting into Merkel's constituency. Just weeks after the party's conference in April, AfD membership enrollment continues its steady climb from a little over 5,000 registered members in late March to nearly 10,000 now. The AfD's treasurer Norbert Stenzel told the German daily Rheinische Post in late April that "at this time we are winning between 100 and 200 new members each day."

The popularity is not hard to understand. A significant portion of Germany's now has serious doubts about the economic viability of southern European countries -- Italy, Portugal, Spain, Greece, and Cyprus -- and is getting fed up with being called Nazis every time they try to impose fiscal discipline on those begging for a handout. Take the example of Spain's large left-of-center daily, El Pais, which published an opinion piece in late March calling Merkel's behavior "Hitler-like" because her economic policies are the functional equivalent of a declaration of war on Europe. The paper later apologized for the Nazi parallel, but German's robust modern democracy doesn't take such comparisons lightly.

It has been a rough March and April on the European front for the domestically popular Merkel. Her austerity policies triggered France's governing socialist party to term her conduct "egotistical intransigence." Merkel's disciplined remedy of roping in spending has been a sore point for the anti-frugal French socialists. Nevertheless, the attacks on Merkel proved to be too excessive for the party's leadership who are not keen to pick public fights with Europe's chief economic engine. France's interior minister Manuel Valls promptly condemned his party's attack on Merkel as "irresponsible, demagogic and noxious."

Putting aside the charged EU debate about austerity versus capital infusion to spur European economic growth, Germans always viewed the birth of the euro with skepticism. The introduction of the new currency in 2002 prompted a coinage, "Teuro" -- teuer is German for "expensive" -- to lampoon the increased prices associated with the new currency. The Association for the German language even named "Teuro" the word of the year in 2002.

Eleven years on, euroskepticism seems to have reached a new peak. Even Kai Konrad, one of Merkel's most prominent economic advisors, recently predicted the demise of the currency in an interview with Die Welt. "Europe is important to me. Not the euro, " he said. "And I would only give the euro a limited chance of survival."

In this environment, the AfD's emergence seems almost inevitable. And yet the AfD can sometimes seem like a bit of a contradiction. On the one the hand, it puts opposition to the euro front and center on its homepage: "An end to this euro!" On the other hand, as Lucke told the German magazine Focus, "We are for the European market [but without the European common currency]." And he's also for maintaining unity among the 27 members of the EU in foreign policy, bank oversight, and defense.

Under Lucke's preferred scenario, "Greece, Cyprus, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and probably France" would leave the euro right away. An ensuing transitional phase of four to five years would take place with co-existing euro and national currencies. The belt-tightening, fiscally responsible Northern European countries (with the euro) during the interim phase would be pitted against the Southern European countries charged with living too high on the hog. It's survival of the fittest. 

Lucke has become a ubiquitous presence in the German media and has worked hard to distance his organization from charges of extremism. Of course, a fringe anti-euro party is sure to attract some members embracing uglier strains of nationalism. The Rheinische Post noted that some AfD members and supporters write for the Junge Freiheit, an ultra-right wing newspaper that, critics argue, has chauvinistic and racist articles blanketing its pages. But as Lucke told the Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel in late April, "We do not want any anti-Semites, racists or xenophobes in our ranks." Lucke said the AfD discharged a member who covered up his membership in the extremist right-wing National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD).

He has evidently learned lessons the missteps of another once promising political movement, the anti-copyright, pro-Internet freedom Pirate Party. Last year, that party, which had enjoyed some impressive successes in local elections, was engulfed in string of highly controversial outbreaks of alleged anti-Semitism. A Pirate Party candidate seeking a position on the national board called for criminal penalties in Germany to be lifted against Holocaust denial. He was not elected. Dietmar Moews, who sought to be a Pirate Party federal candidate, criticized "world Jewry" and caused a large section of his fellow members at the national meeting to boo him and walk out of the party's conference.

In contrast to the high-tech, web-savvy members of the Pirates, however, the AfD is a bit more wonky. There's at least 30 "Professor Doctor" abbreviations on the party's homepage -- teachers of economics, engineers, and finance. But the AfD does mirror the the Pirates in another key way. Both parties are largely defined by a one-issue electoral agenda and are not terribly concerned about foreign policy matters beyond Europe.

To the degree that the AfD expresses positions on non-euro issues, they tend to be vaguely socially conservative. The AfD bemoans that "Germany has too few children" and calls for the Federal Republic to become "children and family friendly," a strain of American-style conservatism that has led some journalists to label the group the "German Tea Party."

It is unclear if the AfD will surpass the required 5 percent voter hurdle in September to enter the Bundestag. A late April Forsa poll showed only 2 percent projected voter turnout for the party. The head of the polling institute Forsa, Manfred Güllner, told Stern magazine that the AfD would not endanger Merkel's governing coalition, which has brought together the CDU and its sister party, the Bavarian-based Christian Social Union, as well as the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP). But let's remember: this party's only been around for a couple months. And in this electoral climate, anything's possible.

Nonetheless, the traditional powerful parties in the Bundestag -- the Social Democrats (SPD) and the CDU -- are filled with some level of anxiety about the rise of this new protest party. In a detailed report in the conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in late April, the paper's Berlin-based political correspondent Majid Sattar revealed that the two major parties had conducted opposition research to blunt the growth and attraction of the AfD. Meanwhile, the Konrad Adenauer Foundation (KAS) -- a think tank affiliated with MerkeI's CDU party -- issued a study arguing that the AfD should be taken seriously but should not be "upgraded through ongoing public debates."

Chancellor Merkel won't probably lose that much sleep over the AfD. Germany's unemployment rate hasn't been this low since 1990. Her poll ratings continue to remain solid and she's on track to win a third term. According to an April ZDF poll, Merkel leads her social democratic opponent and main challenger Peer Steinbrück by a 36 percent margin.

And if she prevails on Sept. 22, she'll become the longest serving female head of state in Europe since the late Margaret Thatcher. The AfD might not be able to stop the new Iron Lady but if she intends to govern, she can't really ignore the strain of public sentiment they represent.

JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images

Dispatch

Beirut's Bastille

The free-for-all inside Lebanon's most notorious prison.

ROUMIEH, LebanonThe smell of Roumieh prison hits you as soon as the gates open. It's the unmistakable odor of thousands of unwashed bodies mingled with human excrement, and it clings stubbornly to the gray walls surrounding the dismal courtyard where prisoners congregate. This morning, a face appears briefly in one of the barred windows about three floors up -- it's a bearded sheikh holding a cell phone to his ear. He surveys the inmates, who are just beginning to gather in the sunlight; then he retreats out of sight.

"This place is just like the rest of Lebanon, but inside four walls," says Georges, a neat, grandfatherly-looking man in his 60s. "It's almost better here than outside because we've become a kind of family."

Georges, whose name has been changed, has served 24 years of the life sentence he received after being convicted of murdering his wife, a crime that he denies. A Maronite Christian, he is one of the prisoners, known as shaweesh, who are assigned responsibility over the other inmates in his block.

"Every day, we have difficulties here," he says. "It's terrible. Too many people, bad food, no clean water to drink.… The food is a little better since two years ago, when some of the prisoners made a sort of intifada and burned down the kitchen. So the government bought us a new one."

Roumieh is the largest prison in Lebanon, housing around 3,700 inmates, and it has long had a reputation for human rights violations. Recently, however, it has been making headlines for another reason: The inmates seem to be running the prison. Since the beginning of the year, there have been three riots -- one in which 10 guards were taken hostage -- and two foiled jailbreak attempts. In an apparent effort to minimize such incidents, the state has largely abdicated responsibility for what goes on inside Roumieh.

In perhaps the most depressing way, Roumieh is a microcosm of Lebanese life outside the prison walls. Just as on the outside, political connections and money are the most powerful currencies, violence is used to solve disputes, and the state is virtually absent.

Block B, which houses suspected Sunni Islamist militants, is the focal point for the vast majority of security breaches inside Roumieh. Some of the Islamists belong to the militant Salafi organization Fatah al-Islam, which clashed with the Lebanese Army at the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp in 2007, leaving 168 soldiers dead. Some 215 Fatah al-Islam members were subsequently arrested, most of whom call Roumieh's Block B home. These Islamists have now assumed a position at the top of the prison's bizarre sociopolitical hierarchy.

According to Father Marwan Ghanem, former general chaplain of prisons in Lebanon and president of Nusroto, an NGO that works in Roumieh, the Islamists draw on a deep reservoir of resources not available to your average inmate.

"They're kind of an Islamic mafia," he says. "They have a lot of political support from the Lebanese government and from Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar. If the police want to raid Block B, they immediately get a phone call from someone telling them not to."

Ghanem says the Islamist prisoners receive special treatment and privileges: They are sent hot meals during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, he claims, and have cell phones, which are technically banned in Roumieh. Inmates confirm that such favoritism is common inside the prison and that guards can easily be bribed to provide amenities such as air-conditioning and better rooms, or to turn a blind eye to contraband.

"The more money you have, the better you're treated by the police and the prisoners," says Georges. "If you're rich, you eat well, sleep well, and live well."

Just like outside the prison walls, political clout is even more valuable than wealth.

"It's not fair that a couple of hundred guys can have everything their own way all the time, but that's the way it goes here -- politics and wasta are the most important things," says another inmate, Elias, using an Arabic term that loosely translates as nepotism or connections.

Those inmates without wealth or wasta are often forced to sell their services -- or their bodies -- to those at the top of the totem pole.

"Illegal immigrants and poor Lebanese often work as maids for the other prisoners," says Mohanna Ishak, an attorney for the Association of Justice and Mercy, an NGO that provides services inside Roumieh. "They have no families to support them, so they are forced to work for cigarettes, which they sell in exchange for money at a little store they have in the prison. Money of any kind isn't technically allowed in the prison, but they get around it."

Sometimes, an inmate's only currency is sexual favors. "Prison is all about deprivation, and that includes deprivation of heterosexual activity," says Omar Nashabi, a sociology professor at the Lebanese American University who has studied Lebanese prisons. "Many prisoners force others to engage in sexual activities with them -- that is, rape. Prostitution is also a problem.… Some men will wear makeup, perfume, and wigs and pretend to be women. The other prisoners call them 'rabbits.'"

"The major problem is that the police are not trained to run a prison," Nashabi adds. "It's not their job, and they're not qualified … so they're forced to enter negotiations with these prisoners. And these negotiations sometimes go too far."

Georges says the prisoners are almost completely autonomous and usually govern each other with hardly any interference on the part of the guards.

"We deal with our problems ourselves," he says. "The police rarely get involved unless we ask them to. They're basically just here to open and close the gates."

Joseph Moussallem, spokesman for the Lebanese Internal Security Forces, doesn't want to get dragged into a discussion of the Islamists' influence inside Roumieh.

"There's no problem there right now, today," he says. "There used to be some problems, but I can't get into the reasons. It's a big question, and I don't think I can answer that over the phone … or without permission from my superiors."

Security forces do raid Block B from time to time, and some attempts have recently been made to curb the Islamists' power inside the prison. In January, their notorious leader, Mohammad Youssef, was charged and sentenced to death for the murder of a fellow inmate.

Given such crackdowns, the Islamists dismiss suggestions that they dominate the prison. Their advocate on the outside, Sheikh Nabil Rahim, was himself imprisoned in Roumieh in 2008 for alleged ties to Fatah al-Islam. He has an impressive air-conditioned office in the northern city of Tripoli, by far the nicest building on the block. Rahim -- a polite, careful man dressed in black sheikh's robes -- denies the allegations of special treatment and rabble-rousing leveled against the Islamist inmates.

"It's not true that these Islamist prisoners have it better than the others," he says. "On the contrary, they're searched far more than the other prisoners.… The reason people think that they enjoy more privileges is because there are around 200 of these Islamist prisoners in Roumieh and they are united under one leadership, so when they have demands, they send a very strong message."

Asked to explain reports that the Islamists often refuse to allow prison guards access to Block B, the sheikh smiles patiently.

"That was a misunderstanding between the Islamists inside Roumieh prison and the security forces," he says. "The security forces sent a new team to the prison, and the Islamists assumed that this team was there to give them a hard time or to try and divide them. At the same time, these police told their superiors that they didn't want to enter Block B because the Islamists could be dangerous terrorists."

Hassan, another sheikh who leads a Salafi militia in Tripoli, has been an inmate in Roumieh on more than one occasion. His last stint was a year and a half long, and he served out his sentence in Block B. He sips a cup of tea at his apartment in the Tripoli neighborhood of Bab al-Tabbaneh, a predominantly Sunni area that often serves as a flash point for bloody clashes with an adjacent Alawite neighborhood.

Hassan was released from Roumieh in 2008 and paints a picture of an existence that may be, in many ways, more comfortable than life in this impoverished, violent northern city.

"When I was in Block B, they had just started to give us things … so we'd get microwaves, TVs, MP3 players, fridges, things like that," he says. "I heard that the first washing machine to enter Roumieh prison was brought in for our guys in 2004. The first fridge came later."

According to Hassan, many inmates in Block B are foreign militants, some arrested in transit across the Middle East.

"There are a lot of prisoners from the Gulf, and consulates from their embassies come and make sure they have everything they need," he says. "One of the guys I was friends with was Algerian. He said he was arrested while traveling from Syria to fight against the Israelis in Gaza."

However, Hassan is indignant at the suggestion that the Islamists in Block B are responsible for all the security incidents inside Roumieh.

"I was in prison in 2003, before the Islamists became so powerful, and there were always problems," he says. "Beatings, murders, things like that. The only difference is that we're united in a way that the other prisoners aren't."

While the Islamists seem to enjoy the relative comforts of their little fiefdom, less politically connected inmates are left to fend for themselves. Yousef has been an inmate at Roumieh for 22 years, serving two back-to-back life sentences for murder. Lanky and quiet, he speaks perfect English and sits with his hands folded in his lap.

"I was 16 when I committed my crime," he says bitterly. "I was originally supposed to be hanged; then they commuted my sentence to life in prison. I know I made a mistake, and I have to accept responsibility for what I did. But some of the people here have done much worse things, and they only spend a year or two in jail. I feel like I don't belong here."

Asked what he thinks is the primary problem with Roumieh prison, Yousef's lips twist in a cynical smile.

"Inside and out, it's the same," he says. "It's all about politics. That's the main virus of this country."

RAMZI HAIDAR/AFP/Getty Images