Monday 28 February 2011

February Reads

February has been another good month for books.  It has had a Spanish/Russian feel to it and about half the authors were new to me.  I finally made a start to the Eastern European Reading Challenge with two books, both by Russian authors.  First up was The Turkish Gambit by Boris Akunin, which I have already reviewed here.  The second was Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoevsky, one of the great classics of Russian, indeed world literature.  I’m pretty sure that this was the first time I have actually read, or in this case, listened to the novel all the way through.  All 21 CDs, and well worth the effort.  The novel is much more than the trials and tribulations of Raskolnikov the main character.  A wonderful description of Russian society the novel deals with all kinds of crimes and punishments, not merely the legal kind.  The audio version was very well read and helps you out with just how to pronounce all these Russian names.
The Spanish connection came in the form of two new authors to me.  Teresa Solana’s Un Crimen Imperfecto is a charming first novel set in Barcelona which I reviewed here.  Carnen Posada’s LIttle Indiscretions I listened to in its English translation.  A revelation of a novel.  Though the starting point of the story is a death, this is much more a witty and satirical look at the little secrets which so many people would rather keep hidden away, no matter what the cost.  I will definitely try and read more from both of these authors.
During the month I re-acquainted myself with some old favourites, including a couple of Scandinavian crime novels.  Jo Nesbø’s The Redeemer is now the fourth of his Harry Hole detective series which I have read.  All of them very good and this one no exception.  Once again some pretty nasty things are going on in Oslo.  Håkan Nesser is another Scandinavian crime writer, this time from Sweden.  I first came across Nesser with his Woman with a Birthmark, which features detective Van Weeteren.  A very impressive novel and I was keen to read more of the series.  I decided I would go back to one of the earlier books and chose Borkman’s Point, which was published in 1994 and is the second or third of the series.   Unlike most Scandinavian crime novels this series is not set in a real place.  Rather Nesser has created an imaginary country which sounds, judging by the names, a lot like the Netherlands, but could be anywhere in northern Europe.  From the two I have read, the series is not quite as dark and menacing as some other Scandinavian series.  Not that there are less murders or hidden secrets to unearth, but rather that the tone of the writing is a bit lighter and humorous at times.  Well worth giving a go if you are unfamiliar with his work.  I intend to work my way through most of the series.  The other well known author was Isla Dewar, a Scottish writer who specialises in witty and funny tales of the trials and tribulations that face women.  The Woman who painted her Dreams is slightly different in that it encompasses more of the key character’s life than usual and it is also not quite as sharply funny as her best work.  Still a good listen.
I’ve ended the month reading The Political Economy of Israel’s Occupation by Israeli writer Shir Hever.  He came to Dundee recently to give a talk about the subject of the book.  His talk and explanation of the most important facts behind the occupation was excellent, both informative and enthralling.  So much so that I decided to buy the book.  And very good it is too.  The nuts and bolts of the occupation and the ways in which it, by design, condemns the lives of Palestinians to one of deprivation and underdevelopment is lucidly laid out.  It is only 200 or so pages and is written in a well structured and easy to read style.  So if you want a short, but succinct introduction to the whys and hows of Israel’s occupation of Palestine, this is the book to go for.

Friday 25 February 2011

Intelligence and Other Failures

Once again we have clear evidence of the incompetence and ignorance of our so called Intelligence Community.  The wave of popular uprisings which started in Tunisia in January are still spreading far and wide throughout the Middle East.  Now just ask yourself what advance warnings about any of these uprisings were given by any of the secret intelligence services?  Now some information is kept secret, but if the UK government had been told that a popular uprising in Egypt or LIbya was only days away would they not have made some efforts to secure the safety of UK citizens working there or on holiday there?  By all accounts the UK government was caught completely unawares and completely unprepared for any of the ongoing events.  Even the much vaunted Israeli intelligence services have been found out as incompetent and just plain ignorant.  
It’s not as if this was just a one off mistake.  The various intelligence services have substantial previous - and all of it bad.  Remember the Weapons of Mass Destruction that Saddam’s Iraq was full of?  We were repeatedly assured that “intelligence” told us that Iraq absolutely and most definitely had loads of these WMD and they were just itching to unleash it all on us.  Why we even went to war - a brutal and costly war - just to get rid of all these WMD.  Yet hey what - there were no WMD, none, zero, nada, zilch.  And please,  someone tell me where the hell this Osama Bin Laden is.  Just what do these guys get paid for?  And, incidentally, they tend to get paid substantial amounts of our money.
One should not single out the so called Intelligence Community for our wrath.  The supposed experts on the economy and the financial world have just as long a record of failure.  Care to name anyone in the Bank of England or the UK Treasury who warned us in advance of the coming financial tsunami?  It was the same in the USA and in other major countries.  The world of academia should not escape censure either.  With one or two notable exceptions the ivory towers of our most prestigious and expensive centres of learning were full of professors and other experts assuring us all that all was for the best in the best of all possible worlds.
What is trully outrageous about all these intelligence and economic failures is that the very people who failed to foresee any of this are still in place.  Still in their highly paid jobs, mostly at our expense,.  And probably even worst and most infamous of all, they are still trotted out to lecture the rest of us on how to solve the current mess.  How can this be?  One thing is for sure there does not seem to be much in the way of competition at the top of the tree.  Success or failure clearly makes no difference - you just carry on as before and we poor mugs are supposed to just mind our manners and not dare to question our betters.  The Arab world is showing the way.  We need a bit more popular uprisings here in the UK and the rest of the western world.  Let’s make the bankers - and all the others who have failed us - pay.

Wednesday 23 February 2011

Un Crimen Imperfecto by Teresa Solana

This book was part of my own personal reading challenge, which is to read books in Spanish on a more regular basis.  My target is to read one Spanish language novel per month.  I missed out in January, so this was my first read of the year in Spanish.   And Un Crimen Imperfecto turned out to be a very good choice.  It is a crime novel, though a most unusual one of that genre.   For a start the two main characters, brothers Eduard and Borja, are neither policemen nor private detectives.  At least they are not the kind of private detectives that get involved in murders. For a start their so-called company doesn’t legally exist and their work is primarily as very, very discreet fixers for the very rich in Barcelona society.
This all changes with their latest commission.  Which at first appears straight forward enough.  Is the wife of a prominent member of the Catalan Parliament having a secret affair with a painter?  To avoid any scandal, everything must be kept hush hush, which is why our pair of somewhat amateur sleuths get the job.  However things very soon take a dramatic turn for the worse when the wife turns up dead, as a result of poisoning.   The MP keeps on the brothers to carry out their own underhand investigation, in the hope of keeping any salacious skeletons well and trully locked up in the cupboard.  As a result the pair get involved in various escapades including a diverting trip to Paris.
This is a very entertaining and witty novel which kept me enthralled from beginning to end.  The brothers do eventually solve the crime, though the ending is most unexpected.  Much of the charm of the book lies in the characters themselves as there is not too much action or great suspense.  Not just Eduard and Borja, but their family and friends come to life as real and interesting people.   As do some of the inhabitants of Barcelona’s high society, who are though, given a rather less flattering portrait.  
It is also a very cleverly written book.  Told in the first person by one of the brothers - Eduard - very little is what it seems at first sight.  I will not  reveal these little mysteries as they are part of the charm of the novel.  Un Crimen Imperfecto is Teresa Solana’s first novel.  She is a native of Barcelona and still lives and works in the city.  The book was originally published in Catalan and Solana herself translated it into Spanish.  For those we don’t fancy trying the novel in Spanish or Catalan it is also available in a highly regarded English translation under the title A Not so Perfect Crime, published by The Bitter Lemon Press.  Well worth reading.
For anyone interested in literature from the Spanish speaking world there is a new reading challenge up and running.  This one focuses on Argentinian literature and is hosted by Jennifer Murray at Ficciones.  You don’t need to know any Spanish to follow the challenge as the idea is to encourage people to read books in translation.  The site offers a useful introductory list of possible books.  I will definitely include one or two Argentinian novels in my Spanish language books to read.  Buena lectura a todos y todas. 

Sunday 20 February 2011

The King’s speech, Black Swan and Biutiful

I have only managed to see three new films at the cinema so far this year.  But what great films they were.  Each very, very different from the others.  First up was The King’s Speech, directed by Tom Hooper.  This is a mainly UK production and tells the true story of King George VI’s struggle to overcome his stammer.  As the head of the then British Empire, a key part of the role of the Monarch was to make authoritative and if possible inspiring speeches to his subjects.   The background to this personal struggle is George’s unexpected accession to the throne following the abdication of his elder brother, Edward V111 - he of the Wallis Simpson scandal.  All this intrigue and politicking is well covered in the film.
However the heart of the film is the personal transformation of George himself.  He achieves this through the rather unconventional methods of an Australian speech therapist, Lionel Logue.  These are the most intense and sometimes hilarious scenes in the film.  The King does of course succeed in overcoming his stammer, just in time to make a very moving speech justifying Britain’s entry into the Second World War.
This is a very heartwarming and uplifting film, well directed with a lovely feel for the period.  It also has some trully outstanding performances.   Colin Firth has rightly been offered the highest accolades for his performance as George.  A commanding performance indeed.  However all the cast is very impressive.  Helena Bonham Carter puts in a restrained yet almost flirtatious performance as George’s supportive wife.  While Geoffrey Rush is excellent as the exuberant and determined therapist.  
Second up was Black Swan, directed by Darren Aronofsky.   This US film takes the famous ballet Swan Lake as the background for a taut and visually stunning psychological roller coaster of a ride.   The basic story is simple enough - an aspiring ballerina is chosen to play the lead role in Swan Lake as her first major role.   However the ballerina in question, Nina Sayers - a very impressive Natalie Portman - is no ordinary girl.   She has a love hate relationship with her mother - the equally impressive Barbara Hershey.  Her mother alternately encourages and bullies her daughter, while all the tine keeping her under close surveillance, especially at home where she is surrounded by little girls’ dolls.  Nina is the classic young woman who has never been allowed to grow up.
Now she has suddenly to play the star role in the world’s most famous ballet.  A role which has two contrasting parts.  She has to play not just the pure, virginal White Swan, but also the sexually alluring, femme fatale role of the Black Swan.  And as the title of the film suggests, it is the Black Swan who exerts the most powerful pull.  It all of course proves too much for Nina.  Torn by the incessant demands from the ballet director, plagued by fears of jealousy towards a rival ballerina and driven by her mother, Nina spectacularly descends into a black hell full of gothic horror.
The film is one of almost constant movement, with ballet sequences mirroring Nina’s inner turmoil.  The music, based on Tchaikovsky’s score, is simply wonderful, and perfect for the climactic descent into hell.  The costumes are bright and vivid and the whole film is a luscious feast of stunning colour.  The performances are very good as well.  Natalie Portman in particular puts in a terrific performance.  She is equally convincing as the innocent, sexually repressed young girl and the lustful, sexually aggressive woman.  She is also a pretty good ballet dancer.  Barbara Hershey also deserves special mention as the evil mother, while Vincent Cassel is a suitably aloof and manipulative director.  A feature of the film is the many close up shots of the actors’ faces.  Usually somewhat contorted, they add to the darkness of the film and the overall sense that something is not right in the state of this ballet company.  Great film though.
The third film I have seen on the big screen was Biutiful, a Mexican, Spanish production, directed by Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu.  Despite its title, which is how the english word beautiful would be written in spanish, there is very little of beauty in this film.  Other than the the beauty of the soul, perhaps.  At least that of the main character, Uxbal, played with enormous sensitivity by the great Javier Bardem.  Shot on location mainly in the outskirts of Barcelona, this is the sad and moving tale of the many tragic losers in today’s world of superficial glitter and excess.
As the film starts Uxbal is trying hard and just about successfully to keep the various strands of his life together.  HIs wife, a glorious over the top performance by Maricel Alvarez, is a drug addict who also suffers from bi-polar disorder.  At present he is separated from her and somehow manages to bring up his two children on his own.  They live in a ramshackle, untidy and not too salubrious flat somewhere in one of the poorer neighbourhoods of Barcelona.  Uxbal makes a living, of sorts, by acting as a kind of intermediary between unscrupulous employers who need cheap illegal immigrants to make any kind of profit and the immigrants themselves.  He also keeps the local police sweet with a few bribes here and there.  Though Uxbal himself does not seem to take drugs, most of those around do.  In this film we are taken right into the beating heart of the rotten underbelly of our modern world.  And not in some third world country, but in the one of the great modern cities of the western world.
Shortly after the film opens, things begin to go downhill for Uxbal and also for the migrant workers.  Inexorably downhill, much like in a Greek tragedy.   It is as if there is some terrible avenging Angel on the track of Uxbal, who will bring down anyone who stands in his way.  This is a pretty depressing film.  There is not a lot of joy in this world.  Lots of people, most of the people in fact, work very hard for next to nothing and still have to endure even more horrible suffering.  There are of course some honourable and caring people out there.  Liwei the Chinese girl who helps look after Uxbal’s children and Ige, the Senegalese mother who ends up caring for Uxbal’s children.  Both of course illegal migrants.
And then of course there is Uxbal himself.  A flawed individual who is nevertheless full of the sense of right and wrong and the need to get things right.  It soon becomes clear that he is suffering from some incurable disease, probably cancer, and he is determined to sort out as many things as he can before he finally dies.  Both for his own children and the migrant workers for whom he feels a deep sense of responsibility.  This is a towering performance from Bardem, who is in just about every shot in the film.  From wandering about, head down through the streets of dark and dirty grey looking Barcelona, to tenderly comforting his daughter, Bardem dominates the film, even more so than Colin Firth or Natalie Portman do in their films.   This is a Barcelona that few people will have seen before, really the adjacent towns of Badalona and Santa Coloma.  But it is a real world full of real people, some of whom do lead tragic lives.
Three very different, but equally great films.  Let’s hope that there are a few more treasures out there awaiting to be seen.

Thursday 17 February 2011

The Economy - It can only get worse

It looks like the economic policy of our nasty Coalition - cuts, cuts and more cuts - is finally coming up against reality.  A clutch of organizations, including the Bank of England, the Office for Budget Responsibility, the OECD and the CBI, have all revised downward their forecasts for growth in the UK economy.
It’s not hard to see why growth is going to be very hard to achieve.  For example the IMF in its October edition of World Economic Outlook, offers a fascinating insight into how spending cuts impact on the economy.   According to the IMF spending cuts of 1% of GDP can subtract as much as 2% from growth.  Now this is likely to be the case for us in the UK because the usual factors which historically have mitigated the effects of spending cuts are absent here.
Firstly in previous cases countries have aggressively cut interest rates and devalued the currency.  However that has already happened here.  With interest rates at 0.5% there is no scope for them to fall further.  Rather, all the indications are that they will rise sometime this year.  The UK has also benefitted from a approximate 20% devaluation in the exchange rate of the pound.  Further depreciation is unlike to occur in the near future, if at all.
Secondly, in all previous cases where spending cuts have been associated with economic growth this has come from a switch to exports.  However there is little likelihood of growth in external demand for UK goods and services in the near future.  Europe is, like the UK, in the middle of a period of austerity, Japan is still in the doldrums and the USA is about to start its own austerity programme in 2012.  That leaves China, India and the developing world.  Alas for us, all of the rest of the world will also be competing for what little export growth there is.  For more information about the IMF paper, please visit Duncan’s Economic Blog.
Bear in mind that our nasty Coalition is proposing spending cuts of some 6% over the next four years.  So unless something miraculous happens pretty soon we are in for a lengthy period of bad times.  Remember also that these spending cuts are only now beginning to happen.  The country as a whole has still to feel the full effects of the rise in unemployment, the wage freezes and the resultant loss of spending power for most people and families.
At this point is also worth remembering that all this talk of spending cuts and reduced economic growth means a real loss of services and lowering of living standards for most people in the country.  For all their talk of efficiency savings and protecting front line services, cuts of the order planned by the Coalition can only lead to reductions in services or the actual loss of some services.  Over the summer and autumn we will be begin to see exactly what and where these cuts will be.
It is also worth remembering that all this talk about how “We are all in this together” is just that - all talk.  Further evidence of just how nasty the Coalition is.  I still await with interest to find out just what Messrs Cameron, Osborne, Clegg et al, are going to have to give up, as a direct result of the spending cuts.  Not to mention the chief executives and directors of our banks and financial companies.  I don’t see many, if any, of them suffering much.
The only option open to the rest of us is to protest.  Loud and clear and as often as possible.  Let your MP know what you feel and let the likes of Cameron, Osborne and Clegg know as well.  Write, email, join in any local protests and campaigns.  A determined opposition can work wonders, just look at Tunisia and Egypt.

Monday 14 February 2011

Photo of the Month - January 2011

January was still a most unsettled month weather wise, so I was unable to get out and about as much as I would have liked.  Still it was a lot better than December and the year did get off to a good start with a firework display in a neighbour's garden, as you can see in the two photos below.
Early January also saw one of the newly repaired oil rigs sailing out to sea.  Well you can just make it out through the cold mist.
Another pleasure in January is Jamie's birthday.  This year we all went ten pin bowling and then for lunch in a nearby inn.  Here he is getting ready to blow out the candles on his cake.
The snow lasted well into the month as you can see from this photo of our front garden.
We did manage to get in some good walks during the month and this one took us along part of the Fife Coastal Walk.  The shot below is one of the fabulous bunkers, with standing stone, on the new Castle golf course, just outside St. Andrews.
During January I restocked my store of goodies for stitching, including these colourful canvasses.
We got some trully amazing sunsets during the month.  This was one of the most spectacular.
Another walk was over the hills to the south of St. Andrews, another very cold, but sunny day.  One of the highlights was this group of very noisy turkeys, pleased that Christmas was over for another year.
I managed a couple of trips to Edinburgh to take in the theatre.  On our way back to the bus station I snapped this bright winter evening scene looking down to the Royal Academy on Princes Street.
Pride of place for January however has to go to the following photo.  Not because it is particularly good.  But because of the circumstances.  This was taken at a Monday evening protest to show solidarity with the brave people of Egypt who were out on their streets demanding democracy and the end of the Mubarak dictatorship.  Which they have achieved. All power to them in their continuing struggle for justice.

Friday 11 February 2011

Vote Labour - Friend of the Big Supermarkets

As the start of the Scottish election campaign draws ever closer it will be fascinating to see how the Labour party tries to present itself to the electorate.  Recent shenanigans do not seem to have helped them that much.
First up is the recently passed Scottish Budget for 2011.  In an effort to mitigate at least some of the swingeing cuts imposed by the Tory\LibDem government in London, the SNP proposed to raise £30 million by an additional levy on the largest supermarkets and out-of-town retail parks.  Money which could go to keep some people in jobs.  But the Labour party, along with the Tories and the LibDems voted the proposal down.
Now I can understand why the Tories, as the traditional friend of big business would vote this way.  But why would the Labour party, the so-called representative of the working man and woman, whip their MSPs into line in order to defend the rising profits of big supermarkets?   Not clear how easy it will be for them to defend this decision during the election campaign.
Labour seem to have compounded their potential difficulties over the budget by voting against it in the final vote.  This, despite the fact that the final package included additional funding for apprenticeships, which Labour had claimed was one of their key demands.  Yet they tried to vote the budget down.  Seems they will vote against anything, no matter if they agree with it, just to oppose the SNP.
This can even more clearly be seen with the recent revelations about the decision to release Al Megrahi on compassionate grounds.  The investigation into the background to this decision reveals that the then Labour government in Westminster was very keen to secure Al Megrahi’s release.  They feared the consequences if he died in a Scottish prison.  They even went so far as to facilitate the Libyans with details of how to apply for compassionate release.  Yet when the decision to release Al Megrahi was announced, the leadership of the Labour party in the Scottish Parliament let all hell break loose with their condemnation of the decision.
What we need to know now is did Ian Gray know that his own government in Westminster was actively promoting this result?  Or was he kept in the dark by Gordon Brown and his Labour colleagues at Westminster?  If so it shows that the Labour party at Westminster either did not trust Gray or at best regarded him as a nobody.  In which case why should the Scottish people have any faith in him.
Of course if he did know, then he is an outright liar and hypocrite.  I suspect he was kept in the dark.  However it does somewhat beggar belief that after the decision had been taken, that he made no effort to find out what his masters in Westminster thought of the matter.  Remember the Prime Minister was Gordon Brown, a fellow Scot and MP for Dunfermline West.  Nothing easier than picking up the phone and asking.
Ian Gray made much of his assertion that if he were First Minister, then Al Megrahi would not have been released.  This just does not ring true.  We are to believe that Ian Gray would have rejected the strong and forceful arm twisting that Gordon Brown, on behalf of the UK government and the leader of the Labour party, would have exerted on him?  I think not.
Yet Gray and the Labour party in Scotland still stick to the line that they knew nothing and asked nothing.  Just about sums them up.

Sunday 6 February 2011

Turkish Gambit by Boris Akunin

Turkish Gambit is an enjoyable spy adventure set during the Russo-Turkish war of 1877.  This was my first read for the Eastern European Reading Challenge, hosted by Black Sheep Dances.  I wanted to choose something different and new to me.  By this I mean a book that is neither one of the great classics nor about or from the Soviet era.  So after a bit of research I came up with Turkish Gambit which was first published in 1998.  And a very fine book it is too.
Turkish Gambit is billed as a spy adventure, though not that much action or adventure place.  It is also one of the Erast Fandorin series of detective novels, though he does not feature too prominently in the book.  The action takes place in what is now Bulgaria at a crucial juncture in the Russo - Turkish war of 1877-1878.   The Russian advance is held up by stiffer than expected Turkish resistance and it becomes clear that someone among the Russians has been leaking information to the Turks.  Cue for our hero, Erast Fandorin to take centre stage and solve the mystery.
However it is one of the many surprises of the novel that he does no such thing.  Though he does of course in the end uncover the dastardly culprit, he is never really the central character in the novel.  This, rather comes in the lovely form of Varvara Andreevna Suvorova - Varya to her friends.  She is a young, naive yet feisty and forceful woman who turns out to be the main character in the novel.  She has embarked on a dangerous and foolhardy journey all the way from St Petersburg to the war front to meet up with her fiancé, who has a minor post as a cryptographer in the army.  On her way she gets robbed of all her possessions and finds herself in the middle of a skirmish with Turkish irregulars.  Her rescuer is of course Erast Fandorin.
Once in the Russian camp she is ordered to remain there as Fandorin’s assistant.  In this role she gets involved in all the main incidents and actions during the rest of the novel.  As just about the only young and attractive woman in the camp she is of course actively sought out by all the dashing and not so dashing men at the camp.   Though the action moves slowly this allows Akunin to focus more on the wonderful and motley array of soldiers and hangers on, including war corespondents who make up the entourage of the army HQ.  Thus we get to know some interesting and lively characters not just from all over the Russian Empire, but from Greece, France and Great Britain.  Some of these characters are of course possible suspects as the Turkish spy.    And as in all good mystery novels we get led up the garden path by one red herring after another until the unexpected final denouement.
Boris Akunin is the nom de plume of Grigory Shalvovich Chkhartishvili who hails from Georgia, but has resided in Moscow since 1958.  He is well known expert on Japan and Akunin is a Japanese word that can be translated loosely as villain.  Turkish Gambit is the second novel in the Erast Fandorin series, all set in Imperial Russia.   I now look forward to reading some more of his adventures.
Turkish Gambit has been turned into a film in Russia.  Boris Akunin adapted his novel for the film which came out in 2005.  Alas, I have not yet managed to find a copy here in the UK.  At least not one with English subtitles.  Though it seems there is a version on Google videos.  You can try it here.  The first of the Erast Fandorin mysteries, The Winter Queen, is due to be filmed in English starring Milla Jovovich.  Filming is due to start in 2012.  Perhaps more will come to the screen.

Thursday 3 February 2011

Egyptian Revolution - Winners and Losers

During the past week or so the whole world has watched with awe and admiration the tremendous struggle that is taking place in Cairo and other cities in Egypt.  With the collapse of the Tunisian dictatorship a few weeks earlier, it seems that another repressive Arab regime may disappear from the pages of history.  It is of course much too early to know how the events in Egypt, and even in Tunisia, will pan out.  Democracy may take root, or another strongman may emerge.  Whatever the final outcome in Egypt and Tunisia, one can already begin to identify the main winners and losers from these momentous struggles.
The main winners in all this will be the vast majority of the Egyptian and Tunisian people.  A key driving force behind the current protests has been the worsening economic situation, with high and rising unemployment and high and rising prices of staple goods, particularly food.  All this of course is an inevitable consequence of these countries following neo-liberal economic policies designed to transfer wealth from the poor to the rich.  Whatever new regime emerges it will of necessity need to do something to ameliorate the sufferings of the poor.  No-one pretends that either country will suddenly become lands of milk and honey, but at the very least things will be less bad than before for the poorest sections of society.
Politically the Egyptian and Tunisian people can only gain from the protests.  Again there is no need to assume a full transition to democracy, though of course that may happen, and let us hope that it does.  However, again out of self-interest, whatever new regimes emerge they will be need to be more democratic, more open and less repressive than the current regimes. 
Moslems throughout the world, and in particular Arab Moslems, are likely to be the other beneficiaries of the protests.  The rest of the world, particularly in Europe and North America is now getting a real time glimpse into who these Arab Moslems are.  And they are far removed from the stereotype portrayed in the Western media.  In Cairo all kinds of people have been out protesting, including women and young people.  And very few of them have worn the burka or hajib.  Even that apparent bogeyman of the West, the Moslem Brotherhood has not played an important role in the protests.  This has been a spontaneous uprising of ordinary people, who have shown enormous persistence and have protested in an overwhelmingly peaceful manner.  It has only been the pro-Mubarak thugs who have resorted to violence.  These on the whole positive images can only help more and more people in the West reject the current negative stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims.
The Losers
There are likely to be quite a lot of losers from these protests.  Even if the protesters do not attain all their demands.  In the first place of course the current repressive regimes have lost.  The Tunisian regime has already fallen and Mubarak is most unlikely to survive, even if he does remain in office until September.  While new authoritarian regimes may re-emerge, they are unlikely to be as dominant and narrowly based as the current ones.
Other Middle East dictators will find it very difficult to survive unscathed.  The oil rich regimes can always use their oil wealth to buy off discontent.  An option not available to the other regimes.  The Yemeni dictator has already announced that he will retire, while the King of Jordan has been forced to form a new government.  Again it is far too early to speculate about long term changes in these countries.  However it is likely that all will feel obliged to introduce some kind of democratic openings and loosen their repressive security apparatus.
Neo-liberalism itself has been badly discredited in all this.  It is quite clear that the current economic consensus is doing little for the poor of the world.  Even more so when it is forced on people by corrupt and exploitative elites.  Future governments which are more responsive to the views of its citizens are more likely to push for reforms and changes in the way the IMF works and more voices are likely to be raised against the current wave of globalisation.
The biggest loser in the long run is likely to be Israel.  It is fascinating to watch how senior Israeli government officials have rushed to defend Mubarak and his repressive regime.  As many people are discovering the only friends that Israel has in the region are dictators.  While no Egyptian regime is likely to repudiate the peace treaty with Israel, that is the least of Israel’s worries.  Any Egyptian regime which is in any way responsive to the views of its citizens can only take a more pro Palestinian stance.  The Rafah border crossing from Egypt into Gaza is likely to be re-opened, perhaps without any restrictions, thus effectively breaking the illegal Israeli siege of Gaza.  Egypt would almost certainly adopt a more aggressive and demanding position on Israeli positions, such as the illegal settlements and the illegal annexation of East Jerusalem.  
Israel thus faces the prospect of a pincer movement against her from the north and the south.  Egypt is likely to ally itself with Turkey, previously a key ally, and now an articulate and aggressive critic of Israel.  As Egypt is the largest and most important Arab country, if she does become more critical of Israel, this could well encourage other Arab countries to also adopt a more aggressively critical approach to Israel.
To the extent that Egypt does become a more democratic and open country, much in the way Turkey is, then it will become more and more difficult for Israel to portray itself as the only democracy in the Middle East, a claim that was always untrue anyway.  If we ever reach the stage when Israel is surrounded by peaceful, democratic regimes, then it will be almost impossible for the USA to continue to bankroll the country.
This leads us to the USA.  In the short run the US may well be counted as one of the losers.  After all US policy in the region has been to support and often bankroll these corrupt, brutal and repressive regimes.  All in the interest of stability and to protect Israel.  The emergence of new, more independent minded regimes in the region will cause a few headaches for the US.  However in the long run this may all work to the advantage of the US.  For the first time in a very long time the US has the chance to support democracy in the Arab world without having to invade it first.  A US that was prepared to help, support and work with more democratic regimes would work wonders for the image of the US, not just in the Middle East, but in the world at large.  The main difficulty for the USA is that if democratic regimes emerge in the Arab world, the US may have to revise its continuing unquestioning support of Israel, whatever it does. 
Who knows at this stage, but stranger things have happened.  None of the Middle East experts predicted the kind of continuous protests we are seeing in Egypt.  Quite the reverse, we were assured that Egypt would not succumb to protests.  However the events in Egypt and Tunisia pan out, and let us pray that any changes are peaceful, it is clear that the Middle East has already profoundly changed.