Daily Archives: April 24, 2013

Prospects for a new Italian government
The political chaos in Rome seems to be about to come to an end as the bickering parties prepare to form a broad coalition government led by Enrico Letta of the centre-left Democrats. Will the coalition be able to rise to the challenges facing Italy, including an economy now entering its eighth consecutive quarter of contraction. Ferdinando Giugliano, FT leader writer, and Guy Dinmore, Rome correspondent, join Ben Hall to discuss.

A kind of digital shiver went across the internet on Tuesday, after the Associated Press sent out a message saying two explosions had taken place at the White House, and that Obama was injured. Several things were suspicious about the tweet, and within minutes, AP announced that their official account had indeed been hacked:

Tweet from AP: "The @AP Twitter account has been suspended after it was hacked. The tweet about an attack on the White House was false."

While markets recovered their losses almost immediately, the incident leaves troubling questions about the capabilities of the group that claimed responsibility for the hack: the so-called ‘Syrian Electronic Army’. As one former US official involved in cyber security told the FT’s Michael Peel and Geoff Dyer on Wednesday:

“When you start to do things that have a big impact on the stock market, you are getting away from hacking and moving much closer to something that resembles an actual cyber attack on the US – which takes things into a different area altogether.”

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the SEA have become good at what they do. They were already in full swing two years ago, when Max Fisher and Jared Keller looked at their efforts for The Atlantic.

“The SEA has aggressively engaged in a wide range of online activities to punish perceived opponents and to force the online narrative in favor of the Assad regime… their primary means of attack has been to overload the social networking profiles of government institutions and Western media outlets…”

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♦ Martin Wolf argues that the UK industrial revolution shows the Reinhart-Rogoff thesis on debt is not always right.
♦ Frigide Barjot and her fellow protesters have taken the heat off Hollande as people take to the streets to protest over gay marriage rather than the state of the economy.
♦ The planting of sugar cane has exacerbated the effects of the worst drought in more than four decades in the Indian state of Maharashtra.
♦ Critics say that Nelson Mandela’s family members have been using his status for their own enrichment. Two of his grandchildren are involved in a US reality show called Being Mandela and his daughter has launched a wine business called House of Mandela.
♦ FT Alphaville take a typically irreverent look at the ‘tweet retreat’ in their Occupational Indifference series.
♦ The number of people in Britain receiving emergency food rations has more than doubled in the past year as inflation eroded incomes and government spending cuts have pushed hundreds of thousands into crisis.
♦ Jacob Heilbrunn at The National Interest examines Israel’s fraying image and the possibility that US interest in Israel’s fortune could wane: if Israel remains stymied in dealing with the Palestinians… its predicament is likely to intensify. And the range of options for dealing with the country’s mounting problems is likely to expand toward more radical solutions.”
♦ Japanese drivers are getting televisions installed in the front of their cars. “Japanese law prohibits “staring” at a screen while driving, without saying anything about glancing at one.”
♦ The New York Times is debating the usefulness of Nato.

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Beppe Grillo on the campaign trail

Two months ago Beppe Grillo came out as the big winner of Italy’s general elections. His Five Star Movement, which was created only in 2009, came within a whisker of becoming Italy’s single largest political force. His vote tally in the Lower House was an extraordinary 8.7m, more than Silvio Berlusconi’s People of Liberty party and only a few hundred thousand votes less than the centre-left Democratic Party. Read more

In this image made available by the Syrian news agency (SANA) on March 19, medics attend to a man at a hospital in the northern Aleppo province. (AFP)Someone who worked closely with Bashar al-Assad, before and after he inherited Syria’s presidency from his father, once remarked to me that he “is not really very bright”. Perhaps. But he is not lacking in cunning.

Now, as in the past, he feels his way forward by probing and constantly testing the limits of what his adversaries will tolerate before provoked to respond. Having sometimes found that these limits are surprisingly elastic, he has developed a tendency to overreach. Yet, as his regime and his country crumble around him, he is still there – just about – and it looks as though he is still testing the limits, this time by the limited use of portions of Syria’s reportedly vast chemical weapons arsenal.

In recent months, allegations have been flying that the Assad regime has fired nerve-gas shells at Syria’s rebels. On the most cited occasion last month, near Aleppo, the country’s besieged commercial capital in the north, loyalist troops were among the casualties, and the government claimed that jihadi terrorists – part of an international conspiracy against Syria in the Assad narrative – were responsible.

Last week, Britain and France told the UN there was “credible evidence” the Assad regime has started using chemical weapons. This week, a top Israeli military intelligence officer categorically asserted the government was using them. The UN team of experts tasked with investigating these claims is meanwhile stranded in Cyprus, denied entry by Damascus.

There is, thus, no certainty about what is going on, but the mounting circumstantial evidence is spine-chilling.

President Barack Obama, who has brushed aside the advice of his security officials in his determination to stay out of Syria, nevertheless warned Damascus last August any use of chemical weapons would provoke unspecified action by the US.

Obama said at the time: “That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.” On a visit to Israel last month, he reinforced the point, saying the use of chemical weapons inside Syria would be a “game changer” for the US.

So far, however, the White House and State Department are officially withholding judgment on the veracity of Syria’s alleged use of these arms, about which few close observers of the conflict now harbour doubts. There is probably more here than simply the president’s caution. Read more

US military chief Gen Martin Dempsey meets Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing. AP

Perhaps it is excitement over the new Chinese leadership. Perhaps it is simply a tribute to the growing centrality of the Middle Kingdom. But Beijing seems to be full of foreign visitors, trying to get the measure of the place.

There is me for a start – enjoying the first clear day since I arrived in the city on Sunday. Lionel Barber, the editor of the FT is also in town – or so I infer from his Twitter feed. Twitter also tells me that Niall Ferguson, the Harvard historian is here. In fact, I think he gave a talk in the hotel I’m staying in – although I have yet to bump into him in the lobby. Read more