Sunday, February 6, 2011

When Despots Fall


I'm still here.  I haven't left, or been taken by extraterrestrials, or even those time travelers who know I'm onto them.  Thing is, I live in a new house, in a new city.  I have a new job, in a new industry.  It's been a life-changing few weeks, and I'm still trying to get past the psychological whiplash.  Soon enough, one trusts this will all devolve into something approximating a routine, and there will be time, energy and processor cycles to devote once again to...whatever this is.

In the meantime, a few quick notes.  Egypt, of course.  People love to take brute advantage of events like these, overlaying their narrative on events they could neither predict nor control, in order to prove the things they believed were true before everything changed.  So explanations tend to focus on individuals and groups, with supporters crediting them with wisdom and patience while those who hate and fear them describe their nefarious, though concealed ideology and support from external enemies.  But let's keep it all in perspective.

Motivations, like outcomes, vary.  There are conditions - technological and political - that make this time different, to some extent, but while revolutions are occasionally successful, they are never pure.  The question is not whether they will be co-opted, but rather by whom and to what ends.  There is no simple narrative - by it's very simplicity it will necessarily be false.  But amidst the chaos and uncertainty, there are two ground truths we can understand even at this point.

First, the internet.  While journalists struggle with the idea that instaneous rich-media global communications can render them, if not obsolete, then at least superfluous, they decry and deride the impact of "Social Media" on the global political landscape.  And in their desperate rear-guard struggle to cling to their own significance, they accidentally tell an important truth.  It is not Social Media that represents the breakthrough - not Facebook, not Twitter, not al Jazeera, not texting, not YouTube - it is the internet.  The various implementations aren't the point, the infrastructure is.  Nothing can happen in the shadows anymore.  No longer can the secret police break up a demonstration or arrest it's leaders.  No longer can journalists be silenced or communications managed by taking the TV and Radio stations by force.  No longer can compromises be negotiated that take weeks to reach the people in the hinterlands.  The internet makes it a Wikileaks world, where everything is done under the glare of international scrutiny, and any action has its responses in seconds.  This is a huge change, one that will effect the way nations are governed and the way that governance is changed forever.  But alone, it is not enough.

Since most popular uprisings against authoritarian rule fail or are crushed, they do not spread to become regional (or even broader) movements.  It was the rare success of the people in Tunisia that provided the people in Egypt and Yemen and other places (Serbia?  Is that you?) the belief that they might achieve their polical goals, and this belief is what gives them the power to overcome their perfectly reasonable fear of the regime's brutal countermeasures.  Further successes will fuel further belief, and this leaves the region's remaining dictators and Presidents for Life in a quandry:  A brutal crackdown, with mass imprisonment, extrajudicial killings and beatings and draconian emergency legislation or even martial law may well suck all the momentum out of the movement and bring a whimpering end to the entire process.  But it all balances on a razor's edge - insufficiently brutal and you will anger those you sought to intimidate and silence, and at some threshold of savagery you sicken those in your own leadership circle, inspiring them to put an end to your regime to relieve the unnecessary suffering of their fellow citizens.

Thus there remain two unanswerable questions.  First, can the regime wait out the protests?  These people have lives and families and jobs and they need money and food and eventually they'll need to go home.  It's extremely hard to maintain the passion and provide the support and resources necessary to keep the people in the streets.  The regime knows that if it can hang on long enough, it will survive.  The protesters know that in order to win, they have to end it quickly, so it becomes incumbent upon them, along with their leadership, to continue to find ways to ratchet up the pressure.  Every day, the pressure on the opposition to force the regime to quit becomes more intense and the risk of explosive violence and massive bloodletting grows greater.

Second, it the revolution is successful, what sort of government will arise in the place of the authoritarian Mubarak?  In Iraq, democracy has led to sectarian voting, which implements the "tyranny of the majority", and is really not an ideal democratic implementation.  In Egypt, there are many possibilities, from a vibrant, mostly secular democracy like Turkey to an authoritarian leadership under the guise of democracy, to a corrupt kleptocracy that uses it's power to steal elections and enrich the elites.  There is much promise, and there is much at risk...



  1. It will be interesting to see what happens with regards to your second question.

    In Iraq's defense, I'd say we contributed quite a bit to fvcking their country to hell over the last near 30 years, beginning with our cynical support of Saddam Hussein after our Iranian dictator was overthrown.

    P.S. Congrats with the new job and life, I must now go through the same process.

  2. Thanks!

    You're right about Iraq, but I think the more globally important lesson we can learn from the shorcomings in Iraq's post-Saddam governance is that to attempt to implement democracy before the necessary underpinnings (rule of law, political parties, independent judiciary, civilian control over the instruments of power etc.) is foolhardy and will result in consistently poor outcomes.

    In Egypt, they've been under authoritarian and autocratic single-party rule with no accountability for over thirty years. There is no basic structure to support a democratic system, so it will be co-opted by the stronges/richest/best connected players.

    So it goes...

  3. There is no basic structure to support a democratic system, so it will be co-opted by the strongest/richest/best connected players.

    "Luckily, that could never happen here", he typed somberly.

  4. So happy for new gig, new digs. My fingers remain crossed for your continued happiness (they also reamain crossed that a happy Mikey might some day make me dinner)
    Great post, good insights.

  5. In Egypt what struck me is how many jobs were government jobs. The army is huge. The police are huge. Voting for the wrong guy means getting beaten up outside the polling booth by a bunch of ready and willing government thugs. It's been kind of interesting seeing the army step back: they aren't the elite, they're part of an employment plan.

  6. to attempt to implement democracy before the necessary underpinnings ... is foolhardy and will result in consistently poor outcomes.

    Here's the thing, though. A country run for decades by an autocratic dictator isn't likely to offer courses in Jon Locke and Teh Enlightenment. So to some extent, they are just going to have to try it and maybe fail, maybe violently.

    I still maintain that 1) it's possible to succeed (see South Africa for example) and 2) it beats the alternative.

  7. Yes, you're right, and the imperative is to move quickly, before the protests and the movement lose momentum and the elites and entrenched political interests are able to re-capture the levers of power through a combination of lies, window dressing and intimidation.

    But that doesn't mean there's not time for SOME planning, some laying of groundwork. It's actually easier to plan a fair election than it is to plan a rigged one, and if you can get some protections for civil liberties in place, particularly around law enforcement and the judiciary, then you have a much greater chance of making it work.

    There's a balance in there somewhere - it's just that nobody knows where it is...

  8. By the way, mikey, glad to see you've landed on your feet.