Sunday, February 13, 2011

Spare the Rod, Spoil the Child

So the Egyptian political leadership, which is also at this point the Egyptian military leadership, made it clear today that they would continue to honor international treaties and agreements put in place over the decades of Hosni Mubarak's 'pragmatic' rule.  There are a lot of these bi-lateral and multi-lateral treaties, and most of them are intended to preserve trade and peaceful relations in the region, and to assure, if not reassure, benefactor nations and trade partners that Egypt, in exchange for considerations from military aid to favorable trade status, will act in accordance with the expectations placed on it by its allies, particularly the United States.  Which of course means the peace treaty with Israel.

This is unfortunate in a very real way.  Israel's behavior over the last decade has become increasingly belligerent, intolerant, heavy handed and hostile, to an extent far exceeding what are considered international norms.  Many of these actions, from political assassinations to collective punishment to operating a de facto apartheid state are actions even superpowers are unwilling to take.  So why does this little regional power with a population barely one half of that of Los Angeles and a GDP a fifth the size of Mexico continue to get away with the most egregious of human rights violations?  Easy - the US provides not just massive direct military aid, but explicit unconditional support for anything and everything the radical right-wing Israeli leadership chooses to do.

And as long as there no international outcry, no consequences for these horrific actions, no concerted effort to bring pressure on the Israeli government to moderate it's hateful and criminal mis-treatment of a people they logically should consider long lost brothers and sisters, there will be no incentive for Israel to behave like a civilized, modern nation.  Like the quintessential spoiled child, without discipline there will be no motivation to seek solutions through politics, diplomacy and compromise, because there is no compelling argument for moderation.  In Israel, any movement in the direction of political compromise is viewed as a 'unilateral' action because no third party can force them to move in that direction - therefore it must be their choice alone.

But Egypt has a great opportunity to bend this curve.  Positioned where they are, they could abrogate their agreements with Israel, open the Rafah crossing to international aid, travel and trade, and even recognize the Palestinians in Gaza as a kind of a proto-Palestine, with real governance and even passports.  This would bring about an end to the blockade - if Israel continued to refuse to lift the ban on commercial trade, Egypt could give Gazans special access to Port Said.  Several good things would flow from this action - Israel would learn that there actually ARE limits to her power, even with the US as big brother, and the Palestinians would be able to start down a path to a sustainable independent future.  There are risks, of course - the US could shut off the flow of aid to Egypt, but after the last year's whole Settlement debacle that seems unlikely.  Israel could invade and re-occupy Gaza - it would not make any sense for Egypt to intervene militarily - but ultimately, every nation in the region is at risk from an Israeli attack, and will continue to be until Israel faces actual consequences for her aggression, so that seems a risk worth taking at this point.

There are occasional tipping points in history, and they always have ramifications and opportunities far beyond what is initially apparent.  There is something historic and important happening in the middle east and North Africa right now, and however it all shakes out, the status quo of today will be nothing but a chapter in the history books, just as certainly as the Eastern European countries of the Soviet bloc.  It's always important when people throw off the chains of a despot and demand the freedom to choose their own destiny, but it's also important to think about how those new governments might choose to interact with other nations.  The US, for some perfectly pragmatic reasons made some terribly unpopular choices in a region that is now re-thinking everything they thought they knew about their place in the world.  Now we must accept that the people of the new order may not choose to be our friend simply through bribery, fear and intimidation.  Certainly China, Russia, Iran and Saudi, for starters, will be willing to provide better bribes and markets.  Just as the revolution we watched this week didn't have to bloody, so a realignment of alliances and agreements need not be so either.  But while we are powerless to influence these fast-moving political events, through our behavior we can have some influence over that realignment.  Perhaps this time we'll make better choices...

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...