Tuesday, February 1, 2011

from maghreb to masses... maybe.

hopefully. but it's up to the army.

now here comes the pessimism: revolution is a messy thing. the surrounding optimism exhibits a pattern something akin to an economic bubble, so maybe it's apt we're naming revolutions after flowers now. like the dutch tulip mania, so may go the jasmine revolution.

consider myself the example. a few transitive properties removed, this post is the product of a revolution that began with massive popular support. in the run-up to the islamic revolution in iran, democratic reformers, liberals, secularists, communists, and islamists alike all poured into the streets, suddenly and swiftly overwhelming the security apparatus of the shah.

so here's the thing... what happens next?

collapsing a regime is easier than creating one. in any regime change, be it externally or internally catalyzed, dismantling the current regime is often frighteningly easy. from iran to the soviet union, revolutions come swiftly and unexpectedly. from iraq to tunisia, catastrophic victories abound, and we're still not sure what perverse equilibrium of competing coercions will replace them.

a state is built upon a monopoly of coercion, and in some cases more than others, upon a perceived monopoly of coercion. and who holds more ability to coerce than the military? it's no coincidence that many regimes erect some sort of parallel military like saddam's fedayeen or iran's revolutionary guards... the amount of coercive power concentrated in the military is too great to leave unpoliced, and this is even more so when an unrepresentative minority is maintaining power.

in tunisia, the fate of the revolution was decided when the real referee revealed itself and army commander rashid ammar pledged to "protect the revolution." until then, what was "the revolution" anyway besides a bunch of dissimilar street cart vendors and lawyers angry over issues as divergent as hunger and internet censorship? but in an instant, president ben ali was fleeing the country and the head of the president's security apparatus ali seriati was under arrest, accused of threatening state security by fomenting violence despite quite literally being the state only moments earlier. what will become of the rcd and tunisia's one-party system is yet to be determined, but if i had to guess it doesn't look like mohamed ghannouchi is going to be around for very long.

now the question remains, is tunisia the arab gdaƄsk?

tunisia is not egypt, and egypt is not tunisia. that's not to say that the success of popular protest movements can't inspire other popular protest movements, but this is not a reawakening of pan-arabism. while ben ali has fled, mubarak is holding on. like tunisia, the military holds all the cards and can play kingmaker with a nod, but unlike tunisia, mubarak is a military man whose rule is a linchpin of stability in the middle east, and the whole world including me is afraid of what might come next.

of course hizb ut-tahrir and nahda are hoping to reenter tunisian politics, but tunisia has much more effectively purged itself of islamism, albeit through the regime's brutality and something like 1/5 of the population being on the secret police payroll at one time or another. the muslim brotherhood, on the other hand, is alive and well in egypt and is watching closely. here's a little tidbit from stratfor...

"After three decades of Mubarak rule, a window of opportunity has opened for various political forces — from the moderate to the extreme — that preferred to keep the spotlight on the liberal face of the demonstrations while they maneuver from behind. As the Iranian Revolution of 1979 taught, the ideology and composition of protesters can wind up having very little to do with the political forces that end up in power. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood (MB) understands well the concerns the United States, Israel and others share over a political vacuum in Cairo being filled by Islamists. The MB so far is proceeding cautiously, taking care to help sustain the demonstrations by relying on the MB’s well-established social services to provide food and aid to the protesters. It simultaneously is calling for elections that would politically enable the MB."

whether mubarak stays or goes, at least one thing has already come of this... america's foreign policy has been laid bare for the hypocritical mess that it really is. ben ali and mubarak were/are both huge beneficiaries of american support, egypt being the number two american foreign aid recipient, mostly for playing nice with america's number one foreign aid recipient, israel. and therein lies the hypocrisy: america has long since sold out arab liberty and its own professed values to make the world safe for zionism, which is why we are in this dilemma in the first place.

now call me radical, but i am... democracy means nothing. liberal democracy means everything, liberalism being much more important than democracy. a state is a monopoly on coercion, and a liberal state exists for the sole purpose of removing coercion from circulation. you can gerrymander and manipulate an illiberal democracy from within or without to get the most vile and tyrannical governments imaginable, which is exactly the kind of government you get from hamas, hezbollah, and likud, where some citizens, be they sunni, shi'a, or jewish, are more equal than others.

paradoxically, the longer coercion is wielded by the state for purposes other than minimizing coercion and safeguarding individual liberty, the more freedom is forgotten and reprisal becomes the rallying cry. and that's why the world, unfortunately, has to be afraid of democracy in the middle east. the hypocrisy has gone on too long for america to suddenly reverse course without severe unintended consequences. arabs have been disenfranchised for so long in the name of defending an illiberal democracy sold as liberal that liberalism has been abandoned by a critical number of arabs as a viable solution to the region's problems, despite being exactly that.

that said, right now i'm inspired and hopeful but i've been disappointed before, so i'm cautiouslyyy optimistic.

i think my hope for a liberal egypt is something akin to the turkish model, a vigilant military that will step in to restore liberal democracy if democracy strays towards islamism, but will otherwise stand completely on the sidelines as the guarantor of secularism and individual liberty. my fear is that the muslim brotherhood will strategically ride "democracy ... like a train. you get on it, and get off once you reach your destination." to be sure, the muslim brotherhood stands ready to fill any power vacuum that might arise, so it's up to the army and cairo's neighborhood watch to ensure that doesn't happen.

looking ahead, if there is any man that has my trust in navigating the liberal dilemma in egypt, it's elbaradei, and last i heard the government has agreed to negotiate with him as the representative of the opposition. i'll be watching him closely. i wish him luck.


  1. am i your massive popular support? and if so, are you calling me fat?

  2. you are a figment of my imagination, and thus have no weight but for the tug at my heartstrings.