Sunday, 13 February 2011

On Revolutions In The Middle East

Like just about everybody else I've been trying to keep an eye on events in Tunis, Cairo, Algiers and elsewhere over the past week or so, and to scurry back and read up on things I missed out - primarily via U.S. sources like the excellent Michael J Totten and the recent articles of Raymond Ibrahim and Victor Davis Hanson, but also at places like Slate (Fred Kaplan and Christopher Hitchens) and National Review (Charles Krauthammer), but also, more latterly, through the Egyptian blogger "Sandmonkey" (now that he has been released and reinstated on the web). This morning, on my way to the park, I bought a copy of the Taipei Times and read Harvard Professor Dani Rodrik's editorial piece from PS. I also bought a copy of Taiwan's "Apple Daily" this morning with its' front page story about the resignation of Mubarak featuring a map of Africa highlighting the location of both Egypt and of Cairo on the assumption, no doubt justified in many cases, of reader ignorance.

I write this post just to pull together a few semi-thoughts and observations...

First thing's first - congratulations to the Egyptian protestors, like Sandmonkey and his ilk, who not only stood firm in their demand that Mubarak resign immediately, but who, over the 18 days between beginning their protests on January 25th to Mubarak's resignation on February 12th, have withstood both open and disguised attacks from the police force, attacks from criminal thugs released from jail by the Mubarak government and other hired mobs from the ranks of the unemployed. I think it's fair to assume from this that someone in the military was thinking ahead, hence why such tactics were employed by the Mubarak government since they couldn't count on the military leadership to violently crush the protests. Yet the bravery, determination and solidarity of the protestors must not be obscured by that point - the removal of the Egyptian government could not have happened without them and precisely these qualities.

A second aspect of recent events in Cairo and elsewhere in Egypt which is interesting is the apparent irrelevance of U.S. foreign policy. Indeed, the Mubarak government was made to look foolish by its' early claim that these protests were instigated by foreigners rather than Egyptians themselves. The irrelevance of the U.S. government to the success of this revolution however is surely made salient by the fact that the Egyptian military were not willing to crush the protestors. Although political point scoring in the U.S. is irrelevant in this context, I think it's fair to say that the current administration's "policy" toward the Mubarak government after seeing it confronted by the protestors demonstrated a distinct lack of principled clarity.

What I think demands attention most however, is the causes of the Egyptian revolution, and of the wider unrest in Tunisia, Algeria, Yemen, Jordan and elsewhere. I channeled Hitchens' remarks in an earlier post to the effect that the proximate cause of the protests was the shaming of the Egyptian people by the Mubarak regime in not even bothering to hide the fact that they rigged the elections last year. In reading Dani Rodrik's piece in the TT this morning I was struck by this remark, which the TT editors chose as the subheading for the piece:
"Protesters in Tunis and Cairo were not demonstrating about lack of economic opportunity or poor social services, they were rallying against a political regime that they felt was insular, arbitrary and corrupt, and that did not allow them adequate voice."
What planet is this guy living on? Yes there may have been some recent short term aggregate improvements to the economy, but aggregate improvements mean nothing if you haven't got a job and can't find work; not only has inflation been running between an estimated 12% and 18% for the past year or so, but there is an extremely serious problem of youth unemployment in Egypt, to say nothing of the demographic, environmental and agricultural problems they have with everyone living so close to the Nile. And in Tunisia, not only did President Ben Ali himself personally announce that he would order a cut in prices for milk, bread and sugar to appease the widespread demands of people suffering economically, but a man named Mohamed Bouazizi actually went so far as to set himself on fire to protest the outrageous confiscation of his means of livelihood by some State apparatchik. For Rodrik to come out and say that the protests in Cairo and Tunis have nothing to do with the lack of economic opportunity is demonstrably false and something he should publicly retract.

As to where the Egyptian people go from here, I am in broad but qualified agreement with Michael J Totten's insistence that they need Liberalism (or what I would prefer to call depoliticization), not merely "free and fair elections" as the Left so stress in their more naive and accursed scribblings:
"Mature liberal democracies have checks and balances, the separation of powers, equal rights for minorities, restrictions on the power and reach of the victors, and guarantees that those who lose will not be persecuted."
I agree with the gist of what Totten says there, that, rather than the electoral mechanism so favoured by socialists for the engineering of their corrupted notions of positive liberty, it is actually the restriction of political power that is all important because of the protection this implies for negative liberty. Consequently, it would be a mistake for the new council being set up to focus primarily on elections and the establishment of political parties - it is far more important to focus on restricting political power by institutional design so that no single group gets to impose its will over all the others. And obviously it would be a terrible mistake to allow this "Muslim Brotherhood" group anywhere near political power since they would, among many other things, be tempted - and perhaps irresistibly so - to cancel any future elections.

In regard to the "Jasmine Revolution" in Tunisia and the similar protests in Algeria, Yemen and Jordan as well as the democratic movement in Iran which was violently put down last year - I hope for the best. I will have more to say on this general topic of Middle Eastern protests and revolutions at a later point, but in the meantime there are two decent posts up at Counting Cats, and here's my comment to Rodrik himself (taking its lead from that of another commenter who beat me to the punch):
"For you, a professional academic, to get such important and easily checked facts wrong Mr Rodrik, is a disgrace - and if you cannot be bothered to do such elementary fact checking, then you have no rightful business having your articles published in the world's press."
In my reading I've been stuck listening to another George Russell piece on youtube - it sounds very appropriate:

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