Free Markets, Free People

democracy


Arab "Spring”? Or Arab Fall?

Last week I pointed out how Tunisia is starting the seemingly inevitable slide toward Islamic extremism.

Egypt too has failed to keep the promise of the “Arab Spring” uprising that saw Hosni Mubarak ousted from power.  There the Muslim Brotherhood has gained power and the Army seems intent on keeping power – at least in the short term.  We now are seeing deadly riots again in Tahrir Square in Cairo where the Army is clashing with protesters.  Thus far it is reported that 35 are dead in the three days of those clashes.

The eruption of violence, which began Saturday, reflects the frustration and confusion that has mired Egypt’s revolution since Mubarak fell in February and the military stepped into power.

It comes only a week before Egypt is to begin the first post-Mubarak parliamentary elections, which many have hoped would be a significant landmark in a transition to democracy. Instead, it has been clouded by anger at the military’s top body, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which will continue to rule as head of state even after the vote. Activists accuse the generals of acting increasingly in the same autocratic way as Mubarak’s regime and seeking to cling to power.

The military says it will only hand over power after presidential elections, which it has vaguely said will be held in late 2012 or early 2013. The protesters are demanding an immediate move to civilian rule.

Again, in a country which has no democratic traditions or institutions the “hope” is the parliamentary elections will be “a significant landmark in the transition to democracy” has no foundation in reality.  Right now it appears that the Egyptian people have simply exchanged on boss for another.  And the result of the parliamentary elections, if they’re ever held, may see the ushering in of a third “boss”- the Muslim Brotherhood which has not really promised “secular democracy” if they take the majority in the Egyptian Parliament. Instead it seems clear they intend a steady move toward an Islamic state.

And the traditions of the Islamic state are to pay lip service to “democracy” (see Iran), no secularism (in fact one of the only secular Arab states, Syria, is in deep trouble right now – any guess what may replace that government?) and rule by Islamic law. 

I don’t think that the “spring” most of the initial protesters (and their supporters in the West) were hoping for when they turned out to oppose Mubarak and call for secular democracy.

As usual, it is the most organized and ruthless who will claim power.  Right now that’s the Army.  If and when an election is held and the Muslim Brotherhood takes enough seats to form a government it is likely the Army will reach an agreement with them to somehow share power.  And secular democracy?

No time soon in Egypt, count on it.  And watch Libya carefully as well.

~McQ

Twitter: @McQandO


Occupy Seattle: A funny thing happened on the way to the forum

Or how not to make friends and influence followers.  

In a textbook example of messing in their own nest, members of Occupy Seattle managed to alienate most of those who turned out to support them at a recent forum.  The story is written up in SLOG which is obviously supportive of the Occupy movement.  But what Dominic Holden describes is a combination of a childish tantrum and totalitarian tendencies by a group so clueless they can’t get out of their own way and so ignorant that they don’t understand what they purportedly support.

The forum:

Organized by Town Hall (and co-sponsored by The Stranger), the forum was intended to discuss the Occupy Wall Street movement, featuring three activists from Occupy Seattle and luminaries from labor, economics, and politics: Washington State Labor Council secretary-treasurer Lynne Dodson; Second Avenue Partners and progressive taxation activist Nick Hanauer; and GMMB political strategist Frank Greer. During opening remarks, JM Wong from Occupy Seattle declared that she wanted “no leadership from the Democratic Party or union bureaucrats. Nonprofits are trying to co-opt us."

Dodson, however, politely explained that labor unions are part and parcel with the Occupy movement’s push for economic reform. "I like to consider myself a union activist, not a union bureaucrat," she said. "This is labor’s fight, this is our fight."

Great … the Occupy movement on steroids.  6 folks there to discuss what’s going on with the movement to a pro-movement crowd, many of them there to find out more about it.  So what happened?

Whatever further insight the speakers planned for the 90-minute event was then cut short when the woman ran on stage. Activists had planned to interrupt the panel because, some said, they opposed the power dynamic created by speakers on stage talking into microphones. Although Occupy Wall Street uses the belabored people’s mic—which involves one person speaking and the crowd repeating everything—to amplify the soft spoken and encourage free speech, last night it was used to silence the panel. The call and-response created an echoing cacophony. Despite pleas from several older audience members who couldn’t hear well to let the panelists proceed, the Occupy activists demanded a vote to overtake the forum.

That’s right – they weren’t doing it the way that particular faction of the Occupy Seattle movement felt it should be done, so it was tantrum time.  The fact that this childish tantrum drove off pro-Occupy supporters?  Meh.  It’s all about the process man:

Assembly time is precious," the man yelled without a hint of irony. "Assembly time is precious!" we all yelled back, wasting precious time.

Then they insisted that everyone discuss the issue among their neighbors. If people opposed, they were drowned out by the people’s mic. So we talked about their proposal. One activist slept on the floor in front of the stage, spread eagle. The place reeked of BO. A man next to me worked through half a tin of chew. Eventually, we took another vote and activists demanded a count by hand.

It was 8:30 p.m. at this point, one hour after the event began, and we’d only heard opening statements. The forum was supposed to conclude by 9:00 p.m. "We have only a half hour left," Licata announced. "This is very interesting."

As the clock counted down, it was apparent that Occupy Seattle had repressed whatever thoughtful ideas the panelists brought to the stage and were willing to fill the time with chatter about unenlightening process. They wanted more power; they wanted to speak. They were also being rank hypocrites. Here is a group purporting to give people a voice and cut through the bureaucratic layers of government and capitalism. Instead, they silenced speech, quashed ideas, and replaced it with their own bureaucratic process reserved for a minority that wanted power. One gray-haired woman who was walking out put it like this: "It was very divisive. Now they are a little group, like the 1 Percent."

The activists lost the second vote, too. So the forum sort of proceeded, but now with occupiers booing speakers on stage when they disagreed and giving them the wrap-it-up hand gesture. For instance, Greer noted, "We learned in the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement, you can attract support or turn of support, and basically fail, and I don’t want you to fail." Despite his support, many activists booed and gestured that he stop talking.

Apparently some of them shouted out, “this is what democracy looks like”.

Really?  Shouting down those who oppose your point of view, drowning out people who tried to talk or respond?   That’s “democracy”?

That’s those totalitarian “we’ll do it my way or we won’t do it at all” tendencies coming to the surface.

Result?

Lots of people were leaving, angry—it was a stark contrast with stellar activism the week before.

Wong justified the interruption, saying, "We need to respect the movement that uses this process. I stick to it because it is a democratic process."

[…]

But the Occupy activists came off as disrespectful, hostile, and woefully misguided about what democracy looked like. The activists added zero new content, but in the process, prevented the speakers from sharing their knowledge (that’s some democracy). Let’s think if the tables were turned: These activists would be outraged if Town Hall set up a stack of speakers at the General Assembly and blasted them with an amplified panel discussion. It was equally selfish to destroy the panel with their People’s Mic.

On his way out the door, Brian King added, "They think it is more important to purify themselves rather than connect with people who are not like themselves. They probably can’t get much further than they are right now."

Process took precedence over respectful interaction and the cultivation of support.  Anarchy took precedence over deliberation and debate.

It reminded me of the insistence on process in totalitarian countries where they justify all manner of vile action based on “process”.   There was no democracy at work at this meeting, it was a minority attempting to use its own process as an excuse to take over the gathering.  And, of course, what they did was badly damage their potential support base:

"I walked in supportive and left unsupportive," said 69-year-old Mary Ann, who declined to provide her last name. "I’m turned off by the negative shouts, repetition, and all I can think about is a cult. And I believe in every one of their damn principles."

Paula and Brian King also headed for the door early. "It was frustrating to listen to people shouting and interrupting," lamented Paula. Brian added, "We are leaving because they are looking inward at themselves and their eccentric process rather than reaching out to people."

I’ve seen all this before, from the radical 60s, the commune movement, etc. This is nothing new.  It is the same old tired stuff in a new century and all it promises is an imposition of a failed ideology masked in words and phrases like “democracy” and “the will of the people”.  They are now defined – by them – as the “general assembly’s procedures” and “the 99%”.  Same crap, different buzz words, different century and a promise of the same outcome as with all the other times it has been imposed through out history.

~McQ

Twitter: @McQandO


Social Welfare states, democracy and political will

Megan McArdle hits some points that pretty much doom Europe and, if it is not already too late, the US.  They are contradictions and conditions that make recovery from all this fiscal irresponsibility almost impossible.  It involves social welfare, democracies and why that combination simply can’t find the necessary ability heal itself. 

When I was a young and naive economics writer, I used to write about developing countries a fair amount.  Time and again they would make these bizarre and pointless moves, like suddenly and for no apparent reason defaulting on a bunch of debt.  They would engage in obviously, stupidly unsustainable fiscal practices that caused recurring crises.  They would divert critical investment funds into social spending which was going to become unsustainable when underinvestment reduced government revenue.  And the other journalists and I would cluck our tongues and say "Why can’t they do the right thing when it’s so . . . bleeding . . . obvious?"

Then we had our own financial crisis and it became suddenly, vividly clear: democratic governments cannot do even obvious right things if the public will not tolerate it.  Even dictators have interest groups whose support they must buy.

This has come home to me forcefully several times over the last few years, but never more than now.  The leaders of the eurozone have a dual mandate to keep the euro intact, and to not do the things which could keep the euro intact.  They cannot fiscally integrate to the extent necessary because, as I wrote for the Daily the other day, the Greeks do not want to act like Germans, and the Germans do not want to share their credit rating with anyone who won’t.

It is a bit like the Ohio vote on unions.  In a heavily union state, those who benefit the most vote to continue the situation where they benefit.  In democracies like Europe where people’s property are up for re-distribution, those who benefit from such redistribution are always going to vote to continue the status quo.  And, of course, politicians who benefit from the vote of that constituency are going to try to find every way they can to accommodate that constituency.

So even when it is “so … bleeding … obvious”, to most economic observers as to what action must be taken, nothing happens or, in some cases, it gets worse. 

At some point, though, the bill comes due.  We’ve talked about the laws of economics and how unyielding they are.   Oh you can screw around and play some games that allow you to defy them for a while, but like gravity, it all will finally come tumbling down. 

We’re there.   We’re at the falling down stage if things don’t change drastically.

But there is seemingly no stomach for drastic change.

And that leaves us to try to figure out what the world will look like after the collapse of the Western social welfare system is complete.  Because it is seeming like its not a matter of “if”, but “when”.

~McQ

Twitter: @McQandO


Libya: Muslim law and secular dreams

If your hope for the latest version of “Arab Spring” to be found in Libya was a secular democratic state, you can quickly forget the secular part of the dream.

The leader of the transitional government declared to thousands of revelers in a sunlit square here on Sunday that Libya’s revolution had ended, setting the country on the path to elections, and he vowed that the new government would be based on Islamic tenets.

Indeed, what has immediately happened is the roll back of many of Gadhafi’s decrees that those who’ve now taken over contend violate Sharia law and Islam’s tenets:

Mr Abdul-Jalil went further, specifically lifting immediately, by decree, one law from Col. Gaddafi’s era that he said was in conflict with Sharia – that banning polygamy.

In a blow to those who hoped to see Libya’s economy integrate further into the western world, he announced that in future bank regulations would ban the charging of interest, in line with Sharia. "Interest creates disease and hatred among people," he said.

I’d love to tell you this comes as a complete surprise, but then I’d be acting like some politicians I know. 

I’m certainly not going to contend that keeping Gadhafi was the best thing we could do, but let’s be clear, what has happened darn sure doesn’t seem to be an outcome that we’d have hoped to see either.  At least as it now seems to be shaking out.

In that area of the world, secular dreams seem to me to be the most foolish.  How that particular dream manages to stay alive among the elite of the West is beyond me.  It isn’t now nor has it ever been a probable outcome of any of these so-called “Arab Spring” revolutions.  The revolutions are steeped in Islam because the governments being replaced were relatively secular for the area and the Islamic groups now rising were the ones being repressed.

How someone could believe that out of that situation, secular democracy would emerge still remains beyond me.  No democratic history, no real established democratic institutions and no real democratic experience by the people there.  Yet somehow we’ve determined that this bunch is superior to the last bunch.

Based on what I’ve always wondered?

Yet, we continue to hear the hope proclaimed in each upheaval even as reality seems to dismiss the hope at every turn.

~McQ

Twitter: @McQandO


Kristof reflects the left’s naiveté on democracy in Middle East and Africa

Nicholas Kristof manages to roll up all the naiveté of the left into one article in which he explains why he thinks those who don’t think democracy will be the final outcome of the unrest we’re seeing in North Africa and the Middle East are selling the people there short.  He’s pretty sure all those who’ve said that democracy  most likely won’t be the product have got it wrong.  Because he’s looked into the eyes of those who’ve protested the authoritarian governments there and, well, let him tell you:

I don’t think so. Moreover, this line of thinking seems to me insulting to the unfree world. In Egypt and Bahrain in recent weeks, I’ve been humbled by the lionhearted men and women I’ve seen defying tear gas or bullets for freedom that we take for granted. How can we say that these people are unready for a democracy that they are prepared to die for?

Well, sir, because they haven’t any tradition of democracy nor do they have any democratic institutions ready to ensure the outcome of the turmoil is democracy … that’s how.

There have been thousands … millions even … of “lionhearted men and women” who’ve braved tear gas or bullets in the name of freedom, only to end up suffering under authoritarian or totalitarian regimes.  Take the way back machine to Hungary in 1956 for instance, when a scenario much like this played out there ultimately to be crushed brutally by oppressive communism.

It certainly isn’t for the lack of wanting to see something like democracy flourish in the Middle East and North Africa.  Heck, that would be wonderful.  But it is an appreciation for history and an analysis of that history that ends up pointing out that probability – because of conditions beyond the protesters control – doesn’t bode well for a democratic outcome.

Kristof’s premise is many in the West think Arabs, Chinese, etc. are “unfit for democracy”.   Not at all. In fact, he misses the point completely.

It has nothing to do with the fitness or unfitness of any people.  I’m of the opinion that all people yearn for freedom and, if introduced into a democratic system, would flourish (and millions have, emigrating to free countries).

It isn’t their fitness or unfitness that’s in question, it’s the fitness or unfitness of the culture in the country or region in which they live.  Does it indeed support the principles of freedom and liberty, does it allow equal access for all, does it indeed allow all to participate equally and finally, does it contrive to protect the rights of the individual over the power of the state?

Look at the present regimes in the area and history of the countries in the area and you tell me.  For the most part the cultures in many of them don’t support the principles that underlie a democratic society.  That’s obviously not to say that can’t change, but the question is what is the likelihood, given the specific country’s culture and history, that it will change?

That is where the examination has to take place – not in the hopes and aspirations of a relatively few “lionhearted” people who yearn and fight for such freedom.  Is there a chance?  There’s always a chance.  Is it likely?  Well, history says no.  I’d like as much as anyone to see history proven wrong in the case of all of these countries.  But like Egypt, where the real power behind the throne – the military – is still in charge of the government they’ve essentially run for 50 years, it appears unlikely that the essential pillars of a democratic society will be allowed to be erected and strengthened.  It just goes against human nature and the dominant political culture that still holds power in that country. 

Do I hope democracy is the product of these protests and revolutions.  Yes.  Do I expect it?  No.  And the reasons given are why.  What the US should be preparing for is the probable outcome while working to encourage the hoped for outcome.  Unfortunately, I don’t see it doing either.

~McQ


A little history lesson–Egypt and Iran

This, from Austin Bay, does an excellent job of making the point about Egypt that I have been trying to get across in a meta sense. He does it with a look back at the Iranian revolution. It, in many ways, mirrors what is happening in Egypt today. Bay makes the point that in all such revolutions, the key is organization. And unfortunately authoritarians usually do a better job of organizing than do democrats.

A democratic movement will never march in lockstep, but common principles — such as dedication to individual rights — must translate into a common spine to resist, with armed force when necessary, inevitable manipulation, threat and attack by tyrants, terrorists and their vicious partisans.

Recent history bears tragic witness. In the aftermath of their popular rebellion of 1979, the hodgepodge collection of Iranian liberals and nationalists fragmented. The Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s radical Islamic totalitarians divided the democratic coalition and attacked them individually. Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, Iran’s first president after the 1979 revolt, identifies the failure to form a unified democratic front as the Iranians greatest strategic error.

In an essay published in the Christian Science Monitor last month, Bani-Sadr said most Iranian political organizations "did not commit themselves to democracy. Lacking the unity of a democratic front, one by one they became targets of power-seeking clergy in the form of the Islamic Republic Party … ."

I remember the Iranian revolution vividly. I remember Bani-Sadr and the hopes he had for a free and democratic Iran. And I also remember the relentless Ayatollahs and their eventual success at the "divide and conquer" strategy they used. Iran has never gotten off the mat since.

Bay is much more optimistic about the outcome in Egypt than I obviously am.  I think it is much to early to determine that they are headed in the right direction.  Bay says there are hopeful signs.  Good.  But … and there’s always one of those when talking about an authoritarian regime willingly handing over power … we’re so early in the process it’s impossible to tell if the military is really serious about the handover or whether nationalists, secularists, “moderate” Islamists and activists can indeed form a united front or will instead fracture at various points. 

History says “fracture”.

Bay puts the “key” to success in his conclusion:

How the military receives the counter-proposal is crucial. Rejection or ambivalent delay sends the ominous message that there is at least one strong faction of military Bonapartists who prefer pharaoh to freedom. The give and take of sincere negotiations among revolutionary factions and the military, ending in authentic compromise, however, will not only forward the process of building a democratic front but signal the emergence of genuine democratic politics.

You can be guaranteed there are what Bay calls “Bonapartists” within the military.  And in Egyptian history it isn’t unheard of for more junior level officers to resort to violence to take over (Gamal Nasser anyone?).  In the sort of revolutionary atmosphere now prevalent in Egypt it should be remembered that not all revolutionaries want democracy or freedom.  You can rest assured there are power struggles going on within a great number of these factions both within and outside the military.

Given Bay’s quoting of recent history, I’m not sure how he is so optimistic at this early date in the process, but he does seem to think that a united Egyptian democratic front may emerge from all this turmoil.  I remain skeptical and doubtful (even if I’d love to be proven wrong).  And … I have history on my side.

~McQ


Observations: The QandO Podcast for 13 Feb 11

In this podcast, Bruce, Michael, and Dale discuss the situation in Egypt, and CPAC.

The direct link to the podcast can be found here.

Observations

As a reminder, if you are an iTunes user, don’t forget to subscribe to the QandO podcast, Observations, through iTunes. For those of you who don’t have iTunes, you can subscribe at Podcast Alley. And, of course, for you newsreader subscriber types, our podcast RSS Feed is here. For podcasts from 2005 to 2010, they can be accessed through the RSS Archive Feed.


Egypt – Remember when the military taking over, dissolving Parliament and suspending the Constitution was a bad thing?

Just sayin’.  Because to hear some in this country, that’s the best thing that’s happened since sliced bread.  Yes, the euphoria over what is happening in Egypt that has gripped an element of the fairly naïve here in this country has been truly breathtaking to behold.

Don’t get me wrong – I’d like as much as anyone to see “democracy flower” and everyone live happily ever after as true statesmen come to the fore and deliver Egypt from the tyranny of dictators and forever ensure one man, one vote, representative government and government of, for and by the people.

I just don’t live in moon pony land.  That’s not to say it couldn’t happen, but it is to say that’s very unlikely to happen. 

Why?

Well let’s consider the facts concerning this benevolent military takeover.  It hasn’t taken over anything.  The military has been in defacto charge of the country since Nasser.

Yes, Mubarak is gone.  So what?  Who replaced him?  Omar Suleiman.  He’s a product of the military, Egypt’s intelligence chief and named in a 2007 diplomatic cable found in WikiLeaks as Mubarak’s “consigliore”.  He’s been in that position in 17 years and has been the main means of the Mubarak regime’s ability to oppress opposition.  He’s now serving on the “Armed Forces Supreme Council “.

And speaking of the Armed Forces Supreme Council, others who serve on it are Defense Minister (and Lt. General) Anan and the new Prime Minister (and Air Marshal) Shafiz – both very stalwart supporters of Hosni Mubarak.

This 18 member body has dissolved the Parliament, suspended the constitution and banned labor strikes.  And although it has promised elections in 6 months, well, that’s 6 months away, isn’t it?  We really have no idea if that Council really means to actually hold the election or will find ruling the state to be much more to their taste than turning it over to the rabble.

The military  – of all institutions – played this whole thing very well.  It was in charge but it pretended it wasn’t.  It took the side of the protesters, nominally, and removed one of its own to be replaced by 18 of its own.  What has happened is a very well done defusing of a volatile situation while in reality nothing much has changed in terms of who is in charge of government.

That’s not to say some things aren’t different – for instance, that well-known “secular” organization (according to our chief of intelligence) the Muslim Brotherhood (yup, real secular name there, skippy) is attempting to take advantage of the situation as well and has applied for status as a political party.

And it appears, despite reassurances to the contrary, that the MB is setting itself up to be another in a long line of theocratic parties that use elections (at least once) to legitimize their rule.   Read these two paragraphs carefully:

The Brotherhood’s charter calls for creation of an Islamic state in Egypt, and Mubarak’s regime depicted the Brotherhood as aiming to take over the country, launching fierce crackdowns on the group. Some Egyptians remain deeply suspicious of the secretive organization, fearing it will exploit the current turmoil to vault to power.

But others – including the secular, liberal youth activists who launched the anti-Mubarak uprising – say the Brotherhood has to be allowed freedom to compete in a democracy alongside everyone else. Support by young cadres in the Brotherhood was key to the protests’ success, providing manpower and organization, though they never came to form a majority in the wave of demonstrations.

The question is, once it has competed in “a democracy” and won, does it ever plan to compete again?  Nothing has changed in the MB’s charter.  And having watched other “Islamic states” come into existence, democracy is not one of their foundations – although it would certainly be useful in a peaceful takeover vs. having to do so through violence.   Bottom line, though, the end state is the same.   See any number of authoritarian regimes (such as Venezuela or Iran) which began with “free and open elections”.

To answer the question on the minds of some reading this, no, I don’t consider myself cynical about this, I instead see my pessimism grounded in observing the experiences of like states and the results that’ve unfortunately resulted.  I consider my take to be quite realistic.  And that’s a pity as I’d like nothing more than to see a magic flowering of democracy in Egypt. 

The irony of course is the same people who said a democracy could never be established in Iraq are now saying democracy is spontaneously establishing itself in Egypt.  Of course democracy in Iraq has been established, however tenuously, by the presence of the US military.  However, in Egypt, those now ruling the country are from the military.  I’d appreciate someone – anyone – pointing out why Egypt, without a US military presence or the presence of any other entity capable of forcing the country down the road to democracy will suddenly become a democracy? 

In fact it seems the fox is guarding the hen house in Egypt.  There’ll be a lot of busy work in the interim -  a new or at least amended constitution (who is going to pass it or debate it with Parliament dissolved?  The military council?  The people?), the organization of political parties and elections, etc.   All the while, I expect the military to quietly consolidate its power over the next 6 months while others are buzzing around doing the busy work that will keep them out of the streets.

Will the military willingly turn over its power to a president elected by the people?  If I knew that I could probably make a fortune.   Let me just say it like this – if the winner of the election is a candidate that is acceptable to the military (say some military officer from “the club’’), then probably “yes”.  Accepting such a candidate would most likely keep the military’s grip on government in place, just with a new (and somewhat more benevolent) face.

If the winner isn’t acceptable to the military (such as a theocrat from the MB – one of the reasons they play this “we’re secular” game is an attempt to head off those sorts of charges.)  I expect to hear charges of vote fraud, illegal activities and arrests to ensue, along with a declared “state of emergency” after which the military will retain control and begin the inevitable crack-down on dissent.  It will also claim to want to hold new elections at some time in the unspecified future – to keep the West off its back and the people at home.

Not a rosy picture, that’s for sure – and I could be completely wrong.  But unfortunately, I just don’t think so.

Call it wisdom – intuition, experience and observation combined to come to a conclusion.  And it isn’t necessarily a pretty one.

~McQ


History says Egypt will not end well

Trust me when I say I’d love to see the next government in Egypt be a democratic and modern one dedicated to freedom and liberty.  But I don’t find myself to be particularly cynical when I say I don’t think that will happen at all.

Let’s start with Richard Cohen’s points as a good foundation for why I believe that:

Egypt’s problems are immense. It has a population it cannot support, a standard of living that is stagnant and a self-image as leader of the (Sunni) Arab world that does not, really, correspond to reality. It also lacks the civic and political institutions that are necessary for democracy. The next Egyptian government – or the one after – might well be composed of Islamists. In that case, the peace with Israel will be abrogated and the mob currently in the streets will roar its approval.

It not only lacks the civic and political institutions necessary for democracy, it has no history or tradition of democracy.  Given all of that, I’m constantly amazed by those who see what they choose to interpret as “people’s revolutions” in places like Egypt as precursors to a sunny day in the bright light of democracy and freedom.

David Larison points to something Jeane Kirkpatrick once said decades ago after Iran fell to the Ayatollahs.

Although most governments in the world are, as they always have been, autocracies of one kind or another, no idea holds greater sway in the mind of educated Americans than the belief that it is possible to democratize governments, anytime, anywhere, under any circumstances. This notion is belied by an enormous body of evidence based on the experience of dozens of countries which have attempted with more or less (usually less) success to move from autocratic to democratic government. Many of the wisest political scientists of this and previous centuries agree that democratic institutions are especially difficult to establish and maintain-because they make heavy demands on all portions of a population and because they depend on complex social, cultural, and economic conditions.

Larison adds:

As legitimate as the grievances against the Egyptian government are, it is entirely possible that whatever comes after Mubarak and his allies could be dramatically worse. We seem to forget that political change can also be change significantly for the worse, and that empowering a dispossessed majority can lead to economic catastrophe, ethnic and/or religious violence, and contribute to an overall decline in the public’s welfare.

Exactly.  And for examples of the point, we once again turn to Jean Kirkpatrick:

In Iran and Nicaragua (as previously in Vietnam, Cuba, and China) Washington overestimated the political diversity of the opposition–especially the strength of “moderates” and “democrats” in the opposition movement; underestimated the strength and intransigence of radicals in the movement….

Many of us simply cannot see past the fact that history doesn’t much support the contention that something “good”, as in a government that will be good for its citizens and a friend to the US, will emerge in Egypt or countries like Egypt.  One of the results of oppression and repression are the withering and finally death of democratic institutions – if any even existed to begin with. 

And the promise of “free and open elections?”  As common and predictable as sunrise.   Free and open elections only guarantee you’ll see them once.  After that, you’re more likely to see Venezuela, Zimbabwe and Lebanon than you are Canada, the United States and the UK.

It is having those “free and open elections” the second time, and the third, and fourth, etc. that develop the institutions we’re talking about.   Holding an election after the overthrow of a government doesn’t make what follows a democracy anymore than writing a Constitution means anyone will live by it or uphold it.

Dictatorships in countries with no democratic traditions or institutions usually beget a dictatorship of a different form when the current strongman is overthrown.  And even if the revolution makes an attempt at democratic progress, it usually gets subverted and taken over by the country’s next oppressor as soon as he and his followers gather enough power.

Obviously everyone would like to believe there can be exceptions to the rule and certainly it would be in our, Israel and the region’s best interests if that’s the case in Egypt.  But that’s not what we should expect, and it damn sure isn’t that for we should be preparing.  Instead, it appears we’re in the middle of repeating our own disastrous history of dealing with such problems.  Here’s Kirkpatrick again, talking about Iran – see if you’re feeling a little déjà vu as you read it:

The emissary’s recommendations are presented in the context of a growing clamor for American disengagement on grounds that continued involvement confirms our status as an agent of imperialism, racism, and reaction; is inconsistent with support for human rights; alienates us from the “forces of democracy”; and threatens to put the U.S. once more on the side of history’s “losers.” This chorus is supplemented daily by interviews with returning missionaries and “reasonable” rebels.

As the situation worsens, the President assures the world that the U.S. desires only that the “people choose their own form of government”; he blocks delivery of all arms to the government and undertakes negotiations to establish a “broadly based” coalition headed by a “moderate” critic of the regime who, once elevated, will move quickly to seek a “political” settlement to the conflict.

~McQ


After Mubarak

It’s difficult to have any sympathy for Hosni Mubarak, or any other member of Egypt’s current ruling elite. Egypt has been ruled by a succession of authoritarian dictators since 1954, when Gamal Abdel Nasser took control of the Government in 1954, a dictatorship continued by Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, in turn. One always hopes that a popular movement to overthrow a dictaror will be followed by a flowering of democracy, but, sadly, that rarely happens, historically, and is even less likely to happen if Mubarak is toppled.

In all probability what will follow Mubarak in Egypt will be a government run by members of the Muslim Brotherhood, and their allies.  This means that Egypt’s most likely post-Mubarak government will be an Islamist, radical government, similar in many respects the Islamic Republic of Iran.

As Lawrence Wright points out in The Looming Tower, Mubarak’s jails have been an incubator for Islamist radicals. And why should we expect otherwise? The liberal, Western, Democratic states have been fairly supportive of Mubarak, and Sadat before him, ever since Sadat disavowed warfare as a method of destroying “the Zionist entity”, as Israel is generally known by the Arab states. Even among proponents of democratic reform inside Egypt, the support that the West has given Mubarak has made the West appear to be, at best, amoral, and, at worst, positively duplicitous. This has undercut the influence in the popular culture of Egyptian proponents of Western-style democracy.

As a result, it has been the Islamists who have seen their influence rise among the general population in recent years.  Indeed, the Islamist influence on Egyptian culture is immediately noticeable by looking at the following pictures posted a year ago by Pajamas Media. The pictures are of the graduating classes of Cairo University in 1978 and 2004.  Notice how the women are dressed.

Cairo University Graduating Class, 1978

Cairo University Graduating Class, 1978

Cairo University Graduating Class, 2004

Cairo University Graduating Class, 2004

The devolution from the modern era to a more conservative past is obvious.

The upshot of all this is that a post-Mubarak regime is likely to be undemocratic, Islamist, and hostile to the West in general, and the US–and, of course, Israel– in particular.  With Egypt having such a large population and corresponding cultural influence on the rest of the Arab world, there is much reason to believe that that a post-Mubarak Egypt will be the cause of a significantly less stable, and more troublesome environment in the Middle East.

Our policy failures in Egypt have been bi-partisan, and made for ostensibly the best of reasons, but their results seem likely to be disturbing. Still, it’s difficult to see what other choices were available to us.  Had we imposed too much pressure on the Mubarak regime to democratize, the end result would likely have been either a) much the same as we are facing now, or b) simply caused Mubarak to turn to China to replace the security and stabilization support provided by the West.  Sadly, the policy options we faced were those presented by the real world, and not the idealized world we might wish for. Although, one notes, had we forced Mubarak into the arms of the Chinese, we might have more acceptable moral support to offer the proponents of Egyptian democracy at the present moment.

Now, we don’t even have that.  The Egyptians are going to do whatever they’re going to do, and we have little choice but to sit by as passive observers.

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