Archive for ‘Authoritarianism’ Category

The Biggest Losers (Middle Eastern edition).

datePosted on 21:07, February 27th, 2011 by Pablo

The wave of unrest that has shaken the political foundations of the Middle East is a watershed moment in the region’s history. Although it is still too early to determine if the much hoped-for changes raised by the collective challenge to autocratic rule actually result in tangible improvements in the material and social conditions of the majority of Middle Eastern citizens, it is possible to ascertain who the losers are. Some are obvious, but others are not.

Among the obvious losers the biggest is Muammar al-Gaddafi, whose regime will topple regardless of whether he hangs onto control in Tripoli for an extended period of time (which is unlikely, since he faces not only internal opposition bolstered by defections from the military and government and does not have control over the oil fields that once made him someone to be reckoned with, but also UN-led international sanctions and a host of asset freezes on the part of individual states. Worst yet, his Ukrainian blond nurse has upped stakes and left for home!). Desposed presidents Ben Ali of Tunisia and Mubarak of Egypt are also obvious losers, as are their cronies and sycophants, although the regimes they led have weathered the worst of the crises and they have managed to exit office with their lives (something Gaddafi is unlikely to do). Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh is also a loser, since he has been forced by public unrest to announce that he will step down from power in 2013, a timeline that may accelerate as a result of defections from within his government and among influential tribal leaders that used to support him.

The al-Khalifa monarchy in Bahrain is another loser, as it will have to agree to significant political concessions to the Shiia majority opposition in order to quell unrest. The same is true for Algeria, Jordan, Oman and Syria, which have moved to pre-emptively announce political reforms that may or may not be cosmetic but which indicate increased regime preoccupation with public accountability and governmental performance. In seemingly stable Gulf States such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE, royal families are also working quickly to stave off potential unrest via the institution of preventative reform packages which, however minor in nature, are nevertheless acknowledgement that their rule is not as impregnable as they used to think. In all of the oil oligarchies there is a realisation that they must cede some power in order to stay in power, which opens the door for more substantive change down the road.

Beyond these obvious losers are others that are not immediately apparent. These include energy and weapons firms that struck deals with Gaddafi, who may find the terms and conditions of said contracts voided or renegotiated on different terms by his successors (this includes BP, which is widely believed to be behind the release of the Libyan Pan Am 103 bomber in exchange for Libyan concession rights as well as Chinese investors). They include a number of Italian businesses as well as the government of embattled president Silvio Berlusconi, who enjoyed warm relations with Gaddafi that now may turn into liabilities once he is gone. They include the Iranian regime, which has seen its crushed opposition resurface to claim the same rights their Sunni Arab brethern are calling for, thereby giving the lie to the official claim that the Ahmadinnejad-fronted theocratic regime enjoys universal support. They include the US government, which reacted slowly, clumsily and viscerally to the wave of protests, engaged in a series of quick policy shifts and contradictory pronouncements, and which has been shown to have a limited ability to predict, respond or influence events on the ground in that strategically important region even as it pontificates about its newly discovered commitment to democracy and human rights in it (it should be noted that other great powers such as China and Russia did not engage in public diplomacy about the unrest, which may be more due to their own authoritarian records rather than a respect for national sovereignty and preference for private diplomacy but which in any event does not leave them looking like hypocrites on the matter). They include Hamas and Hizbollah, whose hopes for region-wide intifadas never materialised. They might include Israel, should the post-Mubarak Egyptian regime take a less cooperative stance towards the Jewish state in response to public pressure in a more open and competitive domestic political environment (should that materialise). This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it should provide food for thought about others who may have benefitted from their support for Middle Eastern autocracies who may now find that their fortunes have changed for the worse as a result of the regional crisis.

But the biggest loser by far in this historic moment is the one actor that only gets mentioned by fear-mongerers: al-Qaeda and the international jihadist movement. In spite of repeated calls for the Muslim masses to join them in their struggle, after years of sacrifice of blood and treasure, international jihadists have seen few echoes of their views in the Middle Eastern uprisings. Rather than call for the establishment of a regional caliphate or even Sharia governance in individual nations, or embrace jihad against infidels at home and abroad, the vast majority of the protests in every single country where they have occurred are about bread and butter issues (mainly jobs, food and public services) and demands for increased political voice, representation, government accountability and official transparency. As it turns out, these purportedly Western and anti-Islamic notions resonate more on the Arab Street than do appeals to martyrdom. Thus, the standard canard that democracy is inapplicable to the Middle East due to cultural preferences rings as hollow for al-Qaeda as it does for the autocrats who parade it as an excuse for their rule.

The picture is clear. Fevered warnings of fear-mongers aside (who now believe that Libya will fall into jihadist’s hands should civil war ensue), after years of fighting and preaching, the ideological appeal of Islamic fundamentalism has gained little traction with the Arab majority, who instead have voiced their preference for forms of governance that take their inspiration from the infidel West, not Usama bin Laden. Not only is al-Qaeda and its allies being militarilly degraded bit by bit all over the world, in a process that may be long but where the outcome is inevitable. More importantly (and which contributes to their inevitable military defeat as a global armed actor capable of challenging for power in all but the most miserably failed states), they have been utterly defeated in the battle of ideas in the very region from whence they originated.

That makes jihadists the biggest losers of all.

UPDATE: I spent a week on holiday out of IT reach thinking about this issue, and a day after I get back and post about it the NYT decides to follow suit.

Chávez backs Gaddafi?

datePosted on 19:02, February 25th, 2011 by Lew

Via The Egonomist, on twitter, the news that Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez has apparently expressed support, on twitter, for Muammar Gaddafi, whose mercenaries and loyalists are presently butchering Libya’s citizens.

The tweet, in Spanish, is as follows:

Vamos Canciller Nicolás: dales otra lección a esa ultraderecha pitiyanqui! Viva Libia y su Independencia! Kadafi enfrenta una guerra civil!!

My Spanish is no good (Pablo can no doubt translate), but it seems to largely match the following, from the Al Jazeera English live-blog:

4:27am: Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan president, has backed Muammar Gaddafi on Twitter.
Chavez twitted:
“Gaddafi is facing a civil war. Long live Libya. Long live the independence of Libya.”

Without an understanding of the context this looks like a plain statement of fact: after all, Gaddafi is facing what looks very much like a civil war. But in light of Gaddafi’s recent speeches (and that of his son), which framed the uprising as a civil war started by malcontents, rather than as an expression of the Libyan peoples’ will; and urged loyalists to defend Libya from its internal enemies, the implication of Chávez’ message is pretty clear. He accepts Gaddafi’s framing wholesale; equates Gaddafi with his country and action against Gaddafi as action against Libya, just as the dictator himself did.

Gaddafi’s deep links to and close relationship with the Venezuelan leadership are well-documented. But one other factor suggests that the Venezuelan leadership buys the line that the unrest is not a response to Gaddafi’s oppression and the uprisings in nearby countries, but the work of foreign imperialists. Chávez’ reference to “Canciller Nicolás” presumably refers to Nicolás Maduro, mentioned shortly afterwards in the AJE thread:

5:01am: Venezuela’s top diplomat on Thursday echoed Fidel Castro’s accusation that Washington is fomenting unrest in Libya to justify an invasion to seize North African nation’s oil reserves.
Nicolas Maduro, the Venezuelan Foreign Minister said:
They are creating conditions to justify an invasion of Libya.

All this is pretty speculative. It’s sourced from twitter, a medium not well known for its clarity, and being hours old it’s still yet to be properly analysed or verified. So it may all be a great misunderstanding. No doubt Chávez will explain himself in due course. But the information does emerge from Chávez’ verified, official twitter account; it does echo previous anti-imperialist positions taken by the Venezuelan leader, and it generally seems to ring true.

It seems — and I think — that Hugo Chávez, the modern, popular, democratic socialist leader who was supposed to be different to all the murderous authoritarians who preceded him, has just come out in solidarity with one of the most murderous authoritarians yet left, defending the slaughter of his people for having the temerity to demand control of their nation.

I will be happy to be proven wrong. But if that’s revealed to be true in coming days, it’ll be your move, Chávez apologists.

L

The Penny Drops.

datePosted on 16:49, February 19th, 2011 by Pablo

No matter how much electoral trapping and facade “democratic” niceties it may want to put on it, authoritarian rule is ultimately based on force. It is a limited or non-competitive form of political domination that uses the threat or deployment of organized violence in order to maintain its status quo. In times of peace the threat of force recedes into the background and is only used discretely and sporadically against those who persist in challenging the regime’s legitimacy and authority. In times of challenge and duress, it comes to the fore and is used en masse.

Amid all the optimism about what the wave of protests mean for the Middle East, this fact seems to have been lost. Even the US government initially seemed to think that by it demanding that ME regimes show “restraint” and move to democratise, they inevitably would. This type of neo-imperial hubris demonstrates a lack of understanding of authoritarian dynamics as well as of its own limited influence in fostering foreign regime change short of war. The bottom line is that so long as an authoritarian regime can retain the loyalty of the repressive apparatuses and these are united and determined in quelling protest, then it will prevail against its opposition even if it engages in cosmetic reforms.

That has now become evident in the latest evolution of the ME protests. In Bahrain and Libya the autocrats have decided to take a hard-line on protests, resulting in deaths and injuries to dozens. Jordan has followed suit, albeit with less deadly force. Weaker than the other three, the Yemeni regime has had a more difficult time marshaling its forces against demonstrators, but is now doing so.  In Egypt and Tunisia after the deposal of the executive despots, the military has adopted a more inflexible position regarding protests. In Algeria, rival power factions use armed demonstrations as inter-elite negotiating tools even as they agree to jointly repress anything that appears to be an independent vehicle for expression of dissent. The authoritarian penny has dropped.

The tipping point has come in Baihran. Situated on a island off of Saudi Arabia but with close sea proximity to Iran, a former Iranian possession with a 70 percent lower class Shiia population now ruled by a Sunni Arab absolute monarchy, home port to the US 5th fleet that maintains a carrier task force in the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea at all times (in no small part because these contain the sea lanes through which most ME oil passes through, to say nothing of the geo-strategic logics at play), an unchecked Shiia uprising there is seen as a grave threat to the entire Sunni world (Saudi Arabia itself has a 20 percent Shiia population). Fears of Iranian influence in resident Shiia protests have focused the attention of the Gulf states as well as their Arab neighbours, and the larger geopolitical consequences of internal protests coupled with a more assertive Iranian presence in the region (exemplified by the sending of a small Iranian naval task force through the Suez Canal on its way to a port visit in Syria, the symbolism of which is not lost on anyone), have convinced Arab leaders that they must first revert to the authoritarian bottom line before any serious discussion of reform can begin.

As for the Iranians, they have demonstrated quite clearly that they have no qualms about violently putting down protests that they consider to be seditious and orchestrated from abroad. The regime attitude was captured this week by Iranian Majlis (parliament) speaker Ali Larijani, who to a cheering gallery of pro-regime legislators called for the execution of opposition leaders linked to the latest protests. Methinks reform is a ways off in Iran.

No wonder then, that the US and other Western powers have modified their rhetoric in recent days and called for “restraint” without coupling that with calls for “democracy” in the Gulf. As I have attempted to explain in the series of previous posts, when the choice becomes one of “turbulence” versus stability, and turbulence is caused by internal protest overlapped on regional geopolitical maneuvering, then interest in democratic reform takes a back seat to reassertion of national authoritarian control that upholds the regional balance of power.

All of which means we can expect more blood to flow in the streets until the protests are suppressed, and that the Western response will be much public hand-wringing and lamentation coupled with a private sigh of relief.

The “transitions” diachronology.

datePosted on 18:05, February 17th, 2011 by Pablo

I decided to package my posts about events in the Middle East in chronological order as they appeared, add an introduction and summary by way of framing the discussion, and send it to the nice folk at Scoop to use as this month’s Word from Afar column. By and large, I think that it holds together pretty well in light of events. It is a pity that I could not add some of the interesting discussion in the threads that followed the posts (since the essay was already at the upper word limit for an op-ed), but I did keep them in mind as I did the edit and added the bracketing material. In any case, the test of whether my analysis is right or wrong will play out over the next few months, and I have no doubts that KP readers will hold me to account in either event.

The Other Learning Curve.

datePosted on 20:31, February 15th, 2011 by Pablo

Media coverage of events in Egypt and the rest of the Middle East display a willful ignorance of the realities on the ground. It is one thing for the participants in the Egyptian and Tunisian demonstrations to see themselves at the vanguard of a revolutionary moment. They are, after all, immediately involved in the process, and have felt the intensity of the moment with visceral awareness. But because they are the participants, many do not have the objective distance required to see the bigger picture at play.

Foreign governments have utilised the moment to pursue their own agendas in the Middle East: witness the US calls for demonstrations in Iran to be allowed to proceed unimpeded and Iranian calls for more uprisings in the Sunni Arab world, both of which clearly have geopolitical motives beyond support for democracy (if even that). Media outlets may see themselves not so much as disinterested reporters of events as accelerators of the revolutionary sweep. By constantly calling events “revolutionary” and emphasising the new and apparently “uncontrollable” networking possibilities of social media, the media make themselves protagonists in their own stories, in a meta replication of the micro reporting of events on the ground. First-person accounts of the likes of Anderson Cooper are designed to give personal “feel” to “real time” reporting even if it is consumed in immediate minutia rather than the bigger picture. This is a variant on embedded journalism–now it is the crowds rather than military units into which reporters are seconded. More broadly, traditional print and visual media run stories about the role of Facebook and Twitter while interjecting their own opinions about the impact of the new media. In effect, the media are more than participant observers–they attempt to be shapers not only of opinions but of the events themselves.

It is understandable that those involved in the demonstrations see themselves as revolutionaries and it is laudable, in some measure, that corporate media outlets want to contribute to the revolutionary momentum, such as it is. But there is another side to the story, one that involves interests and actors with objectives that are directly the opposite of the “revolutionaries.” That is the dark side of the crisis learning curve.

Across the Middle East and elsewhere, authoritarian leaders have received a wake up call about ignoring popular discontent. But what they have learned does not necessarily mean that they will give up their autocratic ways and open up their political systems in a democratic, much less revolutionary direction. To the contrary. What they have learned is that they must get out in front of incipient or embryonic protests by using a mixture of inducements and constraints (carrots and sticks, if you will), that allow them to reform-monger around the edges of their rule but which do not, as Gramsci noted long ago, “touch the essential” of the regime–to wit, its economic foundations, class base and power distribution.

Already, the response to demonstrations and protests in Iran, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, Jordan and, in the wake of Ben Ali’s exile, Tunisia, has been a mix of selective repression and preemptive reform. The repressive aspect is designed to prevent large scale mass mobilisations that require mass-scale repression. Instead, via the selective targeting of would-be protest leaders, the monitoring and censoring of social media networks, restrictions and controls on movement, to include access to food, health care and other public goods, authoritarians hope to pre-emptively decapitate the opposition before it is well organised. Let us remember that at its height the Egyptian protests amounted to 300,000 people in a country of 80 million, so the selective targeting of incipient leaders, to include more than their mere arrest and detention, sends a chilling message to all but the most hard-core opponents of the regime. Since most disaffected people are more interested in immediate things such a more employment, lower or stable food prices, reducing crime and having regular access to everyday public services rather than revolutionary regime change, they will see selective repression for what it is: the use of force against those who would directly challenge “the essential” for goals that are not immediate but ethereal. For the majority uninterested or unwilling to challenge the essential, avoiding being a target becomes a major concern. Individual fear of persecution, in effect, becomes a debilitating constraint on collective action.

For the carrot and stick approach to work, the repressive apparatuses of the state must remain loyal to the regime. But something else must occur as well. There must also be inducements offered that mitigate public anger. That requires the offering of concessions regarding political participation, which can be granted via cooptation into existing political structures or the incorporation of new ones. More importantly, immediate material concerns need to be addressed in order soften the context in which discussions of political reform are engaged. The more material concerns are immediately satisfied, the more amenable to regime initiatives the population will be, which in turn will impact on the political opposition’s strategy and demands. It will also help isolate the hardline elements in the opposition from the majority, thereby making the former easier to repressively target while reinforcing the context in which “reasonable” opposition demands will be heard.

Confronted by such a mix of incentives and disincentives, it will be hard for the non-militant majority–who are rationally risk adverse, as are we all–to not abandon support for radical regime change in favour of a more reformist option.

This is what Middle Eastern autocrats are contemplating at the moment. It is not about democratic opening but about controlled manipulation of popular unrest to ensure continuation, even if in changed garb, of the status quo. To this can be added one other factor in their favour: the attitude of the international community.

For all the rhetoric about democracy, freedom and human rights, the international community as a whole (by that I mean nation-states, international organisations and private transnational actors) abhor two things–power vacuums and instability. If the prospect of democratisation in the Middle East brings with it the risk of radicalisation and the destabilisation of the regional balance of power, which in turn raises the potential for war, then the international community, albeit behind a veil of crocodile tears, will quietly work to ensure that the status quo is preserved in one form or another. Individually and collectively it will publicly speak about freedom and quietly work for accommodation. And if that fails and conflicts become violent (particularly if they are fueled by foreign sponsors or irregular transnational actors), it may preferentially side with the forces of repression rather than change. That may not be a nice or ethically superior choice, but for the powers that be in the Middle East and beyond, it is the only choice, made out of self-interested necessity.

Why a putsch is not a revolution.

datePosted on 16:21, February 12th, 2011 by Pablo

Some definitional clarification is in order when viewing events in Egypt. A coup is the overthrow of a regime by the military. A putsch is the involuntary removal of government leaders within an extant regime. Neither is a revolution, even if occurring within the context of mass protest. Thus what has occurred (so far) in Egypt is neither revolutionary or a coup. It is a putsch carried out within a context of social unrest and mass mobilisation. It is a forced internal reconfiguration of the military-dominated regime that has been in power one way or another for over thirty years, and it has been carried out precisely to maintain the regime in the face of popular protests that centred on Hosni Mubarak but which do not challenge the military’s primacy in Egyptian politics.

The removal of an individual in a military putsch is NOT a democratic revolution, even if the masses rejoice. It is an internal transfer of power that may or may not lead to regime liberalization, which itself does not imply a genuine move towards democracy. It will be interesting to see if internal reconfiguration of the Egyptian regime leads to significant reform over the long term. Foreign pressure will not play a decisive role in the military calculations on whether to reform, retrench or repress. That will be a function of inter-elite bargaining and the organisational strength and practical demands of the opposition. But one thing is sure: due to issues of corporate self-interest and professional autonomy, the Egyptian military has no interest in exercising long-term control over the governmental apparatus. Instead, its interest lies in overseeing the conditions leading to the September 2011 elections, with the primary objective being maintenance of social stability, resumed economic growth and geopolitical continuity no matter who wins the presidency and parliamentary majority.

That is the bottom line of the Egyptian “transition.”

Political rights and economic rights.

datePosted on 16:19, February 8th, 2011 by Pablo

Recent discussions have reminded me of the relationship between economic and political rights, and the varying interpretations of it. For orthodox Marxists economic rights supersede political rights for two reasons: 1) without an equitable material distribution of resources political rights mean nothing; and 2) with an equitable material distribution of resources there is no need for political rights.  In this view “politics” is either a status quo instrument of domination that conforms the masses to the requirements of production in a system dominated by private interests, or is a means of revolutionary challenge to that status quo. In neither case is it an end of itself. Subsequent Leninist, Stalinist and Maoist interpretations all concur with this view.

Socialists see economic rights as taking precedence over but not superseding political rights. Here the view is that economic rights are more important than political rights but the latter are needed to ensure the just distribution of material resources in a society. Even if imposed by dictatorial fiat, the maintenance of economic rights requires popular participation in the decision-making process surrounding the collective allocation of resources. That is a matter of political rights.

Social democrats see political rights preceeding economic rights. Here the priority is on gaining political rights first in order to subsequently secure economic rights to the material benefits of production. Since they see political rights as a universal good, they recognise the rights of non-socialists in the political arena, which means operating from a position of structurally-conditioned disadvantage within capitalist societies. The emphasis thus shifts from control of production to redistrubution of surpluses (via taxation and state involvement in the social relations of production, mostly).

The Right has its own interpretations of the relationship. Libertarians place the emphasis on political rights (e.g. the right to do as they please so long as it harms no other) and, in the most extreme version, do not believe in economic “rights.”  Beyond that, the Right gets a bit fuzzy. Some free-marketeers assume the precedence of economic rights over political rights, so long as the rights conferred are market-driven in  nature (i.e., the “right” to make a buck without government interference). Other conservatives see political rights trumping economic rights (e.g. “no taxation without representation” or the right to mandate morality on a collective scale). The Right notion of economic rights differs from the Left notion, as it is not about material redistribution but about unfettered access to and freedom within an economic system controlled by private interests. Likewise, the Right view of political rights is more about freedom of choice and expression rather than about vehicles of collective redress and representation.

Showing my colours, I subscribe to the view that political rights are required for economic rights to obtain. The formation of unions, the extension of suffrage, the recognition of indigenous claims, the redress of past injustices, the acceptance of  universal “human” rights and the very ability to speak truth to power and challenge the status quo or elements of it all hinge on the prior granting of legal authority, or at least recognition, to do so. That is a political act, and legal recognition is the certification of political rights. That makes the move to secure political rights the precondition for the eventual recognition of other rights, to include those of an economic nature.

This is the hidden factor in transitions from authoritarian rule. The transition is most fundamentally marked by the extension of political rights to previously excluded groups, who in turn use the opportunity to agitate for previously unobtainable economic rights. The more the extension of political rights is achieved by force and economic rights redefined as a result, the more revolutionary the character of the regime change. The more negotiated the extension of political and economic rights, the more reformist the change will be.

This is just a broad sketch and not meant to be a definitive pronouncement. Readers are welcome to add their own intepretations as they see fit (within the bounds of civility, of course).

Recent discussions here at KP have revealed some misunderstandings of what constitutes a “revolution” and what the prospects for democracy are after an authoritarian regime collapse or withdrawal. Specifically, there appears to be some confusion in the minds of some readers as to the difference between revolutions and revolts, uprisings, coups d’etat and other forms of regime change. Most worrisome, there appears to be a belief, apparently shared by many in the Western Press, that revolutions are intrinsically good things and lead to democracy. Although I have tried to dispel some of these notions in the commentary about other posts, let me address the issue directly and explain some dynamics of regime change that impact on the direction of said change and the prospects of democracy after the collapse or withdrawal of an authoritarian regime.

First of all, let it be clear: Revolutions are not just a transfer of political power. They are a form of mass collective violence mobilized against a political regime and its repressive apparatus that results in the overthrow of that regime and  its replacement with a new political, social and economic order. Second, no revolution in the 20th century led to democracy as a direct result. Ever. What revolutions do is replace one authoritarian regime with another. This is due in part to the fact that what it takes to be a successful revolutionary leader is ruthless determination, ideological zealotry, supreme organizational, strategic and tactical skills in both the armed and propaganda fields, and an unwillingness to compromise in pursuit of victory. That is not the stuff that genuine democrats are made of. In fact, the very traits that make for good democratic leadership are anathema to revolutionary leaders. Hence, if one has a preferential bias in favour of democracy, then revolutions are not the best way to achieve it. If one is less interested in democratic outcomes and more interested in imposing a preferred social construct, then revolutions are the best way to achieve that end.

The other major reason why revolutions lead to authoritarian outcomes is because the defeated authoritarian regime has allies and supporters inside and outside the country that will continue to attempt to block revolutionary reforms after the change in power. These counter-revolutionary forces include former opposition factions that do not share the militant revolutionary goals even though they participated in a tactical alliance with hard-liners against the ancien regime. Confronted by a more radical agenda for change than they anticipated or are prepared to accept, such moderate opposition factions tend to switch sides and propose a moderate counter-revolutionary platform that only serves to strengthen the resolve of the revolutionary hard-liners.

Needless to say, for a revolution to be successful the opposition must be organised and have mass support, while the old regime must suffer decisive internal fractures, especially within its security forces and in the relationship between the repressive apparatuses and the regime elite. So long as there is ideological unity and corporate discipline within the armed forces and other security agencies and the regime elite retain the loyalty of those specialised in the management of organised violence, then no amount of external pressure will topple it. This is true even if some regime leaders are sacrificed to appease public discontent and cooptive reforms or concessions are offered to mollify specific grievances and induce opposition acceptance of the “new” regime (which itself is a divide-and-conquer tactic used on the opposition that allows to the regime to more clearly target intransigent factions within the former). As part of this, a leadership coup or putsch may occur in which despised individuals are replaced by more nondescript or less tainted people who are nevertheless committed members of the ruling elite.

Thus, revolutions are neither always progressive or democratic, as the Iranian Revolution demonstrates. For those interested in seeing a democratic outcome to situations of authoritarian regime crisis amid popular unrest, there is actually a baseline formula that needs to obtain, and it falls far short of revolution. Let me explain.

Authoritarian regimes and their oppositions can be broadly divided into hard-line and soft-line (militant  and moderate) factions. Hard-liners in the regime are usually the political leadership and those directly engaged in acts of repression during its tenure (which can extend down to street level police, paramilitary thugs, intelligence agents and, if complicit, elements of the military itself). Soft-line elements of the authoritarian regime are those who benefited from it but who did not have visible decision-making roles and those uninvolved in repression, as well as the minority few who genuinely worked from the inside to promote reform.

Hard-liners in the opposition are ideological militants and those who suffered directly at the hands of the authoritarian regime. Their suffering can be physical or economic and their numbers depend on how repressive and criminal the regime was in its dealings with political opponents and non-allied economic and social agents. For the hard-line opposition, the thirst is for revenge, not reconciliation. On the other hand, soft-liners in the opposition are all those who, while having a dislike for the authoritarian elite, did not suffer directly at its hands. For them, the issue is not so much revenge as it is change.

The formula for a democratic transition stemming from authoritarian collapse or withdrawal is simple. If hard-liners dominate both the authoritarian elite and the opposition, the prospects for a democratic outcome are negligible and civil war is probable. If hard-liners dominate the regime and soft-liners dominate the opposition, then regime continuity with minor reforms is the likely outcome. If soft-liners dominate the regime and hard-liners dominate the opposition, the reforms will be more significant but regime continuity will most likely occur simply because of the fear of retribution amongst the regime elite and its supporters when confronted with a hard-line opposition victory.

The only situation is which a transition to democracy is a potential outcome is one where soft-liners dominate in both the regime and opposition. The trouble for these actors is that they must fend off and eventually subordinate their hard-line counterparts while at the same time negotiating the terms and conditions for a transfer of power to openly elected authority. That is a very delicate matter that involves, among other things, an “ethical compromise” whereby both sides agree not to prosecute most of those responsible for state atrocities or insurrectionary violence (in other words, although some notorious figures may be offered up as sacrificial lambs by both sides, the bulk of those involved in human rights abuses and non-state terrorism will walk free). The examples of the Southern Cone of Latin America, Central America and South Africa are illustrative in this regard. If anything, prosecution of human rights violators must wait until the new regime is more or less consolidated in its institutional structure and in the transparent application of universal law. That can take decades.

Hard-liners on both sides will see the soft-liner negotiations for what they are and move to denounce them as sell-outs and lackeys. The more secret the negotiations between the soft-liners on each side the more the minority hard-liners will resort to obstructionist and provocative tactics to thwart any agreement. This can involve internecine as well as partisan bloodshed. The more the hard-liners can thwart soft-liner agreement, the less likely it will be that a peaceful transition of power to a democratically-elected authority will occur.

The strategic position of the country in question will impact on the influence of external actors. In strategically inconsequential countries, external actors will be less inclined to involve themselves in domestic crises and will prefer to observe an internal resolution so long as it does not impact on their national or material interests. Conversely, in countries that have strategic import or geopolitical significance, the more likely it is that external actors, acting individually or in consort, will involve themselves in efforts to shape the outcome. For them, expending diplomatic capital is necessary because of the stakes involved, especially when a transition outcome could have deleterious repercussive effects on regional or international stability.

And that, in sum, is why democratic outcomes of popular revolts against authoritarian regimes are less probable than many hope for. Besides the non-democratic outcome of genuine revolutions involving the overthrow of an authoritarian elite, the dynamics of regime extrication and replacement are such that the more likely outcome of a transition short of revolutionary overthrow is authoritarian regime restoration under different guise, limited democratisation with ongoing authoritarian elite veto power, authoritarian reaffirmation or high-or low-level civil war.

Best to keep that in mind when observing recent events in the Middle East.

Expecting too much from the Tunisian crisis.

datePosted on 16:43, January 22nd, 2011 by Pablo

The lack of understanding of what the Tunisian political crisis represents has been alarmingly evident in the media coverage of it. Journalists have said such inanities as “until a couple of days ago Tunisia was a beacon of stability in the region…” and raised the possibility of a so-called ripple effect spreading from Tunis to other North African states. They have called the popular uprising against the ousted president Ben Ali the “Jasmine Revolution,” thereby demonstrating their profound ignorance of what a revolution really is. The truth is that Tunesia was a small powder keg waiting to blow but no one wanted to state the obvious about it, and when it did blow the reaction has been to over-estimate its magnitude and repercussive effects. 

Let me dispel some of these misrepresentations. First, the uprising in Tunisia is not a revolution. A revolution is an overthrow of the state by a mass-based, ideologically-driven and collectively organised armed resistance movement that results in parametric change in the political, economic and social institutions governing society. In Tunisia what occurred was sometimes violent popular demonstrations against an unpopular and corrupt long-serving despot which precipitated an inter-elite crisis that resulted in the exile of Mr. Ben Ali, his family and close allies. The regime did not fall, the military has re-gained control of the streets and the protests have not coalesced into an organised, focused, counter-hegemonic opposition that poses itself as an alternate sovereign and has the capacity to engage in a war of maneuver against the repressive apparatuses of the state. All the demonstrations and protests have done is allow the Tunisian regime the opportunity to reform-monger in order to placate popular discontent while shifting the focus of blame on the disgraced former president. The “opposition,” such as it is, has no plan for taking control of the reigns of state, has no program for governing, and is in fact mostly made up of jobless youth aimlessly venting their rage at symbols of power rather than constructively organising am effective counter to it. Given those facts it is naively optimistic to expect that the crisis will result in major change of a democratic sort. It may be the impetus for a political opening, but it is no guarantee of it.

As for the “ripple effect” of the purported “Jasmine Revolution.” Undoubtedly the Arab street has taken notice of the Tunisian crisis and oppositions in places like Egypt, Algeria, Jordan, Morocco and Libya have been encouraged by the events in Tunis. But the elites in these countries have also taken notice and have no doubt shared information with each other on the nature and threat posed by their respective domestic oppositions. Largely disorganised and ideologically heterogeneous, Arab oppositions also often have overt Islamicist tendencies in incipient leadership positions (and in some cases, like Algeria, an active Islamicist armed resistance tied to al-Qaeda), something that will prompt Western backing for the political status quo in these countries even if they go about re-shuffling their own leadership cadres as a result of the warning provided by the Tunisian crisis. Where these oppositions do have an organisational core, it is more often than not undemocratic in nature and, in the case of Islamicists, explicitly opposed to democracy and supportive of a return to theocratic rule (in states that by and large have worked hard to promote a measure of institutional secularism that coexists with religious hierarchies operating in parallel spheres of influence).

Then there is the lesson of other so-called “colour revolutions” such as the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine, Rose Revolution in Georgia and Tulip Revolution in Kyrygyzstan. These have resulted not in democracy in these states but in the emergence of electoral authoritarian regimes that, if better than the former Soviet republics that they replaced and certainly more pre-Western in nature,  do not come close to offering the full measure of voice, representation, transparency and accountability that their adherents so fervently hoped for during the heady days of street protests that ushered in regime change in each.

Thus a sober assessment of the Tunisian crisis should see it for what it is: a wake up call to the Tunisian and other Arab political elites that ignoring simmering popular discontent and failure to engage in macroeconomic and socio-political reforms will ultimately cause tensions to boil over, and such popular boil-overs pose the risk of regime change if well-organised and supported in the face of regime paralysis. It also means that just because a regime is pro-Western does not mean that a blind eye should be cast on its excesses and exclusions, if for no other reason than doing so will encourage the type of leadership behaviour that gives ideological ammunition to extremists who otherwise would not gain the support of the majority.

For Arab oppositions, the lessons are also clear. “Spontaneous” revolts may garner media attention, but nothing substitutes for ideological consistency, collective organisation and the cultivation of mass appeal in preparation for the moment when what Rosa Luxemburg called the “mass strike” is to be launched. And that, of course, is exactly what the Arab political elites are already keenly focused on preventing with the aid and assistance of their Western counterparts, all under the guise of the so-called “war on terrorism.” Even so, the intelligence failures, particularly by the French and the US, to even remotely predict the unrest in Tunisia speaks volumes about Western lack of understanding of the real dynamics on the ground in North Africa. I mean, how hard is it to assess that a long-lived, openly despotic kleptocracy with repressive contempt for its own citizens would engender popular resentment against it, especially with unemployment levels running at 15 percent of the adult population and more than 20 percent for males under the age of 30? Or does being “pro-Western” absolve such regimes of all sins? Is this what passes for “stability” in the myopic eyes of the Western press and diplomatic corps, or is the mere lack of an organised opposition that gives such regimes a mantle of legitimacy they neither deserve or have in practice? In other words, does the absence of a viable opposition by default grant authoritarian regimes legitimacy (at least in the eyes of the West if not their own people)?

This is not to say that all opposition is futile. To the contrary. But incipient democracy movements in these countries need to refine their message into a clear ideological counter to the status quo, seek to establish broad based constituencies based upon coherent platforms for policy reform, and look to each other as well as viable interlocutors in the West so as to jointly press for substantive reform of their respective political systems while deflecting accusations of ideological extremism and inflexible militancy. Until they do so they will be seen as a rabble rousing mob rather than as a viable political alternative.

That is why the Tunisian crisis, while significant for both its domestic and regional implications, is more of a false hope than a first step in the democratisation of North Africa. For the latter to happen both elite and popular attitudes towards governance will need to change, and nothing in the character of regional oppositions or the tone of their approach to organised resistance, to say nothing of government responses to popular discontent, indicates that is about to happen anytime soon regardless of the immediate impact of the winter of Tunisian discontent.

Bloody liability

datePosted on 10:41, January 19th, 2011 by Lew

Sarah Palin, as has been clear for some years now, has an unmatched talent for drawing the spotlight. A week after the infamous ‘blood libel‘ video she’s still at it today, pouring more fuel on a fire which should never have been started. ‘Blood libel’ and the American Right’s shrieking, paranoid victim complex are now a bigger story than the (attempted) murder of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and others at a political rally outside a suburban supermarket. That takes an awful lot of doing.

But she simply doesn’t know when to shut up. Let me be clear: I’m by no means saying that she must shut up, or even that I want her to shut up; nor am I attempting to curtail her First Amendment rights or impinge upon her cherished liberty — let there be no persecution fantasies regarding the humble analysis which is to follow. Palin’s conduct is a matter of political strategy for her PAC, the wider Tea Party movement and ultimately the Republican party. If they want to keep pursuing a strategy which, politically, is a hiding to nothing, then far be it from me to stand in their way. But I am arguing, as are plenty of Republican-oriented strategists, including former Bush advisor David Frum — that as a matter of strategy she should just shut the hell up and resume her place on the fringes of this topic, because there’s nothing to be gained and an awful lot to be lost by continuing to fan these flames. Frum is hardly a bleeding-heart liberal; he invented the ‘Axis of Evil’. He is also Jewish, as is Rep Giffords, so one assumes the misuse of ‘blood libel’ by a renegade WASP like Palin has special salience to him.

Let me also say that Palin and the Tea Party had some right to be angry at the invective levelled at them and their movement in the immediate aftermath of the Tucson shooting. I generally agree with Pablo’s previous points, that Palin and the Tea Party must bear some responsibility for the climate of discourse they have created; but I’d also say that they have not created such a climate on their own. While disproportionately on the elephant side, warlike imagery and symbols of political violence are a commonplace in both camps of US politics. Influential US liberal commentators, notably Keith Olbermann, jumped all too gleefully upon the chance to all but blame Palin (and Beck, etc) for pulling the trigger, although at best there is only a tenuous link between Jared Lee Loughner’s anti-government sentiments and the Tea Party. (Although it is often overlooked that Olbermann’s rant also called strongly upon the American left to repudiate (not refudiate) violence in word and deed). The extent of the speculation and the attempts to pin the murders on Palin and the Tea Party before the dust had settled were unmerited and, as I say, the objects of these accusations were justified in a certain amount of self-righteous indignation.

But one of the defining characteristics of the Tea Party, and of libertarian-oriented small-government revivalist movements in general, is their utter lack of perspective, and Palin simply went too far. These are people who genuinely believe taxation to be armed robbery, after all. So, like the white supremacist who blames all misfortune on immigrants; like the misogynist who bemoans the PC feminazi dykocracy; or the wealthy white elderly Sensible Sentencing Trust supporters who believe themselves to be the most vulnerable victims of crime, when, objectively, the reverse is true — the Tea Partiers and Palin simply can’t see past their own trivial victimisation to the actual and genuine victims of the Arizona tragedy, those who are dead, wounded or bereaved. IrishBill, writing at The Standard recently referred to these sorts as Right Whingers, and the persecution narrative is a feature of modern backlash movements: when elites come under such threat that they feel as if they no longer command the fields of cultural battle, they claim to have been victimised. And they go on and on about it. “Help, help, we’re being repressed!

Nobody likes a whinger or someone who talks a big game but can’t play, especially in US politics. One of the Republican party’s strongest symbolic assets through the latter 20th century has been the sense that it’s a party of rugged individuals with the thousand-yard gaze of their pioneer forebears, while the Democrats are a bunch of preppy sissies with excuses always at the ready. To an extent there’s been some truth to this narrative, but the “all hat and no cattle” label attached to Bush did his party’s political fortunes considerable harm, and Palin has already weakened her own pioneer and Mama Grizzly credentials immeasurably with the now-infamous ‘hunting’ episode of Sarah Palin’s Alaska. In it, despite her claim to being a life-long hunter, she appears unfamiliar with her rifle (“does it kick?”), is unable to chamber her own rounds (daddy does it for her); and takes five shots to hit a large animal standing on a skyline 120 yards away (and then there’s the estimate that a hunting trip in her home state cost $42,000 — not very pioneerish, that).

Likewise, the emergence of the Tea Party and its rather more extreme rhetoric has seen the erosion of the traditional, conservative pioneer narrative in favour of a more excitable tone — perhaps a shift from ‘pioneer’ to ‘revolutionary’ would be the metaphorical change. This shift in itself is not a weakness, except when its less favourable characteristics come to the fore, and it is these aspects of the Tea Party movement which the Democrats and other liberals have been emphasising: its crazed extremes and frightening rhetoric; the cultish, heightened emotionality of leaders like Glenn Beck, which verges on the religious; its lack of concern with details like grammar, factual accuracy and proportion; its brittleness and temporary, ad-hoc nature as opposed to the reliable stability of the Grand Old Party.

By resort to the strident ‘blood libel’ line, Palin has fallen into the trap of confirming — and defending — key aspects of the liberal narrative about her and by extension about her movement: she lacks any sense of perspective or proportion, public decorum or decency or compassion; she is an attention-seeker with a persecution complex who thinks it’s always all about her; she doesn’t know what the terms she uses actually mean; that they’re desperate cranks rather than serious statespeople; and most seriously, that she can dish it out but not take it. This last will be the master narrative going into the 2012 Presidential election, in the increasingly unlikely event that Palin is the nominee, and Democrats and liberals the world over relish the prospect of a proven big-game player like Obama against a scattergun show-pony like Palin.

The decision to release and then defend the ‘blood libel’ video is a double tragedy for the Republican party, who took a strong lead in the November mid-terms, and have now missed the best opportunity in a decade to consolidate that lead by looking like the calm, sober, conservative adults they claim to be and to represent. Palin’s decline may be better for them in the long term; many commentators are now confirmed in the belief they held before the mid-terms that she had outlasted her usefulness as an energising agent, and is now simply a liability, a distraction from the serious business of government to which the GOP must now turn its attention.

L

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