The Other Learning Curve.

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.

15 thoughts on “The Other Learning Curve.

  1. The media are in business. By showing breathless reports of embedded reporters they can help their viewers lose perspective and feel part of it too. Better informed commentators look down on the emotional media and the world goes around.

    Picking up on your more serious point of what will be the reaction. Obama has fluffed the opportunity or Obama is the master strategist. He gave a speech in Egypt that called for more democracy and lo the dictator was forced to step down. On the other hand he is being widely criticised now for not “doing more”, what I am not quite sure.

    Your point about 300,000 of 80 million is well made. Obviously the remaining 79.7m were at home being interviewed by Pew.

    The next leader of Egypt will be weaker than Mubarak as the people believe they have a genuine power. I found your comment in an earlier post about American officers being told to email their Egyptian counterparts to urge restraint to be a fascinating aside on the strength of military aid and engagement. The situation is similar to the climate researchers who are encouraged by prestige and research funds to remain on the path of warmist light rather than turn to the dark path of questioning the orthodoxy. The Egyptian military will find their prestige, aid and international acceptability enhanced by genuinely being the force for stability and a mediator between oppressive government and a rebellious people.

    The difference between the Egyptian military and the decision to scrap that left in Iraq seems to me to be its acceptability to the people. The Egyptian military are conscripts from the people unlike the narrow Sunni composition of Iraq.

    That constrains the choices of the civilian leadership. It was fairly obvious that the military deliberately held back and allowed the protests to continue to the point where they forced Mubarak to stand down.

    In your last para you seem to imply that it would be a good thing that Western democracies encourage autocracy in Arab countries to preserve stability. I hope I have misunderstood the implication. I think this could be the start of the Islamic enlightenment or it could be the start of democracy in Arab states followed by the Iran example. In either case it is only morally proper that the West encourages the people to follow their path, whether that be Islamic governance or Western style democracy rather being oppressed for the sake of stability.

    Clearly there is a risk of increased extremist Islamism but that is a risk we must take.

  2. When General Petain was given the task of quashing a revolt in the French military, he shot all the ringleaders and then conceded to all their demands. It’s remained a pretty good formula ever since.

    I think post-Tunisia many Middle Eastern autocrats didn’t think that there would be anything more than minor repercussions for them, not least in Egypt itself, where the regime didn’t make any concessions that weren’t behind the curve of what the demonstrators were asking for. But after Egypt I doubt anybody is willing to continue on the philosophy of “It could never happen here”. Frankly even autocrats well outside the Middle East could do worse than to use this as a chance to do a swift inventory of their mechanisms of repression.

  3. Phil:

    I hold no brief for authoritarians and imply no such thing as “it would be good” for the West to encourage autocracy. I am merely pointing out how the international system as a whole reacts to the prospect of instability and power vacuums. Incidentally, you may wish to reflect on the international reaction to what revolutionary regimes have been successfully installed by armed collective action. In all cases the reaction was negative and often hostile. In all cases the new regime was undemocratic. If the historical trend continues, that means that a violent power struggle resulting in the overthrow of the stats quo regime will be met with generalised (although not universal) international opprobium–just ask Iran. If the violent contest for power results in a status quo regime victory, the international community will recognise it immediately. The reasons, as I said in the post, have to do with international aversion to instability and uncertainty.

    BTW–your crack about the other 79.7 million answering Pew surveys was quite funny.

    Hugh: On this one we agree.

  4. Pablo: Dear god, it’s a Kodak moment!

    In all seriousness though there is an interesting discussion to be had about the way authoritarian regimes learn from one another’s failures. Many authoritarian regimes suffer from various degrees of nationalism, which always lends itself to an interpretation of events where circumstances in one country don’t have any implications for those outside the country. But I think that despite this many of the world’s more successful autocrats have been pretty keen students of the failures of their predecessors. For instance I’m pretty sure that the collapse of the USSR is required reading among the senior echelons of the Chinese Communist Party even if the lessons they draw from it are pretty particular.

  5. Phil:

    Consider that the Egyptian military equivalent of a Valentines Day card: they are making promises and commitments that they may or may not keep.

  6. Maybe the meaning is – accept the constitution offered or face having the election delayed.

  7. Pablo – Hilarious, I hope your partner does not read that comment ;)

    It costs them nothing to put it to a public vote, they will probably ensure the authors write a strongly secular constitution and give themselves a reason to intervene.

    I would be interested in Lew’s culturally based views on how the trust of the people will have a virtuous circle of influence on the behavior and direction of the military

  8. A Kodak moment indeed.

    Pablo’s analysis is a snapshot taken in the middle of a film before we know how the plot develops. I can see Pablo and Hugh standing against a backdrop of burnt buildings and rubble, swarmed over by thousands of volunteer cleaners, uploading certain conclusions.

    The main actor, the Jan 25 movement and its feeders, emerge as likable heroes. They won the battle of Tahrir square, which is now dedicated to its martyrs, resisted the police force and forced the army to stay on the sidelines for fear of a mass mutiny. Enough junior officers joined the movement when ordered to fire on the protesters to make this fear real.

    Inducements that appeal to individual self-interest cannot work anymore when there is nothing left in the cupboard. The solidarity and selfhelp that was created in Tahrir square points to a new way to organise society. Its promise was not lost on the members of the ruling class who fled with their booty. And while Israel is chuffed that Soleiman is still in palace I bet its polishing its warheads. And because of its compete hypocrisy you don’t see the US financing the democratic deficit. So where are the inducements to divide and rule coming from – adventure tourists?

    At this point in the film there are a few subplots developing. The most important is the number of strikes ongoing. This makes the estimate that only 300,000 are actively for radical change way off the mark. These are strikes that have been building for several years and have strong organisation behind them. Keep in mind also that the April 6th youth movement comes directly out of those labour struggles.

    Even the modest demands coming out of the strikes and those already publicly agreed to by the army, cannot be conceded in a bankrupt country in the middle of a global downturn. So that the question then becomes: how will things develop when this fact becomes clear to those engaged in political action?

    Here the political calculus based on US realpolitik begins to lose its grip. The forces unleashed begin to overflow the benchmarks. Talking down the revolution does not rescue the calculus, it makes talk speculative and founders on flawed assumptions.

    Here’s what I think will happen.

    The masses movement is a revival of the Arab revolution suppressed decades ago by military regimes and handpicked dictators. It was sparked by the new force on the block, unemployed university graduates with no future and nothing to lose. Is this the much vaunted knowledge revolution?

    Once this Arab revolution takes off across the whole of North Africa and Middle East it can only end in two ways – socialist revolution or counter-revolution. The outcome depends on the strength of the goodies vs the baddies.

    Rule by force cannot win when the population rejects it and stands up to it. 300 plus assassinations only strengthened the movement and destroyed the police. Police stations were sacked and weapons taken. Next in this scenario is the army. Conscript armies ordered to fire on the people will split and the bulk of the rank and file occupy the bases and use the stockpiles of weapons to mount a popular militia. This happened in Madagascar two years ago. State power is now excercised only by professional or mercenary forces of goons who have to be highly paid.

    Civil war thus ensues, as already exists in much of the Middle East from Gaza to Bazra. And in Afghanistan and the North of Pakistan and in the Caucasus. The outcome is decided by force of arms.

    This is the future of capitalism when its capacity to buy mass loyalty is no longer there, and the use of force eliminates the legitimacy of the state.

    Then it becomes a question much like Starwars. Will the ragtag armies of the downtrodden oppressed win out over the hightech deathstars of the US,EU,Israel? (Or in the event of revolutions in China or the former SU, China and Russia?)

    We have seen the movie many times. On the ground the masses will win. The deathstars only win when they destroy everybody and everything from afar including of course the biosystem. Will the ruling class risk all out destruction, of course it will. Will it get away with it?

    Well that’s depends on this directors cut. Its towards the end of the movie and you won’t know how it ends unless your part of it.

  9. Dave:

    That was an interesting interpretation with some good turns of phrase. I think that our differences come down to this: I watch non-fiction, real life and historical documentaries and interpret events accordingly. You watch Franz Fanon meets Regis Debray as channeled by George Lucas and Steven Speilberg (social science) fiction and read events as such. I do not take historical snapshots but instead assess political processes as they occur. You indulge in idealistic fantasies in which your “good” guys always win even though in real life they seldom do, and with mixed results in terms of equality and freedom at that.

    To each our own.

  10. Egypt Army agrees to uphold treaties. Does this mean no army in Sinaii? If so Does the Gaza border remain ‘sealed’ – and how did that Kornet anit-tank Merkava-killer missile get into Gaza anyway?

    I was kind of fond of Ghadaffi, in as much as one can be fond of a president-for-life sort, who proceeded to promote his children as replacemnents. But 50mm rounds and mortar shells against demos? Hard to be fond of that – if true.

  11. gbruno: That reminds me of an old Buchanan brothers rule: when the dictator starts wearing capes, he is soon to fall. Check out Ghaddafi’s outfits lately. The question is: who will be his successor? Someone better or someone worse?

    As for Gaza. I expect another conflict soon, especially after the US veto of the UNSC resolution condemning the illegal settlements. The Egyptians have reason to want to re-seal the border after the brief opening during the demonstrations, if for no other reason that it allows them to disavow or redress any unauthorised complicity in the transfer of weapons from Egypt into Gaza during the unrest.

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