Tag archives for Egypt

Can Egypt Happen in the US?

Umair Haque at the Harvard Business Review offers a grim appraisal of current society, and our future. The mechanisms of the economy that used to support growth now work towards a singular purpose; the transfer of wealth to an increasingly smaller and smaller segment of the population.

And for far too many people, yesterday’s economic institutions are literally not delivering the goods. Yes, the tools of capitalism have lifted entire nations out of poverty. But for decades, real prosperity has been flat. Now, at a macroeconomic level, our current economic institutions simply transfer prosperity upwards, to the richest 10% –> 1% –> 0.1% –> 0.01% and so on. This is what I call a global “ponziconomy” — a titanic, gleaming whirling, wealth transfer machine.

Youth unemployment hovers between 25% and 50% in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and across the Middle East, and has been pointed to as one cause of the revolution. But wait, the numbers aren’t much better for the US, or Western Europe, while in China the “Ant Tribe” of unemployed college graduates threatens stability. On a global scale, the workplace no longer has meaningful jobs to offer.

A problem can’t be solved within the context of the system that created it. Economic problems are the product of political, cultural, and technological systems. But as wealth is funneled ever upwards, people feel less and less connected to the political system, to the ruling elites, possibly even to each other. The sense of pessimism and defeat that has overtaken America is linked to a system that fails to reward success, and arbitrary punishes bad luck, in the form of poor investments, or health problems, or simple accidents, with immediate and permanent poverty. Outrage across the Left and Right is driven by a sense that the system is rigged, that winnings privatized and losses socialized, and that whatever color the politicians are, they’re working for the same elites.

Now, I don’t think Americans will take to the streets to oust their government. The challenge of the democratic, developed world is a quieter rebellion: against a bankruptcy not just of the pocketbook, but of meaning. It’s not to take a stand against a dictator, but to take a stand against an unenlightened, nihilistic, hyperconsumerist, soul-suckingly unfulfilling, lethally short-termist ethos that inflicts real and relentless damage on people, society, the natural world, and future generations.

If we want to deliver the goods — enduring, meaningful stuff that engenders real prosperity — we’re probably going to have start with delivering them to one another. Our untrammeled path back to prosperity — should we choose to blaze it — is millions of personal revolutions made up of billions of tiny choices that reclaim our humanity from the heartless merchants of indifference, fear, anger, and vanity.

Some say it’s impossible. Me? I believe that in a world of bogus prosperity, what’s impossible is for the status quo to stand.

I agree. We’re not going to revolt, only the lunatic fringe has so little to lose as to risk violence. But more and more often, we’ll see people opt out, and fall into alternative economies. Meaning is not like cash, it can’t be carried and exchanged freely, but its the only path to real personal fulfillment. But if we’re going to Prevail, it will take more than dropping out, it will take building alternative economies that support a material standard of life commensurate with human dignity, and consist of activities that we find intrinsically meaningful. Currently, our system does too much of the first and too little of the latter, but we should be careful to find a balance, and not fall all the way through into true poverty.

What Comes Next

This is a continuation of a previous post.

I won’t be breaking any news when I say that the Mubarak regime is done. At this juncture, the momentum of the crowd is only accelerating, the army has refused to intervene, and President Obama publicly has called for Mubarak not to run for re-election in the fall. American envoy Frank Weisner demanded Mubarak step down, and was rebuffed, but there doesn’t seem to be a pathway for Mubarak to maintain his grip on power. Asymetric warfare theorist John Robb has laid out the victory conditions for both sides. Essentially, Mubarak wins if he outlasts popular anger. The protestors win if Mubarak is forced to flee the country. With public services decaying, the security police discredited and demoralized, and victory close at hand, the protestors have no reason to stop with their central demand unmet. Conversely, there is literally nothing Mubarak has to offer, not promises of stability, not continued terror, only his departure.

EDIT: As I’m typing this, Mubarak has announced he will step down on the next elections. But I’d bet he’ll leave well before then.

So what happens next? I’d like to focus on three different issues, Egyptian politics, Israel, and democracy in the Middle East.

I will freely admit that I am not an expert on Egyptian politics. Consensus is that the best organized opposition group is Muslim Brotherhood, but that Mohamed ElBaradei is best situated to step into a leadership role. An internationally renown diplomat, ElBaradei is compromise figure who’s stature is his best asset, but who’s long separation from Egypt might hinder his effectiveness. The worry floating around American conservative circles is that the Egyptian revolution is a stalking horse for an Islamist takeover, similar to Iran in 1979. This may yet happen, we can’t know, but the faster the transition happens, the less likely religious groups will be able to exert a major influence. The chaos and uncertainty in Egypt right now favors people with local credibility, the neighborhood wardens and citizen-bloggers. The more time the situation has to settle, the more secular forces will fragment and the influence of the superior organization of the Muslim Brotherhood will tell on the elections.

If elections were held today, my prediction would be on a roughly 3 way split between secular protestors, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the entrenched military/intelligence forces of the government. While Mubarak may be discredited, a bureaucracy the size of Egypt’s security apparatus is not easily dismantled. While a confluence between the Islamist parties, and the military (the Iranian model) is worrying geo-politically, it’s not actually my main concern. Far worse for the Egyptian people would be a situation reminiscent of the French Revolution. As the monarchy collapsed, and the National Assembly took power, actual power devolved into the hands of demagogues, who in the name of “defending the revolution” and “punishing tyrants” committed untold atrocities. Now, the world as a whole has far more experience at democracy than it did in 1789, and the Terror was abetted by the efforts of European monarchies to destroy the new republic. There is no better way to turn a revolution paranoid and violent than by attacking it. The lesson here is that the world should offer its unconditional support to the Egyptian democracy in its embryonic stage, even if we do not like the immediate results.

Israel has suffered a major strategic reversal. Egypt, under the control of a geopolitical realist with ties to the US, was an important, if grudging ally. A return to hot war is unlikely, but ElBaradei has already indicated that he would open the Egyptian side of the Gaza border. Israel faces further strategic encirclement. Clinging to the past is not going to work, Israel should bow to the reality on the ground, and hail a strengthening of peaceful relations with the new democracy. While far from a good choice, taking a hard line now will only force worse choices in the future.

Finally, democracy in the Middle East. From Tunisia, the revolution has swept Egypt, forced the King of Jordan to dissolve his cabinet, and has lead to unrest across the region. Will the revolution continue? I have a feeling that if this initial movement were going to spread, it would have already. The emotional conditions, the heat of the moment, is changing. Potential revolutionaries elsewhere are investing their energies in Egypt for the time being. Social networking, a hyper-oxygenated public sphere, allows the flames of revolution to sprout with surprising speed, but other Middle Eastern autocrats appear to have a better grip on the grievances and mood of the people. In the long run, the example of Egypt (assuming it doesn’t immediately and obviously degenerate into a theocracy or civil war) should inspire democrats elsewhere in the region. With revolution as a distinct possibility, tyrants must take the grievances of their people seriously, including opening political freedoms.

The system, as it stands, has benefited America, which receives a cheap and reliable supply of oil. However, long term it was clearly unsustainable. Mubarak’s government will fall completely within the week. How many dictatorships will last out the year, or five years? Better democracy now, than chaos in an even tenser world later.

Social Media and the Revolution in Egypt

Revolution in Egypt is the story of the week. Over the past seven days, ordinary Egyptians have come together to oppose the 30 year rule of Hosni Mubarak. The protests are a wonder of civil disobedience, technological coordination, and bottom-up action. But what are the origins, chances, the potential outcomes, and options for US policy?

Revolution is like a fire. All the necessary ingredients can exist independently for years, only bursting into a self-sustaining conflagration under the proper conditions. Fires require fuel, oxygen, and heat to burn. Fire-fighting strategies rely on eliminating one side of the triangle. Wildfires are fought by separating the fire from more fuel, while conventional fires use water to reduce the amount of heat available. The social analogs to fuel, oxygen, and heat are grievances, the public sphere, and emotional intensity.

Grievances are the raw fuel of revolution. In the case of Egypt, three decades of misrule, oppression, torture, and the stifling of economic and political freedom have left the population with an endless stock of grievances. Except for a small class of Mubarak’s cronies, few people have benefited from his rule, and a society that was once integrated has become divided into an urban poor, and an exurban elite. The demands of the protestors have become unified into one simple message: Mubarak out.

The public sphere is vital for any protest to organize and gather moment. This includes both the conventional public sphere of streets and squares, and the public sphere of information. From the first, revolutionaries have used the latest in information and communication technology. Printing presses during the American Revolution, tape decks in the Iranian Revolution. The CIA smuggled Xerox machines in the Soviet Union to spread samizdat, the individual distribution of banned books and magazines, while the protestors in Tienanmen Square used fax machines to communicate with the world. More recently of the modern ICTs, text messaging helped bring down the Philipino President Jose Estrada, and social media like Twitter and Facebook has been central in the current Egyptian revolution, the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, and protests in Iran and the Ukraine.

Conventional counter-protest tactics involve squeezing out the public sphere. Physically, riot police and tanks can occupy strategic areas, with curfews for normal traffic. In the modern era, totalitarian regimes have attacked cyberspace as well. Egypt shut down the internet entirely for a day, while Iran slowed external access to a crawl during its crisis. And China is notorious both for a totalitarian system of internet traffic monitoring and censoring, and also for shutting down telecoms service during riots in Tibet and Xinjiang. While shutting down the public sphere is effective in stopping protests, it is risky, requiring the use of mass violence which might further inflame the opposition, and if continued for too long, can cause economic damage.

But don’t be confuse the utility of social networking with the necessity for it. As compared to other forms of ICT, social media plays into the third requirement for revolution; emotion. This is the non-quantifiable element which makes people dare to stand against power, to face batons and teargas and bullets in the name of liberty. Emotion is personal, internal, idiosyncratic, and social networking is about broadcasting your feelings, more than any specific information. A robust internet community can transmit and amplify anger and the demand for change. The sparks of rage can spread from city to city with incredibly rapidity. And once enough sparks have landed, and the crowds have gathered, the revolution becomes self sustaining. Optimism is counter by fear, the longstanding fear of the regime, and fear of future chaos and repercussions. In Egypt, the successful revolution in Tunisia provided the impetuous of hope to counter three decades of oppression. Mubarak has tried to instill fear in the population, by agent provocateurs and the threat of military force, but has so far proven unsuccessful. If the heat of the revolutionaries can outlast the resolve of the military, they will win.

The flame of revolution, kindled in Tunisia, is spreading through-out the Middle East. The authoritarian regimes are like a forest which has not burned for years, with piles of dead leaves and trees lying about. What happens next is impossible to predict, but sparks are jumping, governments falling, and a brave new world may be at hand.

Pt II: On what happens next, will follow tomorrow.