The Egyptian Mess

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Behold, you are trusting in Egypt, that broken reed . . .
                                                                                   —Isaiah 36:6

No one should be surprised by the recent events in Egypt. Indeed, this analyst foretold them here. A people unable to rule itself or even get its living without foreign assistance is bound to wind up in a bad place, and right now Egyptians are in a very bad place indeed.

The history of Egypt is well known, so I will touch on it only briefly here. The valley of the Nile was home to one of the earliest and greatest civilizations created by man. That civilization eventually declined, and Egypt became the booty of foreign conquerors — Persians, Macedonians, Romans, Arabs, and Turks. Egypt was the breadbasket of the Roman Empire; the bounty of the Nile fed the Roman mob for centuries. Egypt’s population has been overwhelmingly Muslim since the Arab conquest in the 7th century CE. About 10% of its people are Coptic Christians.

Egypt enjoyed brief renaissances under the Fatimid dynasty (969–1171 CE) and then in the early 19th century under Muhammad Ali Pasha (1805–1848), an able military commander who nearly brought down the decaying Ottoman (Turkish) empire. Muhammad Ali’s descendants were the nominal rulers of Egypt until 1952, though from 1882 until the end of World War II it was Great Britain that actually ran the country. In 1952 the Egyptian Army seized power, which it held until the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in the popular revolution of early 2011.

We should be under no illusions that there is a libertarian spirit running through the Egyptian body politic.

Mirabeau referred to Prussia as an army with a state. That description would aptly fit modern Egypt. The Army is the ultimate arbiter of politics in Egypt. It also plays a large role in the Egyptian economy, operating businesses and farms that account for a significant portion of Egypt’s GDP. Its businesses pay no license fees or taxes, and all profits disappear “off budget” into accounts under Army control. On top of this, it receives over $1 billion per year in American military aid. Its position in the state is comparable to that of the People’s Liberation Army in China — except that its political influence is probably even greater than that exercised by the PLA. The Egyptian Army projects itself as the guardian of the state and the people, but in reality it is a semi-parasitic organism whose primary goal is self-perpetuation.

The main counterweight to the Army is the Muslim Brotherhood. Founded in 1928, it has survived persecution first by the British and then by its bitter rival, the Army. For decades it too has been a state within a state, operating clinics and schools generally regarded as superior to those provided by the government, and dispensing aid to widows, orphans, and others. Indeed, the social safety net created by the Brotherhood was not only tolerated but partly funded by the government, which came to see the Brotherhood’s work as a pillar of social stability. In part, the poorest of the poor in Egypt survive because the Brotherhood has been there for them.

Of course, the Brotherhood is first and foremost an Islamist organization. Its ultimate goal has been and remains the creation of an Islamic society guided by sharia law. After the revolution of 2011 and the Army’s withdrawal from direct governance, the Brotherhood sought to fill the power vacuum thus created.

The revolution of early 2011 was not instigated by the Brotherhood, but rather by Western-oriented and social network-connected young people, more secular than religious in outlook, who wished to see Egypt become something like a European social democracy. That the revolution occurred just as European social democracy was beginning to crumble is ironic but beside the point. We should be under no illusions that there is a libertarian spirit running through the Egyptian body politic. Even American-style political economy is incomprehensible to most Egyptians.

The young revolutionaries won out in 2011 because the Army had no desire to shoot people down in the streets. Moreover, repression might have forced America to rethink its relationship with the Egyptian military, thus jeopardizing that $1 billion in lucre for the Army’s coffers. Better to stand aside, the Army calculated, and sacrifice one of its own (the dictator Mubarak) to protect its corporate interest. It could wait upon events and intervene later if necessary.

Democracy had come to Egypt. . . Or had it? Only one-third of the electorate turned out to ratify the constitution.

After the revolution the “liberal” forces swiftly fell into disarray. The various groups differed among themselves; they lacked both organizational ability and an agreed-upon program. They frittered away the goodwill they had had garnered in the heady days immediately following Mubarak’s fall. When the interim military government relinquished power in 2012, the liberals were unprepared to govern or even mount an effective political campaign.

Enter the Muslim Brotherhood. At the time of the revolution the Brotherhood had downplayed its political ambitions, even claiming that it would not offer a candidate for president. But its rallies were attended by large and enthusiastic crowds, and as it saw its liberal rivals fragmenting, the prospect of power proved too alluring. With the military partially discredited by its past association with dictatorship, the Islamists (including the Brotherhood and the very conservative al-Nour Party) were free to jump into politics with both feet. In 2012 they won a majority in the new parliament and then elected Mohamed Morsi to the presidency with an absolute majority of 52%. A constitution promulgated by the Islamists was ratified by 64% of Egyptian voters. Democracy had come to Egypt.

Or had it? Only one-third of the electorate turned out to ratify the constitution; many non-Islamists refused to vote on a document that had been shaped along Islamist lines by the majority in parliament. Meanwhile, extra-constitutional steps were being taken against the judiciary and the media. This brought the secularists together again in opposition. The Brotherhood even alienated its Salafist allies in al-Nour, who found themselves marginalized as the Brotherhood’s arrogance grew.

Perhaps most important, the Brotherhood failed to grapple effectively with Egypt’s enormous economic problems. Forty percent of the population survives on the equivalent of $2 per day. Corruption is rife at all levels of society. Services as basic as electricity are often unavailable. It was certainly too much to expect that any man or party could correct these problems in a year’s time. But the Egyptian people were impatient. Many who had voted for the Islamists turned against the government when it failed to deliver basic improvements. Morsi and his supporters understandably took umbrage when the military warned them to compromise with the opposition forces. The president had been elected to a four-year term; surely he should be given that time to work out his plans for Egypt. That he had gone beyond constitutional bounds in some respects was not particularly unusual in the context of Egyptian politics. Nevertheless, when millions upon millions of Egyptians turned out across the country demanding his fall, the Army was bound to act. And the result was the recent coup.

When is a coup not a coup? When American law says that a country in which the military overthrows a democratically elected government cannot receive American aid. And so for the last few days we have witnessed the contemptible performances of the president and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as they wrestle to avoid the obvious. The ongoing massacre of language and truth being perpetrated by these men is prompted by the inexorable demands of empire: the Suez Canal remains a vital link for US forces deploying to the east. And the SUMED oil pipeline that crosses Egypt is vital to the transportation of Gulf oil to Europe. Already the current troubles in Egypt have caused West Texas intermediate to spike above $100 a barrel. If Egypt descends into chaos, that price could go to $140 or $150 a barrel, with terrible consequences for the American economy. So the servants of empire practice the art of obfuscation, and hope for the best.

Egypt is incurably dysfunctional. But as a member of the 21st century’s global society, it will limp along for many years, a charity case too important to be ignored.

What is the best that can come out of the current crisis in Egypt? It is important to recognize the naked truth: Egypt is not a functioning society. Its problems are insurmountable. To declare that something cannot be fixed is discordant to American ears. But Egypt is a basket case that lacks even a basket. Consider the following facts:

  • Two-fifths of the population lives in great poverty, surviving on that $2 a day. Necessities are subsidized by the state; how long this can continue, given the increasing wariness of international lenders, is an open question.
  • The official unemployment rate is 12.5%, but likely much higher, and youth employment is higher still.
  • The country’s principal source of hard currency is drying up as tourism declines.
  • Egypt would in fact be bankrupt were it not for the money it receives in the form of handouts from the US and the Gulf States, and from Suez Canal tolls. National debt is approaching 100% of GDP.
  • Business is mired in bureaucracy and corruption and suffers from a lack of innovation and entrepreneurship (despite recent reforms), not to mention unfair competition from state enterprises.
  • The population has tripled in the past 50 years. It is expected to double again by 2050. Self-sufficient in food as recently as 1960, Egypt now imports over 40% of its total food needs, and 60% of its wheat.
  • Domestic oil production is declining while domestic consumption is increasing.
  • Egypt has virtually no tradition of self-government. The Egyptian people certainly failed to exhibit any real talent for democracy in the 18 months just past.

Egypt is in reality a fellahdom; its people, aside from the small middle class, are a fellah-people. In other words, they are an undifferentiated mass, a rabble incapable of governing or even sustaining itself. As it happens, this fellah-people occupies a strategic piece of real estate; therefore it will continue to receive enough in handouts from outsiders to keep starvation at bay. Egypt is incurably dysfunctional. Left to its own devices, it would undergo cataclysms that would probably kill millions. But as a member of the 21st century’s global society, it will limp along for many years, a charity case too important to be ignored.

The principal actors in Egypt remain the Army and the Islamists. It should be noted that on July 6 the al-Nour party imposed a veto upon the appointment of the liberal, pro-Western Mohamed ElBaradei as prime minister. Nevertheless, the Army, by drawing the secularists to its side, can guarantee continued support from the West. But if Western support should end — the result perhaps of a future crisis in the West itself — then the Islamists might again come out on top. The cry of “Islam is the answer” could resonate once more with the poor and disenfranchised. A descent into religious fanaticism would likely follow. What sort of Egypt would finally emerge is anybody’s guess.

I don’t pretend to know precisely what “solution” will be found for the present, short-term crisis. A patched-up one, no doubt, assuming civil war is avoided. But the long-term trend is clear. There is no way out for Egypt as it is presently constituted.




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The Arab Spring and After

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What we term virtues are often but a mass of various actions and divers interests, which fortune or our own industry manage to arrange; and it is not always from valour or from chastity that men are brave, and women chaste. —François de La Rochefoucauld

A few years back, people of Pakistan were fighting for democracy. I thought that Pervez Musharraf, their dictator, was the best they could get. But fashionable women were protesting and burning his effigy. The educated wanted democracy. They got democracy. Now, women cannot protest. And educated people have disappeared from the demonstration scene. The case with Nepal is similar. Since the end of monarchy, it has become a basketcase. How many people can remember places called East Timor and South Sudan? Not too long back the Western world was on the streets fighting for the social movements in these countries without a clue about the social or cultural contexts there.

 The Arab Spring brought a huge amount of excitement in the Gulf countries. The Western world had very romantic views about the protests in Egypt and Libya. Now it will blame the Muslim Brotherhood for what has been happening, rationalizing its initial support as good intentions. Or perhaps it will blame the military for the coup of July 3, 2013 that removed the democratically elected President, who soon after his election had catapulted into an autocrat. Is Egypt rapidly heading toward massive civil unrests and disintegration similar to that of Algeria in 1991? Only time will tell, but a few years down the road, one may well look at Egypt under the autocracy of Hosni Mubarak with nostalgia. 

India has had massive protests against social ills and corruption.

If you are not supporting the protestors you are seen to be against democracy, liberty, hope, and change. The phenomenon is being repeated in Turkey and Bulgaria, where I have just spent two months. In both these countries, protests seem — from my rather limited outsider’s perspective but verified by my Turkish friends — to have developed for wrong reasons. More than listening to what the protestors say, one must delve more deeply into what they really want, for language is often a tool for deception and self-deception.

Democracy has given credibility to the state and to those psychopaths who aspire to rule in it.

Turkey and Bulgaria have progressed significantly over the past two decades. They are very significantly freer. The military in Turkey has increasingly taken a back seat. The mafia in Bulgaria is still a big problem, but a tourist, if he is not totally gullible, can move around safe and unmolested.

But what change is sweeping the developing world? Those with wishful thinking might suggest that it is, according to a survey, libertarians who are protesting in Turkey. They are completely wrong. Alas, even in the United States most people until not too long back did not really know what “libertarian” meant. A Turk explained to me that in the survey done in the Turkish language respondents had chosen what could be translated as “freedom-loving.” The newspaper that reported it decided to translate the word to “libertarian.” And we all know that the world is almost 100% freedom-loving. The question is what the people mean by “freedom.”

The very possibility of joining the masses makes me cringe. Not only do those who protest make jackasses of themselves, but there can hardly be any specific collective aims, for people have different motivations that are often in conflict with one another. Mostly even an individual’s protest is based on sound-bites rather than a coherent philosophy. Even when such groups have a coherent aim, they are often in opposition to some other, less vociferous group. And those who have nothing to do with any of the protests must suffer, for protestors disrupt the public space, aggressing against the uninvolved. While I do understand that it might make sense to protest publicly when the issues are of grave and immediate significance — the likelihood of a nuclear war, for example — it is generally true that only voluntary interactions among people have principled value.

So, if not for liberty, what underpins these protests — in Arab countries, Turkey, Bulgaria, and now in Brazil?

They are a result of several issues, all centred on democracy.

The weed of democracy has spread and rooted itself deeply in the psyche of people almost everywhere in the world. It is no longer seen as a new-age Western religion, which is what it is. When I was a kid in India, it was common for people to discuss why democracy — aka mob-rule — does not work. You would be called too simplistic and blamed for blindly following the West if you talked in favour of democracy. They would make fun of you for trying to look westernized. The winds have changed. I have not heard anyone saying anything against “democracy” for more than a decade now.

Democracy has given credibility to the state and to those psychopaths who aspire to rule in it. These people no longer have to show their fangs. They no longer have to show that they are ruthless exploiters, trying to steal a cut from wealth producers. Democracy has given them a garb of acceptance and the look of doing good. Psychopaths can now openly work their way up to rule others.

Given that democracy is in the DNA of today’s societies, there is no resistance to increasing its size. The size of the state — its power to tax, regulate, and control — has grown everywhere. It is the one-size-fits-all democratic institution in most parts of the world. Given its lack of connection with the underlying culture in many parts of the world, it cannot accommodate changes in society, including the fact that people are now more informed and much more mobile. The state had depended on a stable populace. But by encouraging people to get involved in democracy, it has opened a can of worms.

What we have is an expanding State that is no longer in control and is increasingly brittle, exactly when people are becoming more dependent on it.

Democracy is a much worse virus than dictatorship or monarchy. In those systems of mafia organizations called the state, people see themselves in opposition; they retain the ability to see the state for what it is: a group of people who cannot take responsibly for their own lives but believe that they can, through threats of violence, tell others how to live, meanwhile skimming off a large portion of wealth generated by the people. Democracy has made the state an inherent part of the society. The chains are no longer visible ones, but the ones within people’s minds. Those are the worst chains.

My Russian friend tells me that after the breakup of the USSR, people had no interest in standing up to sing hymns at a piece of their cloth or salute it. In Canada, until the Vancouver Winter Olympics, there were hardly any displays of nationalism. Now, flags fly everywhere in Vancouver. In India, when I was a kid, people used to walk away or ignore it when the national anthem was sung. But recently movie theaters have started running the national anthem. On a recent visit, everyone — except me — stood up. I could even see their glutes tightened — muscles that their personal trainers had failed to help them isolate — while they stood in complete discipline. I couldn’t shake the feeling of how much the State has become a part of society’s DNA.

Democracy is now in the DNA of individual people, too — a cultural meme that has found no competition. Even the ultra-religious in the Middle East must now give at least lip service to democracy, for they have failed to counter the ideological challenge. Democracy is seen as a given and a universal good, as if it were a first principle.

Democracy has encouraged herd instincts and lack of self-responsibility. Democracy has given equal participation to those who have no interest in social affairs, to those who are driven mostly by a 9-to-5 materialistic lifestyle, forever waiting for the next weekend.

Democracy has been propagandized as something that provides wealth as if by a magic. Young people in the developing world have grown up to think that democracy is a cure for all their problems. Somewhere in their minds, they have come to believe — as is the case even in the West today — that democracy creates something from nothing. They are on the streets asking for their share of this something.

Their protests have absolutely nothing to do with any libertarian mindset developing in the world. People around the world have come to depend more — emotionally and materially — on the state. They are not asking for a smaller state but for a more efficient state, which to them means a bigger and more influential one. Alas, given that democracy is a one-size-fits-all, alien institution for most societies, it has made the state less malleable than it would have been had those countries continued with the system of governance they had naturally evolved.

But even in the West the state has been increasing in size exactly at the time when the state, having hijacked emergency services and the maintenance of law and order, is very brittle and its structure completely unsuitable for the changing, mobile, and informed society. As Doug Casey would say, the State is on its way out.

What we have is an expanding State that is no longer in control and is increasingly brittle, exactly when people are becoming more dependent on it. Only time will show how this conflict — of the State falling apart while the people are becoming more dependent on it — will be resolved.




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Arab Spring, Winter for Christians?

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In a recent piece, I suggested that the fall of a number of Middle Eastern dictators — most notably Hosni Mubarak of Egypt — actively pushed by the Obama administration, and collectively dubbed “the Arab Spring,” has shown a remarkably ugly side.

One of the ugly features I noted was the removal, in the case of Egypt, of a regime that had been actively fighting the practice of female genital mutilation (the removal of most or all of the clitoris from adolescent girls). Some of our readers were offended by my piece, either thinking, somehow, that I advocated going to war with Egypt, or else shocked that I would dare to criticize the practice at all.

Of course, I was merely commenting on a dubious Obama foreign policy initiative — replacing a disreputable US ally by an unknown force, and hoping for the best.

Well, the situation has developed a more ominous aspect. The Arab Spring is turning out to be not only a winter for women, but also a winter for Christians. Several recent stories bring this to light.

Let’s begin by reviewing the results of the first round of elections for Egypt’s parliament. In a turn eerily reminiscent of what happened in Iran decades ago — when Jimmy Carter, a president as feckless as Obama, withdrew support from the Shah so that “democratic forces” could take over — the resulting elections were victories for hardcore Islamist parties. Once the Islamists consolidated their power, they created a state far more repressive and authoritarian than the Shah could ever have imagined. The consequence was the mass murder of political dissidents, people deemed “deviant,” and worshipers of religions other than Islam (Baha’is, Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians). It also created a state quite supportive of terrorism abroad.

Once the Islamists consolidated their power, they created a state far more repressive and authoritarian than the Shah could ever have imagined.

In the recent Egyptian elections, Islamists won two-thirds of the seats. And by “Islamist” I am not exaggerating. The Muslim Brotherhood, an extreme organization, from which sprang Al Qaeda, won about 39% of the seats. But the even more extreme Salafists won an astounding 29%. Together, the two liberal parties (the Wafd Party and the Egyptian Bloc) won a pathetic 17% total of the vote.

So much for the idea that waves of freedom and modernization are sweeping over the largest Arab country.

This should have come as no surprise, since earlier elections in Tunisia and Morocco saw Islamist parties win by large majorities. The results for Christians are ominous. The largest group of Christians in the Arab world — the Coptic Orthodox Church — resides in Egypt, where it constitutes 10% of the population. Mubarak, dictatorial bastard that he was, provided protection for them. He is now gone, and the Copts are at the mercy of the Islamists. Mercy, indeed!

Already reports have come in of the killing of Copts, such as the slaughter of 25 or more during a protest they staged in downtown Cairo recently.

The Copts are now deeply demoralized. If they do as the Muslim Brotherhood does — load supporters on buses and drive them to the polls to vote en masse (Chicago-style voting — maybe that’s why Obama supports the Brotherhood!) — they risk civil war. But if they do nothing, the Islamists will target them and slowly turn up the heat. As an American-based Coptic Christian put it, “They [the Copts] are a cowed population in terms of politics. They are afraid and marginalized.”

This is such a familiar pattern. The Islamists kill off or expel the Jews (if any are left by the time the Islamists take over); then they target other religious minorities (Bahai’s, Zoroastrians, pagans, or whatever). The pressure then mounts on Christians.

This is no less than religious ethnic cleansing.

The Egyptian government has recently taken the necessary first step in setting up the apparatus to carry out religious cleansing. It has raided 17 nongovernmental agencies, including three American agencies that are supposed to monitor the “progress” of “democracy” in Egypt — specifically, Freedom House, the International Republican Institute, and the National Democratic Institute. One witness to the raid on the Future House for Legal Studies said that a policeman taking part in it held up an Arabic-Hebrew dictionary he found and said it proved the organization was engaged in sabotage against Egypt.

One predictable result of the Egyptian war against minorities is happening already: an exodus of Copts to America. One story reports that thousands of Copts have come to America since Obama’s chosen “democracy” swept Egypt. The emigrants report growing levels of overt persecution and violence. One recent émigré, Kirola Andraws, fled to America on a tourist visa and applied for asylum. He was an engineer, but now works as a cook and a deliveryman in Queens. His story, unfortunately, is likely to prove typical.

The report also notes that already this year a number of Coptic churches have been burned down. Islamist-spawned mobs have rampaged against Coptic homes, stores, and church schools. Think of it as the Muslim Brotherhood’s take on Kristallnacht. Yet the US Commission on International Religious Freedom was recently rebuffed by the Obama administration’s State Department when it asked State to put Egypt on its list of countries that violate religious freedom.

This is only the beginning. Right now, the Muslim Brotherhood only controls the legislature, and it is still held in check by the military. But a very recent article reports that the Brotherhood is planning to run some of its chosen “leaders” for the presidency — something it had earlier promised to do. Should the Islamists take over the executive branch, the military’s influence will rapidly wane, and Egypt will likely go the way of Iran.

The report observes that the military and the Muslim Brotherhood have been in a struggle for 60 years, with the military coming out on top, until now. The military controls about a third of the manufacturing industry in Egypt, for example, so is not likely to surrender power easily. The Egyptian liberals, now seen to be a small minority, seem to be rethinking whether the military is at this point the main threat to them.

Think of it as the Muslim Brotherhood’s take on Kristallnacht.

Whether the military will back down and let the Brotherhood take control is unclear. If the military reacts by dismissing the legislature, Egypt could be in for a protracted and internecine civil war. In either case, however, Christians can expect to be demonized and targeted by the Islamists.

Christians are also being targeted by Islamists in other countries besides Egypt. Nigeria — to cite one such place — recently experienced a wave of terror attacks against Christians, with at least 39 killed. Most of them died when Muslim radicals blew up St. Theresa Catholic Church last Christmas. Shortly thereafter a Protestant church was bombed as well.

Christians in Iraq and Syria have been fleeing, as violence directed at them increases. Since the US toppled Saddam in 2003, 54 Christian churches have been bombed in Iraq, and over 8,900 Christians have been murdered. The number of Christians remaining has of course dwindled, down to 500,000 from 800,000 to perhaps 1.4 million in 2003. With American troops now gone, one suspects that this trend will dramatically increase. In an interesting twist, Christians are fleeing other areas of Iraq and moving to the Kurdish-controlled region, because the Kurds have offered them protection. Yet there are Islamists even among the generally pro-Western Kurds, and Christians have faced some attacks in their territory.

There is in the end the law of unintended consequences, in foreign policy no less than in domestic policy. Progressive liberals — and even conservatives — should start paying attention to it. It is all well and good to desire an “outbreak of freedom,” but one ought to be careful about what one desires, as he might just get it. Many on the Left and the Right welcomed the “Arab Spring,” but it may not turn out to be an explosion of tolerant democracy, as it first seemed to them.

Lest any reader mistake this story for some kind of call to arms, let me make my view explicit: I do not advocate going to war against anyone. But should the Muslim Brotherhood complete its takeover of Egypt and continue its vicious religious persecution of the Copts, our high level of foreign aid to Egypt — $1.3 billion in military aid alone — should certainly be stopped. And this should be made clear to the Egyptians in advance.




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Is the Arab Spring a Winter for Women?

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President Obama backed the rebels in Egypt, abandoning our longstanding (and admittedly loathsome) quasi-ally Hosni Mubarak. The Egyptians in the street were, after all, demanding their freedom . . . or so it was presented. When Mubarak fell, Obama of course congratulated himself warmly.

However, some people were nervous at this spectacle. Especially nervous were people who recalled Obama’s spiritual guru, Jimmy Carter, who decided to abandon support for the Shah of Iran to help usher in the new “forces of democracy” there. The result was not democracy, but an even more authoritarian regime — indeed, a totalitarian one, driven by an Islamist ideology and implacably hostile to the United States.

Recent events in Egypt have ominously suggested that we may be seeing a similar devolution there, with the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood looking to take control.

A recent story is both a disgusting and worrisome harbinger. It tells the story of a Cairo businessman trying to decide whether or not to “circumcise” (i.e., mutilate the genitals of) his daughter, who is — 12 years old! This procedure is a happy custom endorsed by many conservative Egyptians, and Mubarak’s regime struggled to suppress it. But with the winds of the Arab Spring, it is resurgent again.

Female genital mutilation (given the euphemistic acronym “FGM”) involves removing most or even all of the clitoris, and even the labia minora, followed by stitching up the vaginal opening.

All this, to make sure that young women remain chaste and “pure.” It is already incredibly common in Egypt, and is now likely to become even more so.

The Mubarak regime had banned the practice after a young girl died from it, and Suzanne Mubarak (the dictator’s wife) had spoken out continuously against FGM and had gotten religious leaders to oppose it. But the Muslim Brotherhood opposes the Mubarak ban, and it now appears that prior progress will be rapidly reversed.

We can only wonder what other treats are in store for Miss Liberty as the New Egypt evolves.




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Defining Democracy Down

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The subject this time is babies, dictators, and democracy.

Here’s how it fits together. Since the last Word Watch, the Islamic world has been convulsed by revolutions and attempted revolutions. The American media have responded as they usually respond — with the dumbest kind of coverage imaginable, intended for the edification of the dummies, the babies, that they believe the rest of us to be.

Example: on February 22, Fox News anchorman Shepard Smith expressed amazement at the fact that Muammar Qaddafi (the Man of a Thousand Spellings), who has ruled Libya for 42 years and who had, at that point, been besieged by protestors for about two days, had not yet surrendered his power. This, to Smith, was “unprecedented,” shocking, disgusting! What could it mean? When would Qaddafi quit? We’re waiting here!

Smith’s attitude was merely an elongation of attitudes already manifested by his colleagues at CNN and the FCC-regulated networks, not to mention the White House. We’re tapping our fingers . . . still tapping . . . still tapping. Now we're tapping our feet as well. Listen, bub, are you gonna quit in time for the six o’clock news or what?

Well, how dumb can you get? How uninteresting can you get? The passion of revolt, the drama of power, the lessons of history, the contingencies of human emotion, the intricacy of human societies . . . . Forget it. When will he quit? He should’ve quit by now. And the same thing had happened a few days earlier, in the case of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak.

In this atmosphere, it was nothing for foreign correspondents to morph themselves into incarnations of “the democracy movement,” wherever they thought they had found it, heedless of their foreign citizenship and their glaring lack of political knowledge. “We are all Egyptians now!” proclaimed many American welcomers of Mubarak’s fall. I don’t mind that Mubarak fell, although I would like to know who will replace him. But I am not an Egyptian, nor do I walk like one.

It was nothing for foreign correspondents to morph themselves into incarnations of “the democracy movement,” heedless of their foreign citizenship and their glaring lack of political knowledge.

David Hume, who had an important, though not a crucial, influence on libertarian thought, observed that “in reality there is not a more terrible event than a total dissolution of government, which gives liberty to the multitude, and makes the determination or choice of a new establishment depend upon a number which nearly approaches to that of the body of the people.” I’m not sure that this is true, though I suspect it is. A "total dissolution" of government by the mob is plainly not what even anarchist libertarians ever had in mind, because it is likely to lead to a new and terrible establishment of power. Shouldn’t a more reserved, conceivably more skeptical, point of view be entertained, if only for a moment, when the media report on the furor of “democratic” crowds?

I’ll return to “democracy” a little later. But here’s Shep Smith, in his impatience for the overthrow of Qaddafi: “If the military doesn’t turn on him, we’re looking at a real possibility of genocide.”

Genocide? Did he say genocide? An attempt to exterminate a whole people? Was Qaddafi attempting to exterminate his fellow Libyans, as the Nazis attempted to exterminate the Jews? Of course not. All we saw in Libya was a revolution and perhaps the beginning of a civil war. Insurgents were attempting to overthrow an absolutist government, and the government was responding as such governments are wont to respond.

Now, this rhetorical redefinition of a morally important word, “genocide,” is disgusting in itself. But consider Smith’s summary of the reasons for his attack on Qaddafi: “This man has sent foreign mercenaries out to murder citizens? Come on!”

It is wrong, by definition, to send people out to “murder” other people. But that isn’t genocide. And the claim that it happened isn’t proof that it happened. Maybe it did. It’s the job of the media to report on that, not to provide us with moral labels in place of news. On all the networks and news services, Mubarak and Qaddafi have been habitually identified, for the benefit of Americans who presumably require such identifications, as “brutal dictator Hosni Mubarak” and “brutal dictator Muammar Qaddafi.” I’m not concerned about the insult to Qaddafi, who is certainly a brutal dictator, or about the insult to Mubarak, who may well have been such; I’m concerned about the insult to the audience. Fox’s slogan is, “We report; you decide.” Well, only in some cases. In others, the audience is assumed to consist entirely of babies, who must be told what to “decide.”

An adult listener might still be curious to know how this insane person could possibly have continued in charge of an ancient, populous country for four long decades.

Actual information about the regimes of the North African authoritarians would be of interest, perhaps of compelling interest. But you could spend (and I have spent) many hours watching network coverage of North African events without ever hearing any presentation of political facts that lasted longer than a minute. One example was the treatment provided by Piers Morgan, the new messiah-interviewer at CNN. On February 22, Morgan modestly stated that CNN had “oversold” him to its audience — a claim he had already proven by his long, lugubrious, pointless conversations with people who asserted some knowledge of Libya. Most of these people were just oohing and ahing about how terrible Qaddafi is, but whenever any of them tried to fill the audience in on the nature of Libyan politics — the tribal divisions, the ideological divisions, the historical divisions, the people's inexperience with self-government — Morgan gave them short shrift. He asked no follow-up questions. He asked for no background information. He asked for no supporting facts. He switched to questions like, “So what is Qaddafi really like?”, and he soon tired of answers that went beyond “He’s a brutal dictator.”

His colleague Anderson Cooper was worse. Rather than presenting Qaddafi’s rants as the news they were, and letting them speak for themselves, he insisted on telling his audience how to think — and even not to think — about them. Introducing a one-minute clip of Qaddafi’s February 22 address, Cooper said, “He’s almost comical in his appearance, but don’t be fooled by his buffoonery.” Thanks, Anderson! I’m a baby, so I’m easily fooled. But you’ve kept me from swallowing that rattle.

After the Qaddafi clip, Cooper introduced Ben Wedeman, CNN’s correspondent in eastern Libya. Wedeman wanted to put Americans at ease with the Libyans. About Libyans’ opinion of Qaddafi he said: “They know he’s insane.” Well good; I'm glad to hear it. But an adult listener might still be curious to know how this insane person could possibly have continued in charge of an ancient, populous country for four long decades? Didn’t anybody know he was insane? If people knew, why didn’t they do something about it? If they didn’t know, what does that say about the Libyan body politic? And what does all this tell us about the possibility of a real freedom movement in Libya? These questions weren’t worth pursuing, either by CNN or by its rival, Fox.

Among other things, this is a commentary on the American media’s abject devotion to the great and mysterious idol, Democracy. No questions must be allowed to interfere with the liturgy of this god, as recited daily by its media priests. At the same time, I haven’t heard a single question from the media about the authoritarian language that our own government has been using about recent events in North Africa. What kind of government is it that announces to a foreign nation that its leader “must go”? Answer: the Obama regime, first about Mubarak, then about Qaddafi. If the gentlemen in question had possessed any sense of humor, they would have made speeches in which they proclaimed that Obama “must go!”

No questions must be allowed to interfere with the liturgy of the god Democracy, as recited daily by its media priests.

As readers of this journal may remember, I have zero respect for the idea that the boundaries of dictatorial states are somehow sacred and that no armed forces must ever cross them. Those borders aren’t sacred to me. Yet the arrogance of the Obama administration takes my breath away — despite the fact that there’s a long tradition of this: the Bush administration showed the same arrogance, and so did most other administrations, all the way back to Woodrow Wilson. Arrogance, and hypocrisy. When American administrations demand “democratic reforms” in other countries, they never ask themselves whether it’s democratic for foreigners to dictate to the people who live there.

But speaking of democracy in the Middle East, let’s consider the “democracy” movement in Wisconsin, where state-employee labor unions are desperately trying to block the governor and legislature from passing a bill cutting their funds and limiting their power. The Republican governor was elected, four months ago, on a platform of doing exactly that; the legislature, elected at the same time, is overwhelmingly Republican and prepared to follow through on the scheme, if it can get just one Democratic senator to show up and make a quorum. Well, that’s democracy, isn’t it? But no: in the name of “democracy,” union hordes invaded and occupied the capitol, attempting to shut down the government, and Democratic legislators, unanimously friends of big labor, fled the state. Leftist demonstrators continue parading up and down State Street in Madison, carrying signs likening the governor to Qaddafi and Mubarak. They also carry signs announcing their own righteousness, signs saying, “This Is What Democracy Looks Like.”

When American administrations demand “democratic reforms” in other countries, they never ask themselves whether it’s democratic for foreigners to dictate to the people who live there.

We see again the kindergarten approach. What do you think democracy is, children? You don’t know? Well, here’s a pretty picture. But when normal adults see such a slogan, employed by such people, their first impulse is to laugh. Democracy? There was an election; the voters said what they wanted; it just didn't happen to be what the protestors wanted. So who's on the side of democracy — the protestors, or the voters they oppose? And notice, this is a rebellion of people who are getting paid by the voters, people who insist that they have a right to as much pay and power as they can get, no matter what the voters want. Doesn’t that sound more like dictatorship than democracy?

Strangely, however, the protestors’ slogans strike most of the media as cogent indeed. To cite only one of many amusing instances: on February 26, at 3:00 p.m. (EST), CBS Radio’s hourly news offered a report from Madison. It consisted of the following: Young woman’s voice speaking over the noise of demonstrators. Young woman: “This is what democracy looks like. These are the people of Wisconsin, fighting for their rights.” End of report.

The woman may have been one of the demonstrators, or she may have been a CBS correspondent in Madison. The absence of identification allowed listeners to make up their own minds about the provenance of the propaganda. The difficulty of deciding who she was exemplifies how hard it often is to distinguish nonsense from "news," leftist agitprop from normal media blather. Of course no question was asked, no remark made, about any of the brutally obvious issues that the “report” raised. Would you expect there to be? No, not unless the babies in charge of the news were replaced by intelligent people who respected the intelligence of their audience.

You might remark, as many libertarian thinkers have remarked, that “democracy” is not a word that (pace the media) is simply synonymous with “good.” You might make the historical observation that unlimited democracy — democracy without legally enforceable respect for rights or a government of limited powers — has often resulted in predatory regimes. You might record your skepticism about the legitimacy either of crowds shouting in the streets or of dictators who advertise themselves as the embodiments of crowds shouting in the streets. If you did that, you would be expressing nothing more than common sense and common knowledge of the world. But common sense and common knowledge will never get you a job in the information industry of America.




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1989 in the Muslim World?

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On December 17, Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, driven to desperation by mistreatment at the hands of petty officialdom, drenched his body with gasoline (or paint thinner, according to some accounts) and set himself alight. His death touched off a chain reaction in much of the Muslim world. Protestors took to the streets of Tunis, and their protests culminated in a popular revolution that ousted the country’s corrupt president. The tumult spread to Egypt where, remarkably, a massive yet largely peaceful protest movement succeeded in forcing Hosni Mubarak, who for 30 years had ruled the land like a pharaoh, to step down. At this moment street protests and violence are occurring in Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Jordan, Bahrain, Yemen, and Iran — an upheaval reminiscent of that which swept Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

Will the outcome be the same? Are the Middle East and North Africa on the verge of changes that will transform the lives of the people living there? Americans cannot but hope that the early promise of this revolution will be sustained. But I would sound a note of caution. There are reasons to believe that the events we are witnessing represent a false dawn.

That a region-wide conflagration had to come at some point was obvious, though exactly when it would occur no one knew. Demographics (a major youth bulge exists in all the countries in tumult), economics (the region is plagued by high long-term unemployment and soaring food prices), and government corruption provided the tinder that allowed Bouazizi’s fire to spread. Conditions in the Middle East are as backward and absurd as those that prevailed in Eastern Europe in 1989. But Eastern Europe’s problems were in a sense artificial, caused by the warped imperatives of Marxism-Leninism. The problems of the Muslim world are more fundamental.

 Although Iran, the one non-Arab nation involved, has a democratic tradition of sorts (no thanks to the US, which overthrew a democratic government there in 1953), the Arab world does not. Despite the hopes and dreams of foreign policy liberals in the West, there is no evidence to indicate that the Arab peoples have any talent for democracy. Indeed, history seems to show that the reverse is true. Egypt, the political and cultural center of the Arab world, will be the test. Some observers believe that the Egyptian middle class, educated and secular to the extent that it is largely immune to the lure of radical Islamism, will take the nation into a liberal democratic future. But given the abject poverty of the Egyptian masses (living on two dollars a day, as we were reminded again and again during the uprising), and the country’s apparent aversion to liberal values (i.e., free markets and functional democracy), this seems very doubtful indeed. East Germany was pulled up from dictatorship and poverty by rich West Germany, with the latter expending a vast amount of wealth in the process. Who will be Egypt’s mentor and bankroller? The US? Not likely, given the state of our economy and the massive federal budget deficit — not to mention the fact that Egyptians will likely spurn our advice and even our money if any strings are attached. The only nation with enough wealth available to prop up Egypt economically is the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. But we may take it as certain that the Saudis have no desire to see their neighbor become a thriving democracy. The Egyptians will have to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, something they have never demonstrated an ability to do. Should they fail, the lure of Islamism will be strong and perhaps irresistible.

Eastern Europe’s problems in 1989 were in a sense artificial, caused by the warped imperatives of Marxism-Leninism. The problems of the Muslim world are more fundamental.

Final victory for the protestors in Egypt came about not as a result of their undoubted courage and determination, but because the Egyptian Army refused to stage a Tiananmen Square. That they refrained from doing so was the result, in part, of US “advice” to exercise restraint. The American and Egyptian militaries have maintained close ties since the 1970s. Egyptian officers attend US military schools and training courses, and Egyptian forces are equipped with US weapons. The relationship is so close that the US has permitted production of the M1 battle tank on Egyptian soil.

The US, therefore, has leverage with the Egyptian military. At the same time, we must listen to what that military says, for maintenance of the 1978 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty remains the top priority of US policy in the Middle East. Egypt is the irreplaceable linchpin of America’s Middle East strategy. If the transition to democracy in Egypt fails from the outset or is derailed by democracy’s inability to cope with the country’s massive economic and social problems, look for the Egyptian army to take a hand. And don’t be surprised if the US backs any action the army may take, even if it comes to the establishment of a new dictatorship. The US must retain Egypt within the orbit of its influence, or find its entire Middle East policy ruined.

There remains a third possibility beyond a successful transition to democracy or a reversion to military dictatorship — a recurrence of the events witnessed in Iran in 1979. This possibility has been pooh-poohed by some experts, who are convinced that the Muslim Brotherhood (founded in 1928 and after the army the largest and best organized actor in Egypt) is neither strong enough nor willing to impose an Islamic regime. The Brotherhood itself has done much to dampen fears, denying that it harbors ambitions to remake Egypt and even going so far as to promise not to field a candidate in the next presidential election. But consider this: on February 18 the radical Sunni cleric Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who had been forbidden to preach in Egypt for 50 years, and who supports attacks on both Israel and US forces in Iraq, spoke to over a million people (as estimated by the New York Times) gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. He exhorted them to demand of the army that it clear out all holdovers from the Mubarak regime and prepare the way for a new government forthwith. And he urged Egyptians to keep up the pressure until all their demands are met.

Needless to say, such a forcing of the pace will lead to disappointment, more protests, and perhaps a move by the army to “restore order.” Already the army has warned that the country must get back to work; indeed, anything like permanent revolution in Egypt will mean bankruptcy for the Egyptian state. If chaos rather than order results, and the army begins to disintegrate, with conscripts deserting or joining the ranks of the Brotherhood, nothing will stand between the Islamists and their achievement of power in the state. And an Islamist regime would undoubtedly, sooner or later, turn Egyptians’ frustrations outward against Israel and the US. The US would then be effectively shut out of the Middle East (unless it could somehow maintain a precarious position on the Arabian peninsula), while Israel, already facing the demographic challenge of a Palestinian birth rate far higher than that of its Jewish inhabitants, would find itself surrounded once again by hostile states, now motivated by religious fanaticism. One can play out this scenario in various ways, none of which ends well for the US or Israel.

There is no evidence to indicate that the Arab peoples have any talent for democracy.

To the west of Egypt lies Tunisia, the birthplace of revolution, and its neighbors Libya and Algeria, both of which have experienced major unrest. Libya is to an extent a special case, being a collection of tribes rather than a true nation state. As of this writing civil war is raging there between supporters of the regime and rebels. Even the armed forces are divided. It is difficult to predict a winner at this point; however, the longer the fighting continues, the more the possibility of radical Islamists gaining a foothold increases. Recall that in the 1990s Islamists won free elections in Algeria, only to be prevented from taking office by the army. Throughout North Africa the armed forces are the main, or sole, bulwark against radical Islamism. Even in Tunisia, which thanks to French influence has what most of us would regard as a normal attitude toward alcohol and sex, riots have broken out in which fanatical Muslims sought to close down brothels and ransack bars.

But North Africa west of Egypt remains, for the US (though not Western Europe), a sideshow. It is to the east, in the oil-rich Persian Gulf region, that events of world-historical importance are being played out. The principal centers of events here are Iran and, surprisingly, tiny Bahrain.

Iran of course is the other great and ancient civilization besides Egypt in the Middle East. It has more of a democratic tradition than any country south of Turkey, a sizable middle class, and the potential to build a thriving economy based on more than its immense oil and gas reserves. Its peoples are not Arabs but belong to various ethnic groups, with Persians making up a slim majority. The vast majority of its citizens are followers of the Shia sect of Islam, whereas in Egypt the people are Sunni. Since the overthrow of the Shah in 1979, Iran has been under Islamist rule. The Iranian revolution was a delayed reaction to the Anglo-American coup of 1953, which overthrew a democratic government and restored the Shah to power. But for that cardinal Anglo-Saxon sin, Iran might today be a rock of pro-Western stability in one of the most important regions of the world. Instead, it is the West’s most dangerous adversary this side of China.

The tide of history is undergoing a major turn. The whole edifice of Western and especially American policy in the Middle East is crumbling.

In 2009 pro-democracy activists took on the Iranian regime after an election that was widely (though not universally) perceived as fraudulent. They were crushed. In the wake of Egypt, street protests once again sprang up. It is believed in some quarters that these protests mark the death knell of the Islamist order in Iran. On the February 20 edition of Fareed Zakaria’s CNN talk show, the ubiquitous (and apparently immortal) George Soros declared that the Iranian regime would be swept from power within a year. This seems to me a fundamental misreading of the situation. The Revolutionary Guards Corps, the real power in Iran, is as entrenched as the People’s Liberation Army in China. It has the means to crush any popular revolt, and will do so.

The uprisings in the Arab countries should be seen as anti-Western and anti-American (for who supported the autocrats? and who will be blamed if the revolutions don’t deliver democracy and prosperity?), and therefore helpful to the Iranian cause. Iran will reach out to Islamists in the Arab world with a message of unity against the common enemies, America and Israel. Such an appeal will have a potent effect on people looking to blame their problems on malevolent outside forces. In February, for the first time since the overthrow of the Shah, Egypt allowed Iranian warships to pass through the Suez Canal (something Egypt could not legally prevent in any case, but nevertheless a definite straw in the wind).

Watch Bahrain to see which way the tide turns. This small Persian Gulf nation has a Sunni ruling family but a majority Shia population. So far, the protests there have been contained, but if the Shia chase out the rulers, Iranian influence will be at the very doorstep of Saudi Arabia. (Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, where the oilfields lie, is connected to Bahrain by a causeway. And its population is overwhelmingly Shia.)

Throughout North Africa the armed forces are the main, or sole, bulwark against radical Islamism.

The Saudis are very, very nervous. They have been urging the Bahrainis to take a hard line with the protestors, while at the same time announcing new giveaways of money for the average man in their own country. How secure the House of Saud really is remains to be seen, of course, but I would point to the fact that more jihadists come out of Saudi Arabia than any other Arab country. If Bahrain goes, and a Sadrist, pro-Iranian regime emerges in Iraq (as may very well happen in time — see my January 27article, “The Return of Moktada”), Saudi Arabia is probably doomed. At a minimum, the Eastern Province and its oil riches will be the target of Iranian pan-Shia propaganda and subversion. How the Saudis and the US will cope with such a situation appears problematical to say the least.

Even if the pro-Saudi ruling family holds on for the time being in Bahrain, one cannot but think that the tide of history is undergoing a major turn. The whole edifice of Western and especially American policy in the Middle East is crumbling. The majority of the peoples in the region have no love for us, or any strong interests in common with the Western world. We are witnessing not a liberation of the peoples as in 1989, but the end of a neocolonial epoch that began with the overthrow of the Ottoman Empire in World War I. In terms of economic impact, and particularly regarding energy, this will have a profound effect on an America already suffering from severe recession and catastrophic fiscal problems. And the effect on Israel will be even worse.

The history of revolution in countries with little or no tradition of self-government is instructive. Moderates overthrow oppressive autocrats, only to be removed by more ruthless and better organized actors — actors who are invariably more oppressive and murderous than the original autocrats. Robespierre, Lenin, Mao, Khomeini are the winners; the moderates are exterminated and the people are worse off than ever. When possible, popular discontent is then deflected upon an external enemy, as when the French Revolutionary armies swept over Western Europe. Such a future may await the West in the Middle East.




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