I used to follow foreign policy with a passion that bordered on obsession. I’ve always been a news junkie, but, like many Americans, my focus shifted to foreign affairs after 9/11. But after about five or six years, I started drifting away from it somewhat, I think mainly because it just got too damn depressing. However, the wave of protests that has erupted in the Arab world over the past two months has not only rekindled my interest in the region but also given me some hope that its political problems are not completely intractable.
Perhaps the most heartening aspect of all this is that it seems to be a legitimate groundswell of popular opposition to all the repressive regimes from Yemen to Algeria. The most obvious historical parallel is to the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Turks during World War I in 1916, but that was primarily composed of Bedouins from the Arab peninsula–not a truly pan-Arab phenomenon. To find a similar string of uprisings across many nations, you would have to go back to the Revolutions of 1848 that swept almost all of Europe and spread the idea of national self-determination far and wide. Like the protests we see today, those revolutions were all driven by local problems and concerns, but participants frequently drew inspiration and solidarity from the knowledge that similar events were unfolding in neighboring countries.
Of course, bottom-up political change does not square with accepted faith of partisan hacks–both Democratic and Republican–that Washington is the prime mover in all earthly (and, in all likelihood, cosmic) affairs. It has been amusing to watch people absurdly attribute the millions of people gathered in Tahrir Square to Obama’s speech at Cairo University in 2009. Even more outlandish is the view endorsed by a few neoconservatives that recent events have somehow vindicated George Bush’s foreign policy of implementing democracy at the end of a bayonet. Left unsaid is that part of Bush’s (and Obama’s) foreign policy was propping up dictators like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak with billions of dollars in foreign aid. Moreover, I hate to break it to them, but the rest of the world does not revolve around the United States (and the United States does not revolve around Washington D.C.), and you can’t centrally plan and export a revolution. The protesters have a variety of reasons for their actions, but a speech by an American president and an eight-year-old war hundreds of miles away are probably way down the list.
These revolutions are spontaneous orders–like markets or civil society–which governments do not respond to well, both because they frequently demonstrate how unnecessary the government is and they lack formal hierarchies. Most people believe that without government, society immediately turns into pandemonium, but despite the fact that the Egyptian government has been effectively shut down, the Egyptian people themselves are coming together to provide the services they need. In this video, Egyptians volunteer to clean up the streets, deliver medical care, and distribute free food to demonstrators. The New York Times also ran a superb article on Monday describing how regular Egyptians are keeping their society functioning even in the midst of great turmoil:
And being leaderless is is actually one of the revolution’s great strengths. If there was a leader or small group of leaders, Mubarak could attempt to co-opt them with money or positions of power. In fact, this is precisely what he is attempting to do with the army by appointing General Omar Suleiman to the vice presidency. A government can deal with another hierarchical institution, but an amorphous blob consisting of millions of pissed off people is utterly confounding.
There is only one thing Mubarak or any other government can do to retain power in such a situation, and it is best explained by an Egyptian quoted in that Times article:
Mubarak’s government has been exposed as malevolent and unnecessary, so he has little choice but to create the problem he purports to solve. Many Egyptians are reporting that when caught, looters frequently turn out to be plainclothes police officers loyal to Mubarak. When it comes down to it, there is really only one tool in government’s toolbox: a big fucking club, and Mubarak is using it to spread fear and instigate violence, which he hopes will make people submit to his rule once more.
The revolts in Egypt and elsewhere could still go terribly, terribly wrong. Mubarak could weather the storm and rule the country until his death. Or a radical Muslim faction could take power and institute a theocracy. Or a new government could start another war with Israel. Although I’m guardedly hopeful, I know that these things usually end in tears. That said, what these protests have already shown Egypt, the Middle East, and the whole world is that people do not need a strongman; they do not need a government. Society is an organic process, and it gets along pretty well without leaders. The lesson is there, but whether enough people will listen remains to be seen.
Headline reference here.
Filed under: Foreign Policy, Spontaneous Order