'Each man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world'
-- Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms

'Artists are tricky fellows sir, forever shaping the world according to some design of their own'
-- Jonathan Strange, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Friday, 25 February 2011

Better the devil you know?

Stability versus Democracy
'More portentously, the crisis places Western governments in an awkward dilemma. The apparent mass movement for democracy now sweeping the region, ousting dictators and offering many people their only taste of freedom after decades of home-grown and colonial oppression, has been welcomed by Western leaders. Yet those very  movements threaten the prosperity and economic stability of the West in a way that has not been seen for decades.'
-- Sean o'Grady, 'Concerns over oil supply cause spike in prices as uprising hits exports', The Independent

'Artists are tricky fellows sir, forever reshaping the world according to some design of their own'
-- Jonathan Strange in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

Analysts are rushing to answer the question that everybody is asking: what will Kate Middleton's wedding dress look like? Secondary considerations are being given to a seemingly lesser moment in history, the popular uprisings in the Maghreb and Middle East: what form of government will emerge from the toppled autocracies? The BBC asked the question to a host of luminaries on Newsnight. The answer was that autocracies across the Middle East are different flavours of the same product, so one cannot be sure what beasts will emerge because they are dependent upon so many factors. If there is one outcome hoped for from these events, it's probably that the science should be dropped from the field of political science. The relief that these binary battles between Islamist groups and political strongmen now appear to have been offset by the popular protest is palpable. 'It's unprecedented that the people could topple a president,' mused Vivian Ibrahim. John Simpson at least invoked history when he called it '1989' for the Middle East (though he cut something of a sad figure, holed up in the very Eastern tip of Libya as Gaddafi decreed that any member of the press travelling without authorisation in the country would be treated as an al-Qaeda operative).

Many people have lost and will lose their lives in these uprisings and at heart they were fought out because of a rejection of regimes rather than an embrace of particular modes of government. At the end, there will still be demographically bottom heavy populations with large scale unemployment. I'm not sure how democracy as a form of government solves these particular issues - it might address grievances, but never really produce a suitable answer.  Democracy relies upon the favour of the majority of the population to elect an official to office and to relect them. As such, the system panders to short term interests - I don't elect people because of what they might enact in office that might help me ten years down the line. I want beneficial policies and I want them now. Little forward thinking can be done. If you try it you get in trouble. Just ask Obama. The road ahead to stability in these countries may be a long and tortuous one.  

Where do the popular protestors' sympathies lie? Like it or not, the West will be an onlooker: meddling will be interchangeable with assistanceThe West sponsored the autocracies. It's easier to do business with a single despot than with a coalition of disparate parties, stillborn in the birth pangs of an aborted democracy. Vali Nasr's views, influential as he is within the White House, must be gaining momentum. He sees as much as anyone, or has seen - which is vital in that his theories are not just reactionary to current events - a Muslim Third Way: the rise of a liberal bourgeoisie that rejects Islamist anger and autocratic injustice but marries a moderate Islam to progressive secularism. Which country do the majority on the Arab Street admire most? Turkey - it has embraced Western values without kowtowing to it. Western media platforms have enabled this uprising from the Arab Street, but this is not a wholehearted embrace of the West, in fact it is more likely, from PEW global polls, that an apathetic rejection of the West will develop. Egypt, for example, is one of the minority nations in which there is more support for Islamists than modernisers

Fukuyama is back in fashion and so he should be: a thirst for recognition lies at the heart of this new Arab voice and a desire for economic wealth. Denied the minimum wealth necessary for social development (Young men are often too poor to marry) and afforded a coagulating, free tool in social networking sites, emboldened by the spotlight of local and world media firmly on them, a rebellion developed. Schama lamented the 'Western presumptiousness' that Arabs could not engage in democracy, presumably seeing these successful rebellions as the precursors to transparent government. But one question remains - which unit now exercises the monopoly on violence? In Egypt it is the army - there has been no coagulating opposition figure emerge. In Bahrain, with three ministers recently sacked, it is still the government who control the military and police. In Yemen, there has always been a decentralised tribal structure. In Libya, there is apparently a bloody stand-off between opposition forces and Gaddafi's mercenary forces around Tripoli. And for the autocracies left standing? Wednesday in Saudi Arabia was instructive - King Abudulla's return to the country after rehabilitation for his back coincided with a $36billion public spending package. Silent civilian appeasement is in. 

It's theatre, but this time around, we only get to watch. And on that note, the last word must go to Porter, who observes with irony that, 'The world must be counting on us [the West], surely? Without us, progress and liberation is just not possible. Beneath the howls of outrage that our governments are not embracing the revolutions enthusiastically enough, there is often an assumption that the ‘Arab street’ just couldn’t do it without us. In this egocentric moment, we see combined the self-exaltation of the Atlantic world, and the self-regard of the Facebook generation.' 

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