'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, 4 February 2011

Order from Chaos

Mubharak raises the spectre of Islamism in bid to shore up support

‘The root causes of modern Islamic militancy are the myriad grievances that lead to the first step on the road to terrorism being taken. Social and economic problems are critical. Such problems are growing more, not less widespread and profound throughout the Islamic world. The economies of states from Morocco to Indonesia are in an appalling state. Population growth continues unabated. Unemployment, particularly among critical groups like graduates, is rising fast. Housing is crowded and sanitation is basic in many cities. The gulf between the rich and the poor is increasing.
But these problems alone do not cause terrorism. If individuals have faith in a political system, a belief that they can change their lives through activism that is sanctioned by the state or understand and accept the reasons for their hardships, they are unlikely to turn to militancy. But there is little reason to be optimistic about the possible development of alternatives that might divert the angry and resentful from radical Islam in the near future…One of the reasons for a more radical, debased and violent form of protest is the tendency of governments in the Middle East to crush moderate movements. Because they are scared of radical Islam taking power, the regimes block democratic reform. Because there is no reform, radical Islamic movements, moderate or violent, are crushed or fail, anger is channelled into the symbolic realm.

-- Burke (2003) Al-Qaeda: Casting a Shadow of Terror (London: IBT), pp. 247-248

‘Because the [Middle East] governments are relatively powerless to affect U.S. policy toward them, they turn their energies to repressing and keeping down their own populations, which results in resentment, anger and helpless imprecations that do nothing to open up societies where secular ideas about human history and development have been overtaken by failure and frustration, as well as by Islamism built out of rote learning.’

-- Said (2003) Orientalism (London: Penguin), xxi.

Mubharak’s interview on ABC was a master political stroke, in playing to the fears of the American public and wider world audience of the rise of a powerful Islamist nation, the incumbent has sought to rally Western leaders to his ‘better the devil you know’ banner, albeit temporarily, whilst he can depart on his own terms, rather than as a fugitive in exile and with the state monopoly on violence intact. Thus Mubharak has created uncertainty - are the cities in chaos and prone to Islamist elements coopting the popular demonstrations, or is the 'chaos' (his own word) inflated by the government to warrant emergency measures to 'bring order'. The hypocrisy, in criticising foreign powers, but giving the interview to a Western broadcaster rather than the state Nile T.V. is a gamble that seeks to promote the spectre of Islamism in western media broadcasts. For the protestors, they see themselves in unchartered territory, for in the beginning the ‘Tunisian model’, as a template for the protestors, must now be consigned to history: Mubharak has not proved as accommodating as Ben Ali -  a point reinforced by Omar Suleiman’s subsequent interview with ABC

El Baradei has not proved a coalescing or invigorating figure. His low-key tactic is understandable – fervent protest could risk further bloodshed – estimates are generally that 300 people have already died on Egypt’s streets as a result of the violence. So what now? The stalemate and media-driven campaign of Mubharak gives, ‘new fetters to the weak and new forces to the rich’ (J.-J. Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality Among Men). Since the protestors have nowhere near the necessary power to attempt to secure the monopoly on violence needed to tilt the balance in their favour, it’s possible that short-term economic necessities may predominate, elements may return to work and impetus, both national and regional will have been lost. Police intimidating world media on the city streets lessen the ability of these outlets to cover/exacerbate the protests.

Mubharak has made some smart calculations: estimates vary wildly, but generally, it’s believed about 300 000 protestors are against him in Cairo – that only represents approximately 1 in 60 people in the city of 18 million people. Compare this to the peaceful anti-war demonstration in London, February 15, 2003 that saw 1 million people (1 in 6 of the population of the city) converge upon the capital. In Rome, on the same day, 3 million people protested (the largest anti-war rally in history). If Mubharak adds the Muslim Brotherhood as a hardcore agitator, then he believes that many elements of the protest may be coerced back to ‘society’ by making certain concessions. Again, Sallust, “few men desire liberty, the rest seek nothing more than fair masters.” Since the ‘protests’ (rather than a ‘revolt’ since there has been no concerted effort to seize power) are confined to major cities, there is no national uprising. Since there is no national uprising, Mubharak can station the army in highly visual locations around the cities and counter the protests with his ‘pro-government’ supporters. The next move is the protestors. Mobilisation through the Internet will now only get the demonstrators to a certain position. Coordinated use of transport to mobilise peripheral areas of the state and strategic denial of critical infrastructure to government forces are perhaps meaningful actions.

There is a lot at stake here as the dynamic shifts and alters daily - Egypt fairs poorly in the latest Human Rights Watch world report most notably for its use of secret police as an ‘instrument of punishment and repression. Thus it is obvious which elements make up the bulk of the pro-Mubharak resistance – any transitional phase, no matter if only a few hours, would surely see massive reprisals against the police as the monopoly on violence was briefly lost and anarchy prevailed.

Finger on the Button

All five network providers now running internal internet traffic in Egypt again – a mixture of motivations seem likely for this. Firstly, the loss of ‘economic infrastructure’ associated with the loss of the Internet would not have pleased investors or big business. Secondly, this denial of service was enacted to prevent mobilisation and coordination through social media, since now famously, the events here started with a single facebook page. Instead, the denial seemed only to further inflame the protests as an obvious further infringement on freedoms. The Internet in the 21st century is a further shared space in which the world operates, just as we inhabit the shared territories of land, sea and air (For the famous 1968 paper on the ‘original’ commons and finite space see here).

Thus, interestingly, whilst Tunisia was enabled via social media and Egypt was being denied access, in the United States, congress is currently debating elements of a new cybersecurity bill in which there is the option to create an internet ‘kill-switch’, a one-stop action that would shut off the Internet in the United States. Recent focus has shifted to cybersecurity, since it creates a new world in which ‘conflict’ can erupt without the traditional measures of deterrence or fallout. No soldiers point guns in cyberspace. ‘Hot Wars’ can break out in cyberspace but would this lead to military reprisals – how will economic warfare in cyberspace be responded to in the future?

See Further:
Lynn, William (2010) ‘Defending a New Domain: The Pentagon’s Cyberstrategy’, Foreign Affairs, September/October

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