Since the shit hitting the fan in Egypt looks like the story of the day, I thought it would be good to talk about it a bit more, and in particular to respond to thoughts such as this one that, at least intuitively, protests against a dictatorship are a Good Thing, and to follow up on why I was voicing concerns in yesterday’s post.
The short version of what’s happening: after 30 years of dictatorship by Mubarak (which, in turn, followed ten years of dictatorship by Sadat, twenty by Nasser, etc.), there’s large-scale rioting in the streets of Cairo, the army has been called in, and there are good odds that the government will fall. Underpinning this is extreme poverty; Cairo’s population has grown by about 10M over the past decade, mostly in the form of enormous shantytowns without even basic services, and this was happening because conditions in the rest of the country were even worse. The government kept the situation under control by a combination of political repression and cheap bread. (The bread subsidy is the largest line-item in the national budget, and depends on wheat imported from Russia, which may be related to the current trouble) But things have been steadily deteriorating; there have been a few abortive “elections” in the past few years, each reduced to a charade when candidates deemed unacceptable to the regime were removed from the ballot en masse, when military and paramilitary forces were called in to intimidate voters, etc. It’s been pretty clearly a matter of time until things went straight to hell there.
To explain the significance, though, you should note that Egypt is the most populous Arab country* and is the “cultural center” of the Arab world — this is where all major media (movies, music, TV) emerges from, it’s the place that people look to as a bellwether, etc. So events here are important.
The other thing you should know is about the opposition. Probably the most important force is an underground organization called the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in Egypt in 1928 as an anti-monarchist movement. They’re the granddaddy of all Arab and Muslim revolutionary movements, combining the two with their ideas of establishing a religious government over the entire Arab world. When they spread out of Egypt over the 20th century, they set up branch operations in a host of other Arab countries, which ultimately turned into more familiar modern names — the PLO, Hamas, Hizb ut-Tahrir, etc. While they are ostensibly banned in Egypt, their power has been growing considerably over the past few years; they made a particular movement over the past decade to deeply take over the judiciary. And NB that this is an Islamic fundamentalist movement, not a pro-democracy reform movement — their core aim is to restore Islam, establish the Sharia as the law of the land, and to use “physical power and Jihad” to abolish the existing Arab political systems, which they consider part of the jahiliya, and replace them with their own vision.
So back to the original question: Isn’t dictatorship a bad thing? Isn’t overthrowing a dictatorship a good thing?
My answers are yes and sometimes, respectively. The problem isn’t in the overthrowing of dictatorships; it’s in what follows them. If you look at the transition of the Eastern Bloc after the fall of the Berlin Wall, there were large, existing movements (such as Solidarity in Poland) who had a clear vision for what they wanted to replace Communist rule with — in this case, representative democracy and free enterprise — and there was broad public support behind such changes. As soon as the government was weak enough to topple, it did, and the transition of power could happen smoothly. (Consider that Lech Walesa was out there calling for elections, and with a plan in hand, the day after the Wall fell.)
But the protests in Egypt right now don’t seem to be so much protests for any particular form of government, as protests against the existing one. When revolutions like this happen, you end up with a power vacuum, and who comes out on top is basically whoever was in the best position to exploit that. In Tunisia, it looks like it’s going to be some combination of the Army and the security forces. In Egypt, it’s a bit hard to tell who will come out on top, but I’m noting that if the Muslim Brotherhood has a strong operational organization right now, they could easily be the winners. And that is likely to be considerably worse than Mubarak.
The problem is basically that, while Mubarak is a dictator, brutally suppresses dissent, encourages corruption, and so on, that’s actually the mildest form of dictatorship.** If you ask yourself “how could it be any worse,” a gander around the Middle East or North Africa can provide you with a wide range of interesting examples. And in the meantime, there’s likely to be a whole lot of violence. The size of the Christian population of Egypt, for example, is a closely guarded government secret***, but is estimated by outsiders to be about 10% of the population. If the government collapses and militant Islamic fundamentalists are trying to take over on a locality-by-locality basis, for example, what do you think is likely to happen there? (The Jewish population is safe because there is no Jewish population. They were all exiled and/or killed by Nasser in ’56)
So my concern is that overthrowing a dictator, and letting whoever can grab the most in a power vacuum take over, is a sure way to make things considerably worse than they are. This is likely to lead to a bloody period for Egypt, and if it spreads further — which I think it might — a bloody period across the entire Middle East.
This revolution is not likely to be a good thing.
* NB, not the most populous Muslim country, which is Indonesia, or the country with the greatest Muslim population, which is India. This is an Arab issue, not a religious one, although the two are related.
** Which fact is basically why dictatorships are so bad.
*** They really don’t want people to know this number.