The Middle East heats up

Well, it looks like things are going to get much hotter. A roundup of what I think are the key developments:

  • Serious violence in Egypt: Cairo has devolved into major violence, as Mubarak’s supporters went on the offensive. The security services appear to be coordinating their operations, and have particularly targeted foreigners and journalists. The party line is that “foreign elements” are responsible for all of these protests, which is traditional but honestly, isn’t it a bit silly to be saying that at this point? Surely the Egyptians aren’t likely to take that even a little seriously? al-Jazeera has been a major target.
  • The opposition has declared Friday (i.e., tomorrow) to be Mubarak’s “day of departure,” saying that they’ll storm the presidential palace that day if he isn’t gone before.*
  • The US appears to be working on a deal to get rid of Mubarak, although some rumors suggest that the deal would put his newly-named VP Omar Suleiman in power over a “transitional regime” to last until September. I would guess that the odds of the Egyptian public accepting Mubarak’s hand-picked successor from the security forces to be less than great.

Beyond Egypt, even more news:

  • In Yemen, President Saleh has agreed not to run again for the presidency in 2013. (He’s been in power for 32 years) Protests continue, but they don’t seem nearly as angry as Egypt’s.
  • In Jordan, King Abdullah II sacked the government and replaced it with a new one, led by Marouf al-Bakhit as the new PM. al-Bakhit has a reputation for honesty, and this move was specifically aimed at public anger over corruption. He’s also agreed to meet with the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood. Protests are happening, but the King appears to be moving fast to head off popular anger by making at least some reforms.
  • In Algeria, President Bouteflika has ended the 19-year-long state of emergency following protests.
  • Major protests in Syria, which is likely to turn really nasty – President-for-life al-Assad is not a nice fellow. Opposition promises major protests on Friday.
  • No news of major action in Lebanon, but Hezbollah has just formally taken power.
  • No clear info yet out of Saudi, but I’m particularly interested in that.
  • In Pakistan, the case of Raymond Davis, an American accused of killing two Pakistanis, seems to be heating up, and it’s a strange one. He says that they threatened his life, he drew his pistol and shot both; an (American) SUV rushed to his aid, hitting and killing a third Pakistani. He then has claimed diplomatic immunity, which the US is backing.** The Pakistani courts have just remanded him over to keep him in jail; the procedure was apparently done without any trial, lawyers, or even translators. The main reason for that is that anti-US sentiment has been boiling up lately, and radical elements have been turning this case into a cause célèbre; there are angry mobs in the streets calling for Davis’ blood. The situation is mostly decoupled from Egypt but not really; the rate of terrorism in Pakistan seems to have just shot up over the past two years, and the whole country seems ready to blow. The schedule, however, is hard to estimate, and may depend on how the effects from Egypt radiate outwards.

So in summary, the situation across the entire Middle East has heated up considerably, and more and more countries are being forced to act fast. It looks like Mubarak is reaching the end of his regime, but has decided to go out in a blaze of violence. Expect the shit to really hit the fan all over the place on Friday mideast morning if it hasn’t before that. (Which means in just a few hours…)

To those of you with friends and family in Egypt, my thoughts are with you.


* Explanatory note: this means Friday after morning prayers. This is common across the Islamic world; after everyone goes to Friday prayers (and sermons!), the large crowds come out of the mosques, and this is traditionally the time most likely to turn into a mass protest. Marking Friday as the day is basically saying that people will come out of the mosques in unified force, which is pretty likely true. NB also that mosques are deeply immune in a conflict like this – were Mubarak’s forces to storm mosques directly on Friday in an attempt to head this off, they would very possibly be shot by their own men.

** Fascinating questions, answers unknown: What kind of diplomat is he? What does he do? Why is a US diplomat travelling armed through the streets of Lahore? Nobody is talking. My conclusion: probably someone from the intel or military community, very possibly US special forces or ex-special forces. Possibly one of the civilian “contractors,” which is what the mob seems to think – and if you think that Blackwater has a bad reputation in the US, that’s nothing compared to their reputation in the rest of the world.

Published in: on February 3, 2011 at 18:42  Comments (1)  
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And the US makes its move…

Good update on how the US has started to make its diplomatic move in Egypt. The cautious phase is now over; strong condemnation of Mubarak’s government for the violence today, and a statement that the political has to begin “now” – and “‘Now’ started yesterday,” said the President’s press secretary.

It’s pretty obvious at this point that Mubarak is on his way out, that the changes sweeping Egypt are going to be sweeping far more broadly across the Middle East, and that there’s going to be a major realignment; it’s a lot less clear what this realignment will look like. My post earlier today covered what might go wrong, but I’m still optimistic – the Egyptian people seem very determined to stand up for their rights in this, and the craziest fundamentalist elements seem to be finding themselves on the sidelines rather than driving the whole thing.

So: odds of Mubarak leaving Real Soon Now going up; clear transitions going on in Yemen, Jordan, Tunisia; and I’d say good odds of something big shifting in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Lebanon, and maybe even Syria over the next few months. And who knows, Qaddafi may decide to reinvent himself as the champion of the people and lead democracy marches through the streets of Tripoli.

Published in: on February 2, 2011 at 20:30  Comments Off on And the US makes its move…  
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The potentially bad news from Egypt

This is the companion post to the one from a few days ago on how things could go well in Egypt — given the changes of the past few days, it’s worth taking a look at how things could go badly in Egypt as well. I should say that at this point I’m not betting either way; but it’s worth seeing the factors which are pointing in each of the various directions in order to try to imagine what the future could look like.

So what are features which militate against a happy outcome? Largely, they’re forces which would encourage either mass violence or dictatorship.  And there are a few significant ones.

One of the biggest threats for violence happens if there’s prolonged uncertainty about government, a de facto power vacuum. This seems to have started to set in; the past week’s relatively peaceful protests have turned violent, with an apparently organized group of pro-Mubarak demonstrators riding in to Tahrir square yesterday. One of my first question is who these Mubarak supporters are; I wasn’t under the impression that he had a sufficient street-level power base remaining, and his support came more from those in power. I think that we’ve started to hit a critical point; if there isn’t a transition to a new government within a few days — which looks increasingly unlikely, as Mubarak seems determined to hold on to power — violence will rise to much higher levels. The possibility of a “velvet revolution” will pretty much go out the window.

If violence kicks in, the biggest risk is always if it will expose deeper underlying rifts. (e.g., between Muslims and Christians, or between city Arabs and Bedouin, or between various tribes with long-standing grudges) Once exposed, such things have a tendency to persist, and if large enough groups get involved either pogroms or long-lasting civil wars become a possibility. The latter could lead to Egypt becoming unstable in the long term.

If this is somehow mitigated or averted, any delayed power transfer (such as Mubarak’s proposal that he serve out his term and a new election be held in September) increases the odds of dictatorship. A long run-up to handover gives everyone a chance to organize, but the people best able to capitalize on that are what you might politely call Unsavory Elements: people who have become powerful under Mubarak’s rule, key members of the security services, provincial governors who are real sons of bitches, the Muslim Brotherhood. Even in a perfectly fair election it’s quite possible that anti-democratic forces will quickly seize power; but if people like provincial governors are in play, the odds of a fair election start to go down considerably. (I would keep an eye in particular on people like Samir Farag, the governor of Luxor province. He’s smelled to me for a while like someone getting ready to make a bigger power play)

Now with that said, let’s look at the longer-term consequences of transition in Egypt. I think that the biggest thing to remember is that Egypt is seen by the Arab world as a powerful bellwether, and anything that happens there is likely to be emulated far and wide. It serves as the western counterweight to Iran, who is trying to spread its influence as far as possible through the Islamic world, often through puppet organizations and fifth columns. Egypt hasn’t been installing friendly regimes so much as providing the huge economic and military backstop to vaguely secular dictatorships; the Saudis have in effect been their partners in this, providing the cash backing. (NB the difference: Egypt and the Saudis are backing dictatorships who favor some sort of stability, and bankrolling radical religious elements to stay quiet, whereas Iran backs those radical elements into taking power themselves, and sets up revolutionary Islamist dictatorships. Don’t you love the Middle East?)

If a genuine democracy were to emerge from this week’s events, the consequences could be profound. I would guess that several countries would feel immediate pressure to follow suit — Jordan, Yemen and Oman first, perhaps. The more powerful monarchies or oligarchies wouldn’t feel the same impetus, since they’re small enough that their aristocracies are a decent-sized portion of the population, but they would now find themselves operating against the backdrop of democratic neighbors. OTOH, it’s hard to tell who would come into power in such a democracy. Israel fears that it would allow radicals to come to power through the ballot box, as Hamas did a few years ago in the Palestinian Territories. I suspect that the answer would be country-dependent, although one could count on Iran to play KGB-style games and back their parties of choice in every country. In Kuwait (which would probably come under pressure to democratize soon after) this could mean a Shi’ite ascendancy, with uncertain consequences for its foreign and domestic policy, but a real possibility of some Bad Shit to go down. In Egypt, that would probably mean a sharp (further) radicalization of the Muslim Brotherhood as its more extreme elements found themselves with greater financial support. So there’s a real possibility for nefarious actors to spread via democracy, but there are also possibilities to mitigate that, especially by backing relatively sane people like el-Baradei with international support.

(And NB that international support shouldn’t simply take the form of cash, military aid, and the like. It has to be support for Egypt being a functional democracy, not for any particular ruler or party, and would most effectively take the form of things like free trade agreements and further pulling Egypt into the broader international community. That helps cement the vested interest that the Egyptian people have in preserving their freedom, by making it also in the interest of those in power to preserve that freedom rather than curtail it to maximize their own longevity in office.)

If a new secular dictatorship emerges, which I think is unlikely, we’d see a reversion to the status quo ante. If an Islamist dictatorship emerges, the exact effect depends on who is ultimately bankrolling it: a Saudi one would probably be more quiet (but potentially in the long term, an even bigger factory of trouble) than an Iranian one. I would note that such a dictatorship would of necessity be much milder than the Hamas variety, because of the critical importance of tourism to Egypt’s economy; think Saudi Arabia + increased use of medieval law codes rather than Afghanistan. But the hit to Egypt’s economy would be intense nonetheless; fundamentalist regimes generally aren’t great at encouraging large numbers of visitors, or other kinds of large-scale trade and innovation. This could exacerbate existing problems of poverty and food shortages and lead to recurring political instability down the road. One could easily imagine Egypt turning into a much larger, and less stable, version of Jordan in this case. (Economically, that is, not socially) There are other alternatives, of course; e.g., some kind of pan-Islamic “nationalism” leading up to an attempt to form a broader empire of alliances. I can’t imagine this actually working, but it would lead to some spectacular upheavals in the area.

If short-term but intense violence were to occur, the results would be bloody but (alas!) would probably have no more long-term effect than to more deeply cement the tensions already in the region, before proceeding on to one of the other solutions. One crazy wild card could be if significant Muslim-Christian violence would occur; that could cause American Evangelicals to suddenly put sharp pressure on the US government to intervene more directly, even militarily, and all sorts of shit could hit the fan. I’m going to pass over this briefly, not because it isn’t important, but because we presumably all know what this sort of thing looks like. And it’s bad.

If long-term civil violence were to occur, that’s probably the worst result of all. Tribal warfare could make the area dangerous for decades to come, essentially ending tourism and forcing the area to revert to its dwindling agricultural economy. In the long term, geography would rule: Egypt is basically a long, narrow strip of land, with its cities all clustered in the north and the absolutely critical Aswan dam infrastructure in the far south. A handful of key cities such as Luxor sit in between. Cairo and Alexandria would naturally fall into a single political domain; Aswan would naturally fall under the domain of whoever controlled the nearer cities to it, with Luxor probably being the natural base for that. The Sinai peninsula could be under Cairene control, or it could revert to Bedouin control, or Israel could preemptively reoccupy it as a buffer. One could easily see Egypt falling into such a partition in the medium- to long-term; here the problem is that the individual countries would be desperately short on resources and unable to coordinate. Effects such as desertification of the Nile valley would likely accelerate, leading to even worse problems in the long term.

So in conclusion, there are quite a few ways in which the Egypt situation could go extremely wrong at this point. My instinct is that the sooner the situation is resolved, the better for all concerned; a peaceful transition of power is still possible for the next few days, but after that the odds will start to get rapidly worse, and the chances that the ultimate result will be civil war, dictatorship, or mass poverty increase. The fastest way to end this would be for Mubarak to (peacefully!) leave the country; if any such negotiations are going on, as they presumably are, I can only wish them Godspede.

Published in: on February 2, 2011 at 11:15  Comments Off on The potentially bad news from Egypt  
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More from the Middle East

Just some random blurbs. The situation in Egypt continues to develop slowly; lots of marches, Mubarak has told his new VP to negotiate with el-Baradei, while presumably he himself is negotiating with various other countries for asylum.

Interestingly, King Abdullah of Jordan just dismissed his entire government and appointed Marou al-Bakhit as prime minister. Looks like a move to head off similar trouble in his country. That’s reasonably likely to work; while it’s not exactly a bunny-rabbits-and-kittens sort of regime, his government seems to be viewed as considerably less repressive than that of most of his neighbors.

Side thought on Jordan: The country is incredibly poor; it has two cities, a small strip of villages, and a great deal of open desert. Along with Israel and Lebanon, it’s one of only three countries in the Middle East not to have any oil. (“Dear God. You couldn’t have put the Holy Land somewhere else?”) In terms of population, it’s got three major groups: Arabs (dominant in the cities and the villages), Palestinians (which have largely been kept in giant refugee camps ever since 1967 — the government doesn’t really want them) and Bedouins. (Who live in the desert) It’s a constitutional monarchy, but with emphasis on the “monarchy” part. The city Arabs and the Bedouins both see themselves as the ones who are really the upper class. The villages — I have no idea how they actually survive or eat there. It’s not like the land is suitable for agriculture. But the relatively low overall population, and the attention that the government has paid to “security,” seems to make it a better bet than most countries in its area to maintain a stable regime. All told, this isn’t so bad.

Fatah and Hamas, meanwhile, have found one thing they agree upon — allowing absolutely no protests, clamping down on news, and so on. Unlikely that this will actually work, but they’re hoping to avert a popular uprising. My guess is that Fatah is much more vulnerable to this than Hamas, even though both are highly corrupt, because Hamas has a much more effective security apparatus. (Which is a euphemism for “secret police”)

Published in: on February 1, 2011 at 11:16  Comments (2)  
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Potentially good news from Egypt

What with all of my earlier warnings about the ways in which things could go catastrophically wrong in Egypt, it was good to wake up today and see a few signs that things may end up turning out better than expected. On top of the lack of looting, there have been a few really positive developments in the past day:

  • The army seems to have stayed on the sidelines. That’s generally a really good sign in revolutions; armies tend to either take advantage of revolutions to further separate themselves from the masses and basically take power, or to side with the people and stand by the sidelines. The army is typically much larger than the police force, and if it’s more grounded in the common people – rather than socially separated out – it can be a strong normalizing force in situations like these. (Compare e.g. the Russian army during the 1991 August Coup to the Burmese army)
  • The protesters seem to have fixed on Mohamed el-Baradei as their representative and spokesman. To quote a NYT piece:

“The Egyptian uprising, which emerged as a disparate and spontaneous grass-roots movement, began to coalesce Sunday, as the largest opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, threw its support behind a leading secular opposition figure, Mohamed el-Baradei, to negotiate on behalf of the forces seeking the fall of President Hosni Mubarak.”

This is great news for a number of reasons, the first of which is that Mr. el-Baradei – while not an experienced political leader – is by all accounts an upright and honest man, and one who seems to really understand how democracies work and believe in them. If he is really pushed to the fore, and if he receives the support from all sides needed to pull everyone together (by which I mean, he won’t have all of the contacts and experience to do this himself) then he could be the Lech Walesa of Egypt. The support of the Muslim Brotherhood suggests that at this point, their commitment to ensuring a stable political future for Egypt may outweigh their commitment to establishing a particular sort of future. They may well be betting that, in a functioning democracy, they will have the votes to achieve their key aims without violence – and much more importantly, that to do so would be better than to do so by seizing control themselves.

  • Finally, we’ve got some magic words from the US Secretary of State: she called for “an orderly transition to meet the democratic and economic needs of the people.” Parsing diplomatic-speak for a moment: the Secretary wouldn’t say anything in public unless it was fairly clear that there was going to be a transition, so it’s a pretty clear signal that the US has acknowledged that Mubarak is done with. “An orderly transition” is what you say when there’s a clear new government model in place (as opposed to outright anarchy) and you want to encourage this. It’s a signal that the US would back el-Baradei and help him with that support which he’s going to need.

Now, a note for those who have been wondering why the US didn’t declaim Mubarak more openly earlier on: I think the reason is pretty much that Mubarak was being considered as the lesser of several possible evils for a while, and the US knew that openly calling him out would simply sacrifice whatever leverage the US had with him in exchange for not very much at all. It wasn’t clear when his reign would end, or if it would end in a public revolution or a coup, or most importantly who would end up after him, and one thing that the US seems to finally be learning is that engineering coups to install “better” rulers is a recipe for disaster. And even now, with change in the offing, the US doesn’t want to be too loud about its support; being perceived as the US favorite wouldn’t do el-Baradei any favors. Even though I’d be willing to bet money that there’s a good deal of cheering going on right now in Foggy Bottom.

So this situation is nowhere near over yet, but I’d say that today showed some really positive signals for Egypt. If this manages to play out like it seems, we could have an actual democracy in the most populous Arab state; and the consequences of that for the rest of the Middle East could be fascinating.

Published in: on January 30, 2011 at 13:20  Comments (2)  
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Some more Egypt notes

Continuing our all-Egypt-all-the-time theme from the past few days, a few more small tidbits.

Per the NYT, last night’s riots seem to have specifically targeted government buildings, police stations, etc, and (significantly) left shops largely undamaged; many were reopening for business this morning, even as the party headquarters is still on fire. This is a good sign; shop looting during riots generally indicates that people are using a period of anarchy for score-settling, or (worse) that absent centralized control deeper faults in the society, especially along class or ethnic lines, are opening up. In short-term riots (such as e.g. the Rodney King riots in 1992 or the Crown Heights riots in 1991) this can exacerbate preexisting tensions; in situations where the existing government is likely to collapse altogether, that can quickly lead to large-scale internecine violence. Let’s hope this situation persists.

Mubarak appointed Omar Suleiman, his head of security services, as VP. I don’t think this is meant as a signal of proposed successorship (because, seriously, who would listen to that now?) but rather as a signal to the security forces of handing them more overt power and control in exchange for their loyalty. It’s not horribly surprising that those forces would ally with Mubarak, but it’s definitely to his advantage that they did so openly. The position of the army appears to still be ambiguous.

Finally, the important piece of background info which I keep forgetting to mention in these posts. About a week ago, al-Jazeera leaked a huge trove of documents from the past decade of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. These didn’t seem to get much news coverage in the US for some reason, but they’re a really big deal. Europeans were mentioning how they were harmful to Israel, because they show the Israelis rejecting significant Palestinian concessions as insufficient – but in the short term, these documents are potentially much more damaging to Fatah, since they show them not only negotiating in good faith, but offering significant concessions. This isn’t the sort of leak you dump out lightly; it’s the sort of thing which has the potential to lead to a popular (/Hamas- and Iran-guided) uprising in the West Bank, and the collapse of what’s left of the PLO/Fatah in favor of Hamas and more radical organizations. It plays well with al-Jazeera’s overall slant towards encouraging radicalism, and it could be a brilliant stroke against the last few relatively moderate people in the region. The impact so far seems at least somewhat limited; polls indicate that Fatah supporters largely believe the papers to be fabricated, while Hamas supporters largely believe them to be real. External corroboration from Israeli and US sources seems to indicate that the docs are in fact legit.

Basically, this was an attempt to throw a grenade into the middle of Middle East politics, set off a quick bloodbath, replace moderates with Iran-backed radicals, and in the long term do some damage to Israeli standing in the Western community. I suspect that it would have been more effective had the instabilities in Tunis and Egypt not grabbed the headlines away so dramatically, but they could still have an impact down the line. Keep your eyes open on this one.

Published in: on January 29, 2011 at 16:00  Comments (1)  
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Egypt, continued

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.

Published in: on January 28, 2011 at 12:51  Comments (15)  
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Quick Middle East update

No time for a real post today, but just as an FYI: the “cascading trouble” that people have been worrying about for years in the Middle East may have finally started. Tunisia’s dictator was recently overthrown by a popular revolution (although it looks like the military and/or security services may be taking over in the aftermath); but now there are large-scale protests in Egypt, which may be enough to finally topple Mubarak. He’s been using fairly authoritarian measures to prevent this for decades, and the concern has been of a resurgence in Islamist power if the government were to collapse, in the Arab world’s most populous (and culturally influential) country. Now it looks like we’re seeing large-scale instability in Yemen, (which was never really stable to begin with, granted) and Hezbollah seems poised to take over Lebanon. The secession referendum in the Sudan isn’t something I would normally list with Middle East issues, but it does pit the Arab north against the oil-rich African south, and has the risk of spreading instability into southern Egypt and/or Libya, or outwards via the already very-unstable Horn of Africa to reinforce the issues in Yemen, Oman, and maybe even Saudi Arabia.

This entire situation opens the possibility for “rolling revolution” of some sort, especially in areas which have had strongly authoritarian regimes (often ethnic minorities) suppressing the population for a long time. I would mark the entire African Middle East and the Arabian peninsula as being at particularly high risk, with the chance of an Iranian power play during a time of opportunity creating additional risks in the fertile crescent all the way out through Lebanon. This could all fizzle out, or it could turn into a major regional realignment, with existing (total bastard, but at least semi-stable and established) regimes replaced by popular movements run by highly radical organizations.

So: Analysis later, right now just wanted to keep everyone posted.

Published in: on January 27, 2011 at 11:17  Comments (5)  
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Multinomial derangements

A few days ago, Amy asked me an interesting question. Say you have a deck of N cards, n1 of one type, n2 of the second type, and so on, and you shuffle them all together. Then you predict the order in which you will see all of the cards, and flip them over one-by-one. How many will you guess right, on average?

This problem turned out to be tricker than I thought it would be, and since it doesn’t show up on random internet searches, I figured it would be good to work through the problem here. It’s related to the problem of counting derangements (permutations of N elements with no fixed point), which was solved by Bernoulli in the early 1700’s; but the version with groups of identical objects turns out to be slightly messier. In the same way that multinomials generalize binomials, these “multinomial derangements” generalize ordinary derangements.

(more…)

Published in: on January 17, 2011 at 12:00  Comments Off on Multinomial derangements  
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Job families and income inequality

Paul Krugman has an interesting blog post today about income distributions, and why the rich tend to feel poorer than they used to. He noted in passing that he had always been taught that income distributions were log-normal for most incomes, switching over to Pareto for large incomes.

I dug in to this dataset and found an interesting follow-up tidbit. His statement about distributions seems to be correct. What’s interesting is that the cross-over point between the two seems to be happening at roughly the 75th percentile, at an income of $87.5k. Apparently incomes above this threshold behave like “large incomes,” with a power-law scaling that suggests a self-similarity of the economies of the rich to the very rich to the really very rich; whereas incomes below this threshold are following a completely different model, bunching up more towards middle values.

Here’s a graph of this income data on log-log axes, to make it clear. The Y-axis is the (decimal) log of household income, in dollars; the X-axis is the (decimal) log of the percent of society, so +2 corresponds to the poorest members of society, 1 to the top 10%, 0 to the top 1%, etc. Note that the curve is linear on its left-hand side (i.e., a power-law curve, a Pareto distribution with α = 0.56) and curves down sharply at a log-percentile of 1.39, i.e. at the 75th percentile of the distribution. The original data is available here.

Income distribution on log-log axes

This suggests that incomes in these two ranges are driven by fundamentally different dynamics, which shouldn’t be surprising. What I think is surprising is that, once upon a time, the “two dynamics” were those of earned income versus investment income, but this cutoff point seems far too low for that to be the case. Instead I suspect that we’re seeing a switch between a “professional class” — which includes much of our modern super-rich [cf. Christina Freeland’s recent article in The Atlantic, and particularly her note that today’s rich tend to be rich from earned rather than inherited or purely passive income] — and a “working class.”

The boundary isn’t the old blue/white-collar boundary; many white-collar jobs are clearly on the bottom side of the hook. (And NB that jobs can pay more than $87.5k and still be logically on the bottom end of the hook; first, actual salaries include things like regional variation, which this chart averages over nationally; and second, a job could represent e.g. the upper end of a job ladder which has a log-normal distribution, and thus be a bit above the threshold. The distribution we’re seeing here is a sum of two distributions, Pareto for jobs which pay higher on the average and log-normal for ones which pay lower)

It may be very interesting to characterize the growing income gap in our society by trying to characterize individual job ladders (i.e., sets of positions which are roughly equivalent, which individuals are expected to move across over the course of their career — although not necessarily at a single company) by their geographically-normalized income distribution. I would bet that if we compared the income distributions for a few hundred job ladders, we would find that they tended to fall into two pretty clear buckets, and that looking at the qualitative characteristics of those two buckets would tell us a lot about who is actually winning and losing in this new world. I’d bet that some of the results would be surprising, especially for jobs close to the edge — e.g., traditionally white-collar jobs now in the low bucket, or blue-collar ones in the high bucket.

Published in: on January 14, 2011 at 11:28  Comments Off on Job families and income inequality  
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