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Archive for February 11th, 2011

I think we all forget how caginess is one of the most important resources of a leader, even or especially the ones who seem to be invincible. Hosni Mubarak, we are now told, has been orchestrating his own demise for the past few days, and yet Thursday night, he gathered all of Egypt close to their televisions to tell them at the last minute, “FU.” He was staying and that everybody should go home.

That was either the most desperate act on television since the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour or an inspired bluff. Can you imagine what might have happened if everybody believed him? I recall the immortal words of Cool Hand Luke, who got his name because nothing is, in fact, a real cool hand, and sometimes you win just by pretending you have everything when in fact you have nothing. Could a last-minute head fake have similarly saved Mubarak and his oppressive, 30-year regime? Hardly, yet he certainly thought it was worth trying. Had everybody believed him, he might still have been president this afternoon.

I’m not trying to be flip or cute about somebody so loathsome, but people tend to think of autocracies as monolithic things, and it’s that veneer of invulnerability that helps give them their power. This sort of monolithic view not only aids the oppressors. It also conveniently removes the possibility of human free will, and that’s where this becomes something of interest for non-Arab Westerners glib about their freedom and liberal tradition. My personal feeling is that dictators are secretly pleasing to people like Noam Chomsky, whose narratives about power require the impregnable man behind the curtain to work, who assumes every action of a nation or state happens in secret for an advantaged few working in cahoots, even, I would suppose, a welfare system like the U.S. had in the New Deal era. Chomsky believes we all live in dictatorships everywhere and that we will continue to until the day the government is destroyed and we’re all living in anarcho-syndicalist trade unions.

The fact is that systems of power bubble up from much more complicated underlying factors and internecine rivalries, some of them from movements that were organic or based in an idea that was originally populist. These inevitably turn on themselves because nature abhors a vacuum and the system self-organizes into a new power structure (something Chomsky and his fawning, uncritical acolytes can’t or won’t acknowledge because evidently anarchism is as cool to them now as it was high school).

Truth is, dictatorships are much more mundane and complex than the man behind the curtain–they involve the difficult mechanics of a party process, political patronage and the cover of a happy business communities willing to trade freedom or class estrangement for stability. They may have started with some sort of non-violent political legitimacy (we all seriously err when we forget that Hitler was democratically elected). Dictators are famous for their brutality, but not quite as famous for the gifts they hand out or the bread and circuses they lavish on the common people to strengthen their personality cults. You will find dictatorships throughout history that are much more benign in character than Hitler’s–even ones liberals don’t mind defending occasionally.

Many people have been wondering whether it was the actual price of bread that brought Mubarak down (since the Russian tightening of wheat exports has threatened to make penny loaves more expensive, and Mubarak’s efforts to subsidize cheap bread after the food riots in 2008–literal bread, if not circuses–had only bought him time.

Was it bread or Facebook or the revolutions next door? It’s probably not that clear cut. In Nicaragua, the dictatorship of 45 years fell in 1979 because the dictator spent the previous decade squeezing private enterprise out of their cut of GDP, until finally the middle class were so fed up they decided they’d rather cast their lot with a scruffy lot of communists then deal with a thief in a business suit. It’s a chain reaction, not an outburst of anger, usually, and that seems to be the case in Egypt as well.

I’d like to think that everybody all at once just stood up in a moment of clarity and decided they were oppressed and that they wouldn’t be anymore. What Egyptians have bought, however, on Friday was a new government with the military in charge of it and an awful religious/political group, the Muslim Brotherhood, waiting in the wings to re-assert itself after years of oppression. In other words, a mess. In their natural desire for self-determination, Egyptians have won the admiration of the world and a reason to joyously celebrate in the streets, because they did it with courage and  without quite as much violence as there could have been. Peaceful protesters miraculously stared down and parried thugs hoping to come beat them and stand as an example of (mostly) non-violent democratic change. But now that the Egyptians have earned it, they’ve got to earn it again just by keeping it. My optimism tells me they can.

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