Wednesday, February 2, 2011

I Love the Smell of Revolution in the Morning

We're kicking off a Gentlemonth of love here at These Gentlemen, and in doing so we'll be posting a lot about things we love, or hate, or maybe just crush on a little.  So there's something going on in the world right now that I am just absolutely enamored with, and I thought I'd sing a little song about it . . .

I love democracy
and when protesters sing
I love a free press
and when freedom rings
I love the whole world
and all its awesome things
Boom de yada, boom de yada
Boom de yada, boom de yada

I love revolution
and people in the streets
I love a spirit
That won't accept defeat
I love what's happening
Out in the Cairo heat
Boom de yada, boom de yada
Boom de yada, boom de yada

I love Tunisians
and all the change they bring
I love the new hope
that we'll see by Spring
I love the whole world
and all it's awesome things
Boom de yada, boom de yada
Boom de yada, boom de yada

In case you haven't heard, Egypt is in the middle of what has become the largest political demonstration of the last century.  It all started in Tunisia, when after 23 years of authoritarian rule, weeks-long protests across the country forced out President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.  This all began when Mohamed Bouazizi, faced with corruption at every level of his local government in the span of a few hours, set himself on fire outside the governor's office.  Bouazizi's self-immolation set off a wave of anti-government protests throughout Tunisia, leading to what might have seemed impossible previously - a complete change in government and concessions by the ruling party to form a cooperation government and give over to free elections.  While that in and of itself was fairly unprecedented, what happened next was beyond comprehension.

It spread.  It spread to Algeria.  It spread to Jordan.  It spread to Yemen.  And it spread to the country the world is watching most closely right now; Egypt, where President Hosni Mubarak has been in power for three decades.  Yesterday, millions of Egyptian citizens flooded the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, and other cities to protest Mubarak's continued rule, a move which followed a week of demonstrations calling for freedom of speech, assembly, and an end to Mubarak's regime.  They want freedom of assembly, they want a representational government, they want freedom of speech.  They want a government that cares about their jobs and health and well-being.  And they're willing to fight for it.

This is, in all seriousness, one of the most momentous events of my lifetime.  A sweeping upheaval of the status quo in the Middle East, where dictatorships and monarchies are still the norm.  The talk of this sweeping as far as Syria, Libya, and, dare I even suggest it, Saudi Arabia, will be made fact or rumor entirely based upon the outcome of what happens in Egypt right now.  Should Mubarak be forced to step down, the protests still happening in other countries will gain momentum, and those which are still just burning embers will have new fuel added to the fire.

So I think there's no better time to open up a discussion about what's happening than right now, and right here on These Gentlemen.  Let's go down the topics;


Violence broke out in the initial days of unrest, but then settled down as the police began to back off and the military moved in.  When the military announced it had no intention of interrupting the protesters and was only there to keep the peace, the demonstration was emboldened.  It's reported that protesters actually formed a human chain around the Egyptian National Museum to keep it safe from looters - who were mostly policemen.  When demonstrators continued to observe their daily prayers, Christians and secularists also with the movement encircled their Muslim counterparts and protected them while it was happening.  With people looking out for one another and the army not intervening, demonstrations were entirely peaceful for several days - until pro-Mubarak supporters moved in, on horses, and armed.

The thing is though, you can't just make a horse charge into a crowd.  They have to be specially trained for that, and it's really only police horses that get that kind of training.  Adding to the suspicion to this is that Mubarak is known to have roving gangs of "supporters" who go around during elections and literally stuff ballot boxes.  Further casting doubt into the motivations of these pro-Mubarak regular Egyptian citizens just voicing their own opinion is a Twitter post in which an Egyptian on the scene reports hearing one, after being knocked off of a horse, say "this isn't worth £200."  They also had a strange and pronounced tendency to actively seek out people with cameras and attempt to destroy them and the footage they contained.

And then there's this - a picture from the scene of ID cards taken from pro-Mubarak demonstrators, which proves they're members of Mubarak's own party and security forces.

So violence was not the objective of the protesters, but it came to them and they responded.  Firebombing with molotov cocktails (incidentally, one of my favorite phrases) has broken out as well as clashes with rocks, sticks, and fists.  The protesters finally organized literally a phalanx - a walking wall of makeshift metal shields, and began marching out from Tahrir Square where the demonstrations are taking place.  They moved outwards, linked together, and forced the pro-Mubarak thugs back.  Shots were fired into the crowd, tanks moved through the streets, but as of the time of this writing, the demonstrators had forced Mubarak's allies to retreat.  They also took the overpass running over the square which Mubarak's forces had been using to hurl molotovs at them from above.

If this is the tone of demonstrations as (and if) they spread across the Middle East, it could be the most peaceful, inspiring revolution in history.  Speaking of which -

The Domino Effect

Some people (myself included) have already speculated about what might happen if this spreads further.  Rulers in Yemen and Jordan are already trying to get ahead of this, vowing not to seek re-election in the case of the former, and re-organizing the government in the case of the latter. 

But not all of the Middle East is Egypt.  Jordan is still a monarchy and the people seem just fine with that.  I'm not sure how much change we can expect from other nations because a lot of them honestly don't see their rulers as the problem, and more just want reforms to the existing government.  Similar actions are taking place in Syria, Sudan, and in the West Bank.  Whether or not they seek actual changes in government is going to be dependent upon how their leaders handle protests when they arrive.

With that in mind though, one democratic movement or election does not a democracy make.  If another regime is voted in, we could quickly end up with just another Iran on our hands.

So what can we do to try and make sure this doesn't happen?  Is there a way the U.S. can try to ensure that people actually get the rights they're fighting for, and don't just trade one oppressive government for another?  Well that's a mixed bag.

U.S. Involvement

A lot of people have been critical of the U.S. government's response to this whole affair.  For some backstory, Hosni Mubarak is a pretty steadfast ally of ours, and important for sustained peace with Israel in the region.  The government provides him with almost $2 billion annually.  This is pretty much a yearly gift in exchange for not going to war with Israel.  There's no telling if a regime change would mean new leaders would be amicable to this deal, since if there's two things they don't like in the Middle East, it's the U.S. and Israel.

There are two schools of thought on what we've done so far and I'm going to address both of them.

First, realistically, we have a lot of important alliances in the Middle East.  We rely on governments in Yemen, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and other places to help us in the war on terror, which keeps American citizens safe.  If the people in power willing to aid us are also practically dictators, that's not a fact we can help.  We're not in the business of toppling dictators and changing governments.

Ha, just kidding, we totally are, but only if our dad thought their President was a jerk.

Anyway, for the sake of not expending trillions in military costs, we do support the dictators who play nice with us.  It maintains stability in the region and helps us track down the guys who would attack America.  Unfortunately it sucks, pretty much universally, for the people who are subject to the authoritarian governments the U.S. backs.

What we're seeing here could be the dawn of a new era.  Or it could go no further than Cairo.  We don't know, and we can't take chances.  Therefore the stance of the U.S. government thus far has been to insist there be a peaceful transition of power, condemn violence, and support the people's will to democracy.  This is pretty much on-message with our publicly-declared foreign policy throughout history.  Really the biggest surprise to me came in a press conference President Obama gave yesterday in which he called for Mubarak to step down immediately, not later as he has promised.

See, the thing is, if revolution does spread, fantastic.  There's no greater moral victory for America than seeing democracy take root around the globe and dictators toppled by their own people.  But if it doesn't work, or it doesn't spread, we can't be the ones who supported the people attacking the rulers we've so willingly played ball with in the past.  There's a line we can't cross until the dust settles.  Not only that, but any attempt to openly support the protesters is going to be played up as an attempt by the U.S. co-opt the revolution and manipulate it.  Anti-American forces would leap all over it to undermine the roots of this secular, populist uprising and turn it into something which works in their favor.  It's a chance we can't take.  We have to let events play out and just let people know we're on the right side of history.

On the other hand, screw all that.  America should be better than this in the first place.  Obama made a speech in Cairo once about increasing unity between the Muslim world and the United States, and I say now's a great time to make good on it.  There was an episode of one of those shows like the Twilight Zone or the Outer Limits where two kids in an idyllic town find out that everything remains so perfect there because one person suffers unspeakable torment every second of every day, and in exchange everybody else lives in peace.  It's a secret everybody knows and nobody talks about, because to do so would shatter their illusion of perfection.  Well, we live in that world.  America supports corrupt governments and oppressive regimes across the globe for the sake of our own people, and yet things are far from perfect.  It seems like we're getting the short end of the stick with that bargain.

This is a sign that it's time for America to cast off ties with dictators, thugs, and bullies all around the world and start acting like we actually care about democracy.  The people all over the Middle East are speaking, let's let them know we hear them.  On that note -


When protests broke out in Iran over the disputed Presidential elections last year, the government cut off access to the internet.  The result was pretty swift and painful - without solid communication, the protests grew less organized and quickly dissolved.  Mubarak took a page from Ahmedinejad's book and closed down the internet in Cairo early on.

And it just made them angry.

So they've been attacking journalists.  They've shut down Al-Jazeera (which I think anyone following the different coverages can now agree is probably the finest news organization in the world) in Egypt.  They've done everything to keep the story from getting out and people from communicating.

Which is why Anonymous is using fax machines to send Egyptians Wikileaks cables about abuses of the Egyptian government.  It's also set up free dial-up access to keep Egyptians connected.  Egyptians are staying in touch through landlines, but also through the tried-and-true word of mouth that Mubarak seems unable to silence.  After Tunisia, the genie is out of the bottle, and you can't get people to stop talking about it now.

So it seems even though the internet, including Facebook and Twitter, were instrumental in getting things off the ground, it's now capable of moving without them.  This won't end without a resolution now.  However, we can't ignore the part that mass media and the internet played in making all of this possible in the first place.  How is it going to affect things in the future?  If freedom of information reaches the Middle East, what will people do with the knowledge they're presented with?

These are our topics of discussion.  I now cede the floor.

I love living in exciting times.

Boom de yada.


B.Graham said...

1) I'm also SO EXCITED about the times we live in now. I literally listen to NPR at the edge of my seat, which might not be the best, considering i'm usually driving during that time

2) Let's be honest, while we can't be described as a dictatorship (any more..?), we have on more than one occasion been described as a bully or thug.

3) I might be just living off the fumes of The Hunger Games, but OMG. Please read that series, and tell me if I'm crazy for thinking that what is going on right now in the middle east is eerily similar.

David Pratt said...

Some supplemental material:

Essay from an Egyptian student in Cairo:

Another article, including a map of planned future protests across the Arab world:

The original call for Egyptians to mobilize which led to the internet being cut off: