Monday, 14 February 2011

The genie is out of the bottle: Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Iran & Israel.

Having been forced to watch from afar in the relative safety of my home, I saw from 1980 the birth of Solidarity in Poland, the imposition of martial law and the advent of Peristroika from Moscow as of 1985, through to the semi free and fair Polish elections in June 1989 that led to the round table talks and the first non communist government in September 1989. And before you go reaching for Google, The Berlin Wall fell on the 9th of November, well after the rest of Central and Eastern Europe shook off the dictatorships. So please in future years when the historian's tomes on the new North African era have got dusty and we revert to trite throw away clich├ęs, please remember that in Europe, Poland came first and in North Africa and the Arab world, Tunisia came first, possibly even the green revolution protesters of Iran in 2009.

I of course bring up Poland, because the similarities to Egypt at the minute are similar and not by coincidence. In both cases the authorities in place have been there for about the same time, apx 40 years and in Egypt, 50 years. During that time an increasingly well educated and young citizenry saw it's hopes and dreams crushed and dampened to a point of nearly giving up. But being stubborn and determined, given the chance to push back, they did.  In Poland they even prevailed after 9 long years of struggle. But the problem with declaring symbolic victory is that you choose an iconic moment and it becomes tradition while the reality is that the old regime is not entirely swept away. In fact that would have been a bad thing, stability is the sort of thing that saves the furniture. The lessons Egypt and other such countries, post revolution, need to take from Poland are many and important. Not least of which is the lesson that it takes time to build a new politi in a population that hasn't had a history of real democratic parties since September 1st 1939. In the case of Egypt it can be argued that party politics is even more alien to the culture than it was in 1990's Central and Eastern Europe. It's one thing to want to "Throw the bums out", but when the dust settles, you have an entire population that hasnt experienced real political debate of the boring day to day nature we have come to take for granted in the west. Once the novelty of voting for the party of revolution wears off, the reality of running a country has to be accepted and the possibility that even the most popular party won't always get it right. Solidarity splintered into at least 10 separate ideological and regional interest parties. What emerged was the normal spectrum of left to right with a sprinkle of religion and commercial interests. The reason Poles today accept and albeit grudgingly praise the current set up , is that it does produce the reflective compact that was struck in the early 90's Poland  mixture of urban, agricultural, intellectual and industrial civil society that emerged.

Tunisians and Egyptians will have to take the time to find out just exactly what it is they stand for and what they are prepared to accept in their politicians ideologically and practically. The one real asset in the North of Africa today  is the high proportion of young well educated future workers and middle class citizens they are ready to become. Their hopes and aspirations haven't been stomped into the earth like those of their parents and grand parents. They are in a position to establish new parameters based loosely on what they see and have experienced in their closest neighbours in Europe. Beyond that, I cannot tell you what the future shape of the North African Arab states will be, but I can tell you it will be as secular as Ireland or Italy in 2000 and sometimes as radically anti G-d as France or Britain seems to have become today. It would be fool hardy to expect perfect parties and perfect government from any elections that take place in September 2011. It will be years before the new republics emerge as stable recognizable systems.  Poland took a decade to come to a point where you cannot tell the difference from them and say the German Reichstag. As History started moving again in Europe in 1989, so it will in North Africa. But like anything frozen in the ice of dictatorship and regional interests for over 50 years, it will not happen overnight.

The next problem, if you choose to see it that way, is the fact that the government apparatus that collects the rubbish, sets curricula in schools, funds museums & culture and also regulates the economy , is used to a certain way of doing things. It's been doing  it for 50 years after all. To be clear, sometimes the old ways aren't all bad ways and some others just need a tweak. These bureaucrats will be there till they are replaced in the fullness of time by a new generations of equally convinced technocrats educated in the current methods en vogue in the capitals of Europe and the region. The Army, especially one as big as the conscript Egyptian army will eventually develop an officer corps  that will not interfere in the nation's affairs, but this too will take time. Because however,  the army will now be cut off from the old boys club that has till now run the country, it will have no choice but to reform.Where immediate steps need to be taken is perhaps a wholesale replacement of the police by serving Army personnel who are less inclined to shoot first and ask questions later.

The all powerful elites in the country will also retain a lot of influence before they are well and truly flushed. In Poland in the 10 years since the peaceful fall of the Communist government, the number of old technocrats who have become industrialists and businessmen on the back of the soft landing given them in the early years, remains high. Former state enterprises have continued in many cases to stay in the hands of the same sterile old minds who over the years moved from  an imperative to keep people working despite non existent markets for the goods,  to  making as much money as possible with as few workers as possible. It took several years for the Central and Eastern European governments to get out from under the IMF monetarist orthodoxy and regulate in a more normal way these situations. In the new North Africa, there will surely be a similar readjustment in the economy that will take many years and will not go anywhere near as smoothly as anybody with a magic wand called democracy would like it to go.  It will however be easier if you have a stable hand on the reform process. Iran showed how you don't change a country, Russia trusted it's citizens and politicians who had no choice but to come from the old system to make it a better place. 10 years on it's not perfect, but still better than it was or would have been if they had just changed the system 100% in the space of a week.

Freedom of the press and culture will also undergo a strange and sometimes clunky process. At some point, even quickly, the press and the news will readjust, it will do things it hasn't done in the lifetimes of most people in North Africa, it will tell the truth. There will however remain the question of how much liberalisation will be tolerated by the population in various parts of the country. You cannot expect the same open society in Egypt as say in France or Holland or even Lebanon or Turkey. These limits and value judgements will ultimately be done by the people. A word of warning to the old theocratic and moralistic leaders inside and out of the dictatorships, the power you had before will be limited entirely by the willingness of the population to accept what you say as the absolute unchallengeable truth. In a multi party, socially diverse culture, the power of one set of value givers and enforcers will be tempered by the right of people to NOT have to share the same opinion on everything, just as that right will be tempered by the responsibility of the citizen to not trample on the next person's set of rights. For example, some might say that certain Irish twins of recent fame should have been locked up for bad taste, but they have the right in a free society to be complete divs. They aren't actually harming us are they? We can as active citizens, use the levers of commercial power and our voices in regulatory bodies to limit these sorts of things. We can only do this because we trust our leaders and regulators to a great extent to get it right, to understand the difference between what's good for us and what's just imposing one set of standards and values on the rest of the country. Over time, democracy will pollute the telly of Egypt with the same brain dead content some on ITV2 seem to like, but because of democracy, you'll also get the truth of what happened, you'll get protest in the form of drama and satire and you'll get thought provoking programmes that engage the population in the process of reform,  sometimes even against the  wishes and desires of some who prefer you weren't asked. For example, you can no more force an omnivore to stop eating meat than that omnivore can force meat into a vegan. It's free will , tolerance and compromise. The moment you believe you have a monopoly on the truth, you become part of the problem and should you have the power, no better than the dictators. Most recently a vegan football club owner banned meat in his club's park. His right to do so I suppose, but highly insulting and presumptuous to assume he can force his individual beliefs on his staff, the players and the entire season ticket holding supporter base.  Besides probably breaking several commercial laws and agreements designed to keep all of us from coming to blows, he has taken on the mantle of preacher with a bit of power... never a good thing. In a free press and free culture this will be discussed and the pressures of real debate and the weight of law will resolve this, precisely because we accept the rules of the society we live in. 

Protests and strikes are here to stay people, it's a curse and a gift. I love how even the most timid of Egyptians on the news, are protesting bad housing, the cost of petrol and low pay.  It's their right so long as they do it peacefully. Authorities need to respond not by arresting these people, but sorting out their legitimate demands and reasonable concessions requested, if the authorities expect people to go home. Once let out of the bottle, the genie of dissent in a reasonable society must be tolerated if free speech is to flourish and keep the lines of communication open between the governed and  those who govern them.  Mob rule, which of course is the extreme end of protest, is what happens when you deny the vast majority the possibility to make their concerns and wishes heard and acted upon. Peaceful articulate and sometimes loud protest and strikes are a natural vent for the frustrations that will regularly come to a boil, to close dissent down too much is asking for trouble.

The ability of the big powers to dictate to other nations what is good for the big powers has by and large ceased to be relevant in the new democratic Europe. Many of the agendas finding voice in New Europe are now derived from the environmental movement, trade unions and  local economic imperatives. Clearly the effect of 10 years of pan continental stability is a model North Africa and the Middle East can look forward to as well. Suddenly powers like Israel and Iran won't be able to hide behind ideoligical or regional interests real or imagined to protect their particular and peculiar versions of the Garden of Eden . In Iran  protesters demand the democracy won in Tunisia and Egypt, that was denied them under the Shah as well as the Ayatollahs and are accused of being spies and trouble makers in the pay of the Americans.  When Iran is the last theocracy standing,  they won't be able to sing that song any more. Israel on the other hand has a fluctuating voter turn out that has plumbed as low as 42% and as high as 63.2% in the past few years. Hardly a ringing endorsement of the pure rep by pop system that produces ever more conservative and radical governments that reflect the vast majority of Israelis ( Jewish, Muslim and Christian) about as well as having the KKK the Nazis and the ultra orthodox religious establishment set government policy. Is it really ok to stall while entire neighbourhoods of Palestinians are cleared for radical Jewish settlers? Actual Israeli born Jews living in Tel Aviv and Jaffa have become irrelevant in the process and see the wishes of the radical immigrants from outside (mostly the USA and Canada)  as well as US self interest reflected in the domestic policy of the nation. Powerless to act, the apx 70% of native Jews who are agnostic, going to Shule three times a year, or are only culturally Jewish, stay at home or more and more emigrate to Europe where the old powers are wanting their Jews back. As the rest of the region opens up and democratises, the increasingly sterile and cut off regimes, including Israel, Syria and Iran will find themselves having to give in or face the kind of bloodshed they are trying so hard to avoid. When you strip away the bogey men of  Hamas or the CIA or the g-dless west, you are left with people like you and me who only want to get on with their lives and get back to the sort of world where we used to just argue over the price of olive oil and who invented Humus. As and when the only real difference between  Europe and North Africa and the Mid East are the holydays and the bank holidays, then the radicals blowing themselves up for Islam, killing school girls for G-d and the nutcase Jewish settlers shouting shite about how it G-d's gift to them and they mean to take it any way they can no matter what, will be made to look like the ignorant unrepresentative dangerous subsection of humanity they are.

You might task me if it's better to have a Bathist regime that sends people to school regardless of sex and treats people appallingly based on ethnicity and disagreement, over a religious state that keeps people ignorant and poor, and I would say yes, as long as it's eventually swept aside. At least the secular state produces an educated middle class that is ready to take up the modern pressures of the world and still retain the reasonable peaceful message of Islam, should one choose to practice. Given the chance, the people of the region will find a happy medium where the extremists of any side will find little apatite for their message.  With a great deal of patience and encouragement the situation will come to pass that even the hold over resentment and mistrust towards authority and the outside press will evaporate like the old regimes that created them in the first place.  As the closest neighbour and biggest trading partner to the region of North Africa and the Middle East, Europe must help when asked, prod as gently as possible when it can and be patient. Not only is the prospect of avoiding the big war in the Middle East as real now as the eradication of the multiple regional tensions that used to send Europe into war on a regular basis, the creation of a single region of equally concerned governments willing to act in the name of environmental issues that are bigger than any ideology or religion is a very real probability. When you create a place where the people feel they are part of the process you can actually get things done.

I cannot predict which leader and which systems will fall next, but we have to trust these people to do it themselves, just like Central and Eastern Europe did starting in 1980, it will take time but the result will be a better place. It may not look like our personal vision of perfection, but it'll be close enough to make it work.

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