13 February 2011

Searching for the Next Domino

I know that I always come late to these parties, but let’s talk about Egypt.  With a bit of distance, I can’t help but laughing.  Late in January, I was speaking with a Moroccan friend about Tunisia.  She expressed solidarity with the Tunisians and happiness at their success, but worried about what it would mean for her country.  After all, successful revolutions can inspire others, and were Algeria to follow suit, it could very much harm Morocco’s economy.  She was also cautious in victory; a stable, free state does not necessarily follow from revolution.  She concluded her musings by fervently hoping that Egypt remained stable – God only know what will happen if it falls!  Well, God and very shortly everyone else.
I in no way mean to take away from the giddy triumph suffusing Egypt right now, nor the tragic loss of hundreds of lives that accompanied the revolution.  But even as we cheer this moment in the sun as a despot takes his terrifically overdue leave, one has to ask, what’s next?

 The current climate in Egypt is, for all its drama, not totally unique.  The area has a history of ‘bread uprisings’, when economic crisis, starvation, and repression combine.  I felt there were shades of the 1977 Revolution in this recent effort, which was preceded by a several years of a horrific economy.  Protests against austerity measures led to clashes with police, and belated capitulations from the regime led to more demands from the protesters.  It’s also reminiscent of 2008, when ballooning wheat prices engendered bread riots not only in Egypt, and throughout much of the rest of the Middle East, West Africa, and Haiti.

Just as they weren’t in 2008, Egyptians not alone now in these concerns.  Obviously, this latest (and arguably most successful) revolution was not born of a single cause, but there is reason to suspect that rising food prices were the final straw to a camel already burdened with a broadly poor economy, political repression, and a rapidly politicizing youth bulge.  Egypt’s food market is strongly dependent on imports ay a time when major exporters are readily messing with supply: Russia and India engaged export controls; the US diverting corn to ethanol; and speculators are artificially inflating global food prices.  Indeed, world food prices last month reached record highs, well beyond those that resulted in wide-spread riots in the past.  Hedging their bets, regimes across the Middle East have begun stock piling wheat, guarding against both mass starvation and Egypt-inspired reformers. 

So, who’s next?  So far, a number of names have been bandied about (Yemen, Algeria, Libya, Turkey, Saudi Arabia…).  But what about Afghanistan, who boasts the world’s least-secure food supply?  Well, there are undoubtedly parallels, food inclusive.  Mubarak’s despotic anti-Western rhetoric about “foreign intervention or dictations” had some echoes of Karzai at his most irascible and sublimely ironic. 

A quick aside: how were there foreign dictations?  To my mind, actually, the US butchered this one in its tentative ambivalence.  The Obama Administration, on whom I admittedly place too many expectations (but they sort of invited it, no?) had a phenomenal opportunity to actually support those qualities which are supposed to be fundamental to the American ideal of statehood.  For years, we’ve supported petulant and ungrateful tyrants in the name of national security and at the expense of human rights and civil liberties, even as we have the audacity to claim to be a beacon for democracy.  I say it’s high time we put our money where our mouth is.  Obviously, I’ve never one to be accused of Realism (in the IR sense.  In life, I like to imagine myself a pragmatist).  Annnd….aside over. 

So, will a populist revolution happen in Afghanistan?  No.  Frankly, there has been too much war for the population to even have the energy to consider a demand for change.  Moreover, these kinds uprisings can’t happen (in my opinion) where: (a) there is a standing threat of reprisal; or (b) where there is so little faith in the government that there is no perception that it’s not upholding its end of the social contract.

The first of these explains why we haven’t seen recurrences (or even stirrings) of opposition political life in, for example, Zimbabwe, Eritrea, or Iran.  The Ahmadinejad regime, likely fearful that the Green Movement will hear in Egyptian success as a siren call (nicely timed with the anniversary of the 1979 Iranian Revoltuion), hanged 73 people in January alone.  Many of the condemned were political prisoners arrested during the 2009 post-election protests.  This kind of extremely violent repression, usually characterized by trumped charges against opposition leaders and the almost casual use of torture.  In many instances, pretense is done away with completely and executions become an extra-judicial affair.  A spontaneous, comparatively peaceful political protest is unlikely to be mounted, let alone come off, under such conditions.

Political repression is only half the story in Afghanistan, especially in that it is affected by sub-state actors, rather than universally imposed by the central government.  After all, even if the Karzai regime wanted to, say, shut down the internet, they likely would not have the ability to do so.  This of course speaks to my second point; Afghans, to use a ready example, are unlikely to demand that their government enact civil liberties in light of the reality that it is too incompetent, not to mention corrupt, to have subverted them in the first place. 

Case in point: Corporate recently decided, in an effort to support the fledgling state, they would require our local linguists to pay national taxes.  This edict has thrown our theatre finance director into a conniption as she attempts to figure out how withholdings work in Afghanistan.  When she asked some of our local co-workers, they were mystified.  Pay taxes?  Decidedly not.  One volunteered in response to her questions that his uncle, who works for the Ministry of Finance, might.  Even so, he doesn’t fill out any forms or get any kind of statement, and pardon, Mr. Deb, but what is a W2?  Another explained that paying taxes would be pointless; there was no official receiving structure and you would have no idea what became of your money.  More likely than not, it would be going for the individual collector’s own “beneficiary”.  Afghan officials, he groused, are only interested in lining their pockets and fleeing to Dubai.

One has to have at least the memory of a nominally functioning government to realize that it’s failing you, and a minimum of the space to speak if it’s to swell to a rallying cry.  It’s a formula that, in very small part, explains why protests abound in Europe, but not in Africa.  I also think this is where the role of social media enters the picture; it gives a semblance of a protected voice creating the space for political speech in the flesh.
But let’s get back to Egypt.  That is where we started, right?  Holy cats, I’ve meandered today.  Even with the recent positive developments, I suspect that we won’t know the outcome for a while yet.  And I don’t mean just the September elections.  There is only one organized opposition party?  The state now rests in the hands of the army?  In the best-case scenario, this is early ‘90s Poland, with their party for VCR owners.  More likely, the potential for long-term instability, violence, and repression remain.  September is going to be a hot mess.  Hopefully it is a mess which eventually leads to a stable, fair transition of power.  It is the smooth, transparent election that heralds democracy, not a purple-fingered show piece.