Monday, February 07, 2011

Dictatorships 101, in 2011

Guest post by Ali Ezzatyar

Ali Ezzatyar is a journalist and American attorney practising in Paris, France.

(Ed. note: This is Ali's second guest post at The Reaction. In January 2010, he co-wrote a post on Iran with Bryan Tollin. -- MJWS)

As Egypt moves ever closer to life without Hosni Mubarak, governments and analysts everywhere ponder the important question of what will come next. The conventional and clich├ęd wisdom pronounced by pundits and politicians the world over focuses on the risk of a dramatic rise to power for the Muslim Brotherhood and the inevitability of a new Islamist, and implicitly dictatorial, ruling establishment. Disaster for the U.S., for Israel, and for the future of Egypt, right? If the events of recent weeks demonstrate anything, however, it is that dictatorship is increasingly difficult to manufacture in the age of modern communications.

Let's take a step back and acknowledge exactly what these Twitter and Facebook "revolutions" have managed to overcome in just Tunisia and Egypt so far (bearing in mind events in Jordan and Yemen as well). Former president Ben-Ali ruled over Tunisia, with the help of a highly-trained secret police force (among other levers of control), for over 20 years. Just weeks before he fled the country, few a Tunisian would have ever imagined a day where he and his cronies would not dominate the landscape of politics and life in Tunisia for as long as he lived. What had largely been considered one of the most stable and pacified populations in the Arab world, however, took to the streets in large numbers, rendering the president's apparatus of control inoperable against the masses of people from which it was drawn. Increasingly facing the possibility of internal betrayal and what that would mean for his own head, Ben-Ali fled. What happened afterwards, however, was in many ways more remarkable than his being deposed.

The government that immediately replaced the Ben-Ali regime was largely made up of his associates. And while that new government immediately pledged and took concrete steps to dismantle the means of censorship and develop democratic institutions, the Tunisian population, well-informed, continued to protest. Staging demonstrations and continuing to put pressure on a still-infant government, remaining elements from the old guard were purged from the new interim regime. All the evidence suggests that Tunisia is on its way to democratic institution-building and free elections. From communication to coordination, it is hard to imagine how such an historic sequence of events could have happened without the Internet tools that have only become widely used in the region in the last few years.

Events in Egypt are, in the most important ways, following a similar trajectory. While such events are impossible to predict, it is reasonable to hypothesize that, as in Tunisia, no group that fills the potential power vacuum in Egypt will have the clout, influence, or muscle that Mubarak developed over the last 30 years to implement his dictatorial rule. With the tools at the disposal of the world's citizens today, the fear of new dictatorships springing out of such well-established ones -- former dictatorships that had decades to harness accountability from their repressive systems -- seems almost far-fetched. The protesters and the press, emboldened by the information and images they see and transmit in seconds, are already focusing their rhetoric on a post-Mubarak era and the avoidance of a failed transition to democracy.

The world's governments that have been criticized for becoming more dictatorial in the last decade seem to have done so through reform, not revolution. Take Venezuela, for example. The specter of an Iranian-type genuine revolution turned radical Islamic regime also seems unlikely in the Egyptian context. The lack of a unified and charismatic Islamic front (with the Muslim Brotherhood being rather late to the game), coupled with the modern means of communication that are helping to topple Mubarak, will threaten to make the consolidation of power for a new dictatorial regime untenable unless it is extremely popular.

Most importantly, though, let's acknowledge that democracy's growing pains, whatever they may be, deserve the opportunity to play themselves out. It is not the business of entities foreign to Egypt to try and divine the potential makeup of a future government, and then exercise preference over whether or not Egyptians have a right to their own destiny. Foreign influence (short of intervention) should be designed to help strengthen populations and countries that seek to take destiny into their own hands, in the model of Tunisia (with the U.S.' encouragement of Ben-Ali's stepping down), and not in the old model of Iran. Note that the undermining of Iran's popular and democratic movements of yesterday are thought to have contributed to the radicalism and anti-Americanism of its revolution and its government today.

U.S. policy suggests it is frantically trying not to be on the wrong side in Egypt, and in the region generally. We should consider, though, the monumental reputational damage the U.S. will sustain if it stands on the side of autocracy or even ambiguity as it has done in the last two weeks. The specter of loss of interests should yield to the realization that only democratic partners in the region can protect our interests permanently, and that those democratic partners had better be our friends.

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