Sunday, February 20, 2011

What price freedom?

A wave of popular protest sweeps through the Middle East, threatening the autocratic regimes that have ruled for decades. In Tunisia and Egypt, the regimes have been toppled; in Bahrain, talks are about to commence; in Libya, a military backlash has been threatened; and protestors have also been active in Yemen, Jordan, Syria, and Iran. All shout the same war cries - "Freedom!", "Human rights!", "Give us our dignity!"
They want nothing more than the ability to exercise the same rights that we in the West take for granted. They want freedom from the governments which, in the cases of Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Jordan at least, our governments have supported and maintained. They want to be able to determine their own future.
Who are we to stand in their way?

Consider this, though:

What are the possible consequences of revolution?

As we saw in France after 1789, in Russia in 1917, in Brazil in 1930-2, in Spain after 1934, in Paraguay in 1947, in the Sudan, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Portuguese Guinea, Yemen, Bangladesh, Egypt and many other new states in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, and perhaps most relevantly in Iran in 1979, one revolution is not enough. In all these instances, which are but a few on the historical record, a popular uprising (sometimes supported by the military) ousted an unpopular regime, and was then itself defeated within no more than a few short years as a fringe group took advantage of the turmoil and anarchy and took power for itself. The end product was a harsher regime, a reign of terror in some cases, or a vicious civil war.

I fear the same for the Arab world.

There is so much to take advantage of. Many of those who have initiated the protests are well educated, secular, and comparatively well off. They have protested for more rights and a bigger slice of the pie, just as white collar activists have done throughout history. The protests have been swelled by common workers, the poor, the totally disenfranchised, who have nothing to lose and everything to gain from a transition of power. In most of these countries, political opposition has been banned, and so the only organised opposition has come from Islamic parties that have survived by becoming community organisations - parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood. They are well placed to lead the second revolution, to get rid of the secular and progressive educated elite which is barely more popular than the previous regime.

In a world where America has been villified, where people are all too aware that life could be better, and where the word of the mullahs and other radical Muslim preachers carries more authority and weight than any other, the power vaccuum which is left by the departure of these autocratic regimes can only be filled by one source. Unfortunately for those of us in the West, this source considers our way of life inimical to its own.

In the West, most of us accept and desire a free, secular, progressive democracy as being the only way to live in a fair (or fairer) society. Outside of the small educated elites and professional classes, many of the people in the Arab world do not identify with this world view. The rise of radical fundamentalist Islam over the past two decades has been coupled with a power which the fundamentalist Christian groups in the West can never realise. Why? Because in the West, everyone is educated. We teach freedom, respect, tolerance. Such values find any fundamentalist or extreme perspectives to be repugnant, and so we turn from them, and place our support in the centre, with the moderates. But in the Arab World, a place where close to 50% of the population is below the age of 20, the lack of anything other than the most basic education means that the bulk of the population is ignorant, and can be easily manipulated. They have not made a free choice to accept or follow a blind and narrow interpretation of one of the truly great religions; they simply do not have the ability, the sophistication, nor the will to challenge it. This makes them ripe for manipulation by those who hide behind religion, those who profess belief in a faith which supposedly abhors the actions they conduct in its name.

So this is my fear. Yay for the people of the Arab World, and yay for freedom, but unless I'm very much mistaken any "freedom" they receive may be shortlived. That's why I'm glad to see the Egyptian military take control after the protests which ousted Mubarak. From what I've seen, most of the leadership desires to model itself on that of the Turkish army, which views the military as the defender of the republic. In Turkey, religious fundamentalism is also on the rise but to a large degree it is blocked, and held in check, by a secular military.

A theocratic state can never be a free state.

And a crescent of theocratic states running from Tunisia to Iran can never see the West as anything but an enemy.

We live in interesting times. Let us hope that we, and the common people of the Arab world - those who care not about politics or enemies but about food, water, and a roof over their heads - survive them.

That's my two cents to sense.

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