Some Thoughts on the Arab Uprising
When I ponder the events of the last month in the Arab world, I’m reminded of Herbert Stein’s remark: “Anything that can’t go on forever, won’t.” From Morocco to Bahrain, kings and rulers are looking at a prairie fire of popular opposition. And the only thing a guy can say is, what took so long?
For decades, all these countries have had authoritarian regimes kept in power by foreign sponsors. All have used secret police, torture, spies, and bribes to maintain their grip. In all these countries, the rulers have to come to look ever more like their foreign sponsors and ever less like the people they rule. Throughout this region, development has shredded the comforting verities of ancient cultural traditions without bringing a nourishing new cultural order. Of course, development has brought material benefits—cars, modern medicine, plumbing, paved highways, well-lit streets, and toys of all sorts: and people have appreciated the material fruits of development but their own elites have sucked up most of the goods and left them mired in squalor. It isn’t just that the rich have been getting richer. The rich have also growing more culturally alien. Obviously, this could not go on forever. Sooner or later, the connection between rulers and ruled was going to snap.
The question is: why now?
Technically speaking, these countries have different sorts of regimes. Morocco and Bahrain are monarchies, Tunisia and Egypt parliamentary democracies, Libya and Algeria “socialist” states ruled by revolutionary parties. But not really. Not really.
Really, all of these countries are old-fashioned dynastic monarchies. In each case, the outward form has distorted slight in each case to accommodate whatever Great Power is the sponsoring master. Khadafi came to the throne with the Soviets as his dominus, so he adopted a gun-toting, guerilla-like swagger that was in fashion for anti-imperialist third-world revolutionaries of his day. Mubarak came to power as a client of the United States, so he donned suits, adopted a corporate executive look, and called himself a “president,” staging elections from time to time and adopting other outer decorations of democracy.
But the fact is, all these regimes had a single personality at the top, just as in an absolute monarchy. In each case, the ruler had absolute power except to the extent that he had to propitiate his immediate cohorts and family–also typical of monarchies. The fundamentally dynastic and monarchic nature of each regime began to emerge, however, when the first generation of rulers got old and their sons began grooming themselves or being groomed to take over. In Egypt and in Yemen, the sons were already operating as their fathers’ chief executives, his viziers, to use the old parlance. In Libya, Khadafi had his eight sons jockeying for position as he moved them from post to post, pitting one against another, grooming them for the succession while keeping them off-balance, so that they wouldn’t challenge the father in his lifetime—also typical of dynastic monarchies going back through time.
The thing is, though, the world has changed. The single most crucial factor in these Arab uprisings has been demographic. Half the people in these countries is under 30 years of age. In some the statistics are even more extreme. In Yemen, I think I heard, the median age is 17! For these kids, the revolutions their parents made and the turmoil they went through struggling with neo-colonialism is ancient history. Cold War? Never heard of it. The events of 9/11? Heard of it. The proliferation of the Internet and of social media here as elsewhere has promoted horizontal connections and weakened vertical ones—young people interacting more with each other and less with their parents and grandparents and through them with their ancestors, ancestral traditions, and cultural past. In this context, when Mubarak addresses a crowd of passionate Egyptian demonstrators and tells them, “I am your father, you are my children,” he just seem preposterous. Khadafi strikes me as especially fossil-like, clueless, and out of touch. That doesn’t mean he’s harmless. He’s a grumpy, terrified, and terrifying old man, he’s killing a lot of people right now, and he might end up as the Arab Revolution’s first Ceausescu—torn to pieces by his own people.
But the fact that this revolution is such a spontaneous outburst of young passion means that it doesn’t represent a program. Whose revolution is this? Nobody’s—yet. It’s just happening. Only in the future will we know whose revolution it was. This is true, of course, of pretty much all authentic revolutions. A society bursts at the scenes because its political forms no longer match its social realities. Then come disruption and disorder and everything is up for grabs and then someone manages to grab, and a new shape emerged. The question isn’t who made this revolution happen, but who is going to exploit the fact that it is happening most successfully.
In Iran, the revolution of 1988-89 was a broad-based ramshackle outpouring at first. Khomeini was a huge figure, to be sure, but the Mujahideen Khalq had been working to overthrow the Shah forever, there was a vast middle class seething at the dynastic police power that both used them and shackled them, there were the bazaar merchants sidelined by industrial development, there were leftist and liberal as well as Islamist students, and there were so many others. Once the society was in disarray, however, the group most mobilized for action, took over. And that was Khomeini and his Khomeinists. The Iranian revolution became their revolution in those first two years of turmoil.
Ditto the Bolshevik revolution The Czarist regime collapsed, Russia was teeming with anti-Czar forces. The Bolsheviks had been one of the smallest of the opposition groups, but they emerged from the chaos because they were so fearsomely well-organized, they could hit hardest and move fastest, and their only scruples were those imposed by their dogmas.
In the Arab world, who is best mobilized to exploit the chaos to come? I said “to-come” because whatever this revolution is about, it’s still in the future. What we’ve seen so far is only the swell of the ocean that indicates a tsunami is on its way. Right now, in Egypt, Mubarak is gone, but the regime is still in place. Will the Muslim Brotherhood emerge now, from the shadows. Oddly enough, I somehow think not. It’s true that only the underground movements have been able to operate in Egypt, these many decades. When political organizing is outlawed, only outlaws will be politically organized. So maybe the Brotherhood is mustered and ready to take advantage. And yet…
To me, they feel somehow dated, clunky, and out of touch, almost as much so as the rulers who are now under siege. If it’s true that youthful energy connected by Facebook and Twitter and the is driving this uprising, then the spontaneous mood is quite unlike the one that permeated Iran in 1978. At that time, there was no Islamist state. It could seem like a workable vision to some. Base a country on the shari’a–why not? But the demonstrators of today have Iran itself, not to mention the recent Taliban regime in Afghanistan, to look to as models. In the absence of an actual Islamist regime to point to, Islamist revolutionaries can evoke an imagined ideal to give direction to revolutionary energy. But now, demonstrators in the streets of Cairo or Amman or Tripoli will be asking themselves, Is Iran what I want my country to be? Is Taliban-ruled Afghanistan what I’m trying to build. I’m betting that those options are not going to look attractive to a lot of the folks out on the streets of those Arab cities right now.
The outcome of a revolution is bound up with the technology that made it possible. In Iran, circa 1978, the revolutionary instrument of the moment was the hand-held cassette tape recorder. It was light, it could go anywhere, millions of them could be sneaked across the border—but the actual message could, and did, come from one source. The instrument of revolution made the revolution centralized and driven from the top, from a single source of absolute wisdom. The ethnology keying this revolutionary moment does not and cannot have a center. Facebook is not mass media, it’s mass interconnectivity. What the whole mass is “thinking” cannot be known until it reveals itself in action, because there is no platform outside the system from which to look at all those message flying around and see what they add up to.