Karl Marx opens his “18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” with provocative words: ” Hegel remarks somewhere[*] that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” The tragedy he was referring to was that of Napoleon Bonaparte; the farce was that of Louis Napoleon, at that mid-19th century writing recently elected President of the French Republic. Marx, of course, is an historical determinist, imagining as he often seems to that any historical figure or process predictably serves the interests of the emerging bourgeois class unknowingly. But this observation of his should be every bit as compelling to us now if we understand that social movements are often either conscious or unconscious imitations (or evocations?) of political actions innovated by others. In mid-December of last year an unemployed 26-year-old Tunisian college graduate set himself on fire in an obvious expression of desperation after the police confiscated his produce cart for selling without a permit; in recent weeks several men in other North African countries have followed suit in an apparent effort to inspire the sort of revolution that toppled Tunisia‘s previously-stable autocracy in just 1 month. What has happened in Tunisia, including the ongoing protests there that have forced the resignation of most Ben Ali appointees in the transitional government, appears neither tragic nor farcical, but inspired.
However, it is not yet clear what the significance of the spreading protests in other Arab states will be, in some cases inviting a re-imagining of this doubling of history into an initial triumph and an imitative tragedy. Tunisia’s sudden and remarkable revolution notwithstanding, in the event of the failure of anti-regime protests in, say, Egypt or Yemen, crude sociological commentary might set in among prognosticators of undefined events, as some of them assure us that “The Arab World cannot sustain democracy after all.” While they aren’t universal, such crude pronouncements are almost unanswerable, as any retort below the order of the academic would probably sum to “Oh come on, sure it could.” The armchair sociologists’ static picture simply reflects discomfort with the fact that we don’t know what we’re looking at here yet. The principal actors in these various set-confrontations–decades-reigning Arab despots, unemployed 20-somethings, hordes of looting thugs, professional and at times foreign-rooted opposition leaders, the military, violent and non-violent Islamists, former colonial powers and the President of the United States–don’t always have stable relationships towards one another. In a moment of radical hope following decades of political stagnation, enemies can re-define as friends–or vice-versa. Right now President Obama probably doesn’t know whether it is prudent to gently-encourage Hosni Mubarak–a dictator who has been a reliable ally to the US–to reform the Egyptian political system or to explicitly-state that the protesters’ sense of grievance is valid and their cause just. Or maybe these imitation protests will prove a farce, blowing-over suddenly and unexpectedly.
The Liberal Ironist is mainly struck with the macrocosmic sense of the revolutionary convulsions in the Middle East: The jobless 26-year-old who set himself on fire mobilized a generation of previously-quiet college graduates who had come to fear their own police. “He was just like me,” seems to have been the epiphany that set them in motion. The quick, (in the scheme of things) easy, and apparently-decisive nature of Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution made it also seem a single event, even if larger-than-life. “Tunisia is just like us,” these succeeding opposition movements either believe or want others to believe.
Protests have emerged in Algeria, Jordan, Yemen, Sudan, and most notably Egypt, where president-in-name-only Hosni Mubarak has maintained a state of national emergency since the 1981 assassination of his predecessor, and the dictatorial powers that go along with it.
Scripted imitations like this aren’t exactly fated to succeed. In Sudan, a student protest modeled on neighboring Egypt’s already looks doomed and may turn out to have been a foolish mistake in retrospect. The revolt in Egypt, not even truly a week-old, may hold in common with Tunisia’s the growing apprehension of a young generation facing massive unemployment and fast-growing inflation in the face of a manifestly-corrupt and unaccountable government; but while protests in Algeria, Jordan, Yemen and now Sudan occur in the face of autocracy these governments themselves face varying levels of dissent and differing domestic compositions of national armies and police forces, as well as variable reliance upon foreign aid or resources such as oil. Each of these factors influence the kernels of dissent and levers of repression available to the regime. An interesting similarity between the Tunisian and Egyptian protest situations is the fact that the military is sufficiently-empowered to play a decisive role in this episode of contention–if it can resolve to play a particular role. The reason for this, in both cases, is that it is the police and not the military that the autocrat in each state used as the means of monopolizing political power. The upshot is that the military’s hands have been relatively clean while police in both countries routinely carried out every infraction from soliciting for bribes to torturing suspects. In short, the police in both countries have reputations like a mafia family–and to-date there has often been no one to check them.
Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia failed to cudgel the revolution in his country in part because police forces were inadequate to the task but he had kept his armed forces relatively small; meanwhile in Egypt the risk that the military may not follow Hosni Mubarak’s command if he orders a massacre of protesters seems heightened because the military is relatively large. CNN.com yesterday posted an article on the structure of the Egyptian military and what this means for the kind of hand Mubarak can take against the protest movement. “All males between ages 18 and 30 must serve one to three years, as the CIA World Factbook notes, meaning almost every family in Egypt has some personal connection to the military.” The article noted that the military rank-and-file come from all parts of the population, and so do not perceive themselves as a distinct class or faction tied to the government. The top ranks of the Egyptian Army, the article notes, are of course Mubarak loyalists, but if Mubarak should become desperate and order his generals to strike against the protesters, the middle-ranking officers may not implement those commands on a tactical level out of a sense of common cause with the rank-and-file, and the protests. This could be an issue whether the army is called in against peaceful demonstrators or the violent riots that seem to have shut down parts of Cairo this weekend.
The Liberal Ironist could easily believe the conjectures that the breakdown of order on Saturday was the result of a cynical withdrawal of police forces by the government–a ploy to let chaos grow on the streets calculated to frighten those uncertain about the prospects for reform into embracing the government’s generalized pronouncements against “chaos” and “criminality.” Today the New York Times reports that “Thousands of inmates poured out of four prisons, including the country’s most notorious, Abu Zaabal and Wadi Natroun.” You might recall that Saddam Hussein released violent prisoners in Baghdad on the eve of the the US military’s entry into the city as a means of salting the Earth in the face of the decisive defeat of his regime. Dictators often achieve the power they have over the state because they have the creativity (read: lack the scruples) to wield it in burdensome yet unaccountable ways that encourage conspiratorial thinking of this sort; after decades of political domination by men such as Saddam Hussein, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak, it should be easier to understand how conspiracy theories, strained assumptions that some corrupting power monitors everyone and enforces every outcome, have a long pedigree in Arab politics.
Just because the story in Egypt is not certain doesn’t mean all characters are powerless to control their characterization. So far, our President has sought to play the ambiguous part, essentially embracing both Mubarak and the protesters. Blake Hounshell, writing for CNN, argues that this tack isn’t viable and that our government will have to take sides between the protesters who say they want democracy and the government that cries “Anarchy!” The Liberal Ironist agrees. Being unsure of the prudent course of action between 2 seeming extremes at a juncture like this doesn’t mean that a policy ambiguity that makes others doubt either one’s commitment or one’s motives is a prudent alternative. In John Carpenter‘s satirical science fiction flick They Live, the hero challenges his new friend for being unwilling to fight injustice: “That white line (you’re walking) is in the middle of the road. That’s the worst place to drive.”