In my previous post I said I thought the role of social media in Tunisia was a bit of a red herring. I wanted to expand on that thought.
As I said on my own blog Wikileaks and social media played a role in Tunisia, and also in Egypt, but these things should be understood as helpful tools, not the root causes themselves. I thought the Foreign Policy article George Kendall cited was weak and the case for Wikileaks as a direct cause of the protests somewhat thin – even by the Foreign Policy article author’s own estimation.
What is true is that the lack of freedom of information – when coupled with economic hardship, iniquity and a social opportunity, often leads to rebellion. One could wax lyrical and academic about this, or tell you a parable about monkeys, but it all effectively boils down to Ghandi’s famous quote:
Whenever I despair, I remember that the way of truth and love has always won. There may be tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they may seem invincible, but in the end, they always fail. Think of it: always.
Controlling a population is about making them satisfied with what they have. If you can control the discourse you can make them satisfied with less, but over time, if your relationship with the people is parasitic then your days are numbered, and if you lose control of the discourse then your final days are upon you.
So this is the point: the revolution in Egypt had far more to do with the doubling of food prices than it did Wikileaks or Twitter.
Wikileaks and Twitter did help make more people aware of why the price of food had doubled, but fundamentally this revolution was caused by the fact that the totalitarian strategy for keeping the people pliant is a high risk one.
So what is the British role in all this? Well it should be clear from Tony Blair’s spirited defence of Mubarak what side Britain has been on. Public opinion Cameron and Obama have had to try to sound like they support democracy (and maybe personally they do) but corporately Britain and America have never ever wanted democracy in the Middle East – as the last 100 years of foreign policy, and particularly the last 10, bear witness. In part this stems from good old fashioned Orientalism which says the Arab world is not ready for democracy, but in the main it comes from the flawed dichotomy which claims that the choice in the Middle East is purely between so-called benign dictators and Islamist democrats. I have long hated this approach, and thankfully the Middle East now seems to be democratising despite us.
If we want democracy in the Middle East then we need to challenge that dichotomy – as the protestors have – and we need to accept that sometimes – not always – the people of another country might not vote the way you would vote. It would help if along the way we could develop a nuanced view of the region, understand that few demagogues are ever electorally successful (and with that in mind that most of the paper tigers the apologists would have you cowering from are neither as extreme nor as popular as they would have you believe), and that democracy causes extremists to become more moderate.
Fred Carver is a former Liberal Democrat councillor in the London Borough of Camden. He blogs on world elections and politics at Who Rules Where.