Opinion: 80 million people like this

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.

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10 Comments

  • I remember putting a version of the Ghandi quote to one of my cynical colleagues who demolished it in one word: “Cathars”.

  • ” 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. ”

    I am more interested in the role of CANVAS, the Center for Applied NonViolent Action and Strategies:

    http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/02/16/revolution_u

    I might add that I think people pay far too little attention to the issue of legitimacy. It matters a lot if people think that the person who rules is not, in fact, the rightful ruler. The real story of Indian independance and democracy, is the story about how people changed their minds about who the rightful ruler was.

  • Rory Stewart’s book “Occupational Hazards” about his period as a regional governor in post-invasion Iraq is a salutary corrective to anyone who thinks that there is a simple solution to the problems of the Middle East. In the last hundred years the area that is now Iraq has passed from being a region of tribal sheikhdoms under the overall protection of the Ottoman Empire, through the attempted creation of a nation state with an imposed monarchy by the British, to a prolonged period of military dictatorship. As a democrat I hope that had the peoples of the Middle East been able to exercise the democratic choice that we promised them during the First World War that it would not have been the unhappy area that is has been for most of the period since then. It is certainly probable that without the Sykes/Picot agreement and the Balfour Declaration the area would have stood a better chance of developing political systems more acceptable to the local populace.

  • Thanks for providing the explanation of my response to the Ghandi quote George. I actually wrote a much longer reply to Fred’s article and your response to it, principally with regard to the social media aspect, but I managed to lose it all when I looked up the name of Rory Stewart’s book, my memory not being what it was. I find it a bit dispiriting that people spend hours writing an article for LibDem Voice and then virtually nobody responds, it sinks down the list and vanishes without trace. But in a sense that epitomises the problem of effecting social or political change: it is easy to write a response to something on a blog like this and to feel that having done so it will be read by people one would like to influence, in this case those who are running the party, and that therefore one is making a difference. In the past when people in the party felt it was moving in the wrong direction something like the Radical Bulletin Group would be formed (there was another one after the merger with the SDP but I forget its name, although I was a supporter): but that means calling a meeting, arranging a venue, speakers, an agenda, making sure people know its happening; and then keeping in touch with supporters, recruiting more, and actually working to making change happen. All that takes money, time and commitment. Using Facebook, blogs, etc. gives the comforting illusion of achieving the same thing, and that is why I believe that there has been no organised resistance to what the leadership has done to the party, and why instead people who cannot tolerate the centre/right repositioning of the party that appears to be taking place are drifting away rather than fighting back.

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