Why I am not a Rebel

Last Saturday, in what passes for a newspaper, the front page read:

Rebellion spreads as ‘Arab Spring’ takes hold

The Arab Spring, the great awakening, 2011’s equivalent of the fall of communism in 1989, is spreading across North Africa and the Middle East like water pouring from a broken dam. Brave and youthful populations are rising against stunned dictators who are reacting the only way that they know how, and yesterday the entire region seemed to be choking on teargas and reeling from the bullets, rubber or real.

And on like this. Martin Fletcher decided to entirely omit any news, and just write florid prose fiction. This is typical of the way events have been covered.

Perhaps the enthusiasm for these rebellions would be somewhat tempered if our journalists had a vague notion of history. The regimes in Egypt and Libya came to power on the back of popular rebellion backed by a section of the military. Indeed, that’s how almost every regime in the Middle East came to power, and most have had this process play out several times. So if it’s been such a disaster previously, why should we believe things will work out better this time around? And more importantly, what’s going on?

Anomaly UK has repeatedly drawn a distinction between Old Democracy (i.e. democracy with strong intermediary political institutions) and Young Democracy (i.e. democracy without those institutions). So Britain at any point in the last three centuries would be an Old Democracy with its accompanying stability, France in 1789 would be a Young Democracy leading to bloodshed and civil war. Another distinction would be a cultural one, and to talk about the asabiyah (national togetherness) of the polity. So Britain would be a country with strong asabiyah, where mostly people feel they’re all in the same boat, and vote for the national interest*. Whereas Rwanda had weak asabiyah, where people used their votes as instruments of power, leading to bloodshed and civil war.

These are the two arguments that are constantly made about democracy in the middle east. The first says that democracy is problematic because Arab countries don’t have the intermediary institutions that can keep them from sliding into Something Much Worse (Islamism is the bogeyman du jour). This is nonsensical, because most Arab countries have intermediary institutions much stronger than ours. Whatever power the BBC and the permanent civil service has in Britain is trivial compared to the power of the army in Egypt, or the theocracy in Iran. If anything, these countries have intermediary institutions that are much too strong. The second argument says that democracy is problematic because Arabs are a bunch of primitive tribal heathens. So democracy will break down into Muslim vs Christian, Sunni vs Shi’a, etc. Apart from being deeply racist, this view is also fundamentally mistaken – for the most part these divisions are not very important at all. For example, most of the sectarian trouble in Iraq has been whipped up by outside forces – by which I do not just mean Iran, but also the deliberately divisive and sectarian policies pursued by the occupying US forces.

The real issue is indeed cultural, but not in the way that most people understand it. In the Arab world there is much enthusiasm for Democracy as Result – i.e. that the government should do what the people want. But there is huge scorn for Democracy as Process – i.e. elections, parliamentary negotiations, in short, politics. These are seen as sicknesses in the body politic, that weaken and divide, set one man against another, faction against faction, and make the government easily manipulable by strong and unified forces either domestic or foreign. What is interesting is that this is similar analysis to that used by Public Choice Theorists and Formalists alike. I find it therefore surprising that there is not more enthusiasm among these groups for the Arab Spring – perhaps the rebels might be persuaded to organise their new state as a joint-stock corporation. However, I think reaction trumps creativity in the Formalist ranks.

Realistically, however, Egypt and Libya are not going to be reconstituted along Formalist lines (not that that would end happily either). If they do get democracy, the popular resentment of the divisions of democratic politics will make the rent-seeking a lot worse, and the polity will be non-functional. More likely, the people will get what they want, which is a strong ruler. The question of how you get a strong ruler who nevertheless does what the people want is of course as yet unsolved. The best answers that the Arab world has come up with are the various versions of political Islam, but the very notion of government having anything to do with religion so horrifies western liberals that the international pushback would be very strong.

Perhaps the new government will be a little better than what was previously in place, but I doubt it. The long-term structural factors are all negative. In short, I don’t see this ending happily, and the Western cheerleading of these uprisings makes me queasy.

*Of course the asabiyah is breaking down at present.

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