Tag Archives: democracy

Bull in a china shop

Democracy is on the rise. Arabs are finally, painfully getting rid of their Western-supported or Western-opposed -and really, what’s the difference at the end of the day- dictators that have secured a steady and cheap flow of oil over the past decades. The democratic West looks on, emitting a feeble “Hurrah!”

“Come on. Can’t you guys at least pretend to be happy for us?” an Arab observer might say. “Sure, we’re a bit late to the party, but can we at least get a drink up in this bitch?”

Here’s the thing though, and for this we need to rewind the tape a good 25 years, the end of communism didn’t spell the end of history. The interesting times were only beginning, to paraphrase a famous Chinese proverb. Liberal markets and their inseparable political analogue democracy had won. Yeay! China, fast opening its economy to the forces of supply and demand, would soon learn that for that system to work, politicians too needed to receive feedback on their performance. A healthy market can’t survive without a steadily improving regulatory framework, i.e. a democratic-ish state.

Then came Tienanmen, followed by two decades of casual +10% growth lifting hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty. The U.S. and your average old European social-market economies managed 3% to 4%, in a handful of good years. In relative terms, and due to the end of cheap oil also in absolute terms, the latter have been getting poorer. As Marsellus Wallace tells Butch in Pulp Fiction: “That’s a hard motherfucking fact of life.” Now you can hide said fact by means of budgetary wizardry, selling state property, cutting welfare expenditure, education budgets, or simply allowing banks to blow bubbles until everbody’s high with dollar signs in their eyes, but sooner or later your boxer is going to refuse to go down in the 5th.

With China on a high streak, happily yodeling down the mountain with no seat belts and more importantly, no political feedback system to efficiently steer a fair and sustainable distribution of wealth, the question is this: Were generations of political thinkers, starting with the Greeks over Montesquieu to err, Ronald Reagan, and basically everyone involved in inventing post world-war II Western-style democracy, high on crack? American and European leaders are surely, quietly asking themselves this question: Has democracy as we know it become a liability to the quest for economic growth? Can we possibly beat China, or simply not be eaten by it, without emulating its totalitarian political system? Even tree-huggers are jealous by now at China’s relentless push toward renewable energy.

Like so many enchanted cat owners, one hesitates to imagine what politicians get up to at night. I’m sure some actually do go home to their wives or quietly read Proust. Until, that is, they are rudely interrupted by panicky business leaders who can’t compete against these Chinese juggernauts. Not with these workers’ wages. “Is there anything you can do?” Well, one way to ease a voter’s mind into voting against his or her interest is to scare them half to death. “Islam!” I mean, “Booh!” You can have the Rupert Murdochs of the free world constrict the free flow of information to fickle electorates or just go old-school, like South-Africa yesterday, by shooting dead 30 striking miners. Lots of subtle signs indicate that something is going on, something is changing, and it doesn’t sound/taste/smell like bold new steps to deepen  citizens’ participation in society.

While your cat -I mean, representative is having a great night out in the aviary, on the premise that China is doing fine without that rare bird called democracy, said up and coming superpower is secretly discovering the contrary. Local mayors, governors and assorted appointed apparatchicks cannot be trusted to operate complex economies without up to the minute feedback on just how bad they are doing. Capital punishment does not scare the corrupt into becoming holy men. Formerly jailed from the get go, bloggers are now issued punch-card licenses: yes, you’re allowed to finger-point failing hospitals or a crumbling bridge, but only about five times. It’s not democracy, but a far cry from the Cultural Revolution, and a giant leap for an institution attempting to feed and house a billion and a half people, otherwise known as the entire world population at the beginning of the 20th century. As the Chinese economy becomes more complex and grows, so will the need to quickly rotate the folks in charge. Crowd-sourcing the decisions underpinning these rotations is simply more efficient. Cheaper, if you will. Economically sound. Get it? I.e. free markets need political oversight, but political oversight needs oversight by free people. In other words, China did not magically break the bond between economic growth and popular emancipation. It’s simply not happening at a fast-food pace.

Are our politicians catching up to the fact that the Middle Kingdom is catching up, or are they still talking bull about the china shop?

Leave a comment

Filed under Arab Spring, democracy, Islam, Middle East

Liberalz

Liberals aren’t doing very well in the Middle East. Islamist parties have swept the ballot in Tunisia and Egypt. Libya is just a plain mess. Coptic Christians are fretful for their already tenuous position in Egyptian society. Women fear a patriarchic backlash implied in Islamists’ conservative programs. The latter use newly-won democratic freedom to gain power, but will they abide by the rules of the game once in power?

First of all, liberals -and with few caveats I consider myself one- are a bunch of wining cry-babies. Quite often we are prone to jitters in the face of dangerous trends like islamization, global warming, or the new, abhorrent indulgences of youngsters. How often do we really look in the mirror and admit that, ah yes, we too were once young and dangerous, and liberals also drive cars, use power-guzzling iPads, eBooks and er, wAshing Machines. By and large, liberals gave nary a peep when ‘secular’ and hence perceived as ‘liberal’ regimes beat, jailed, tortured, and killed their Islamist opponents, be they AK47-toting maquisards or moderate anti-totalitarian believers of the Eighties Polish priest variety.

During the Mubarak years liberal Egyptians either left the country or more or less went with the flow, enjoying the economic privileges of an economic pyramid heavily skewed in favor of an internationally mobile elite and business-savvy military brass. The few who did stick their necks out know why the rest didn’t. Western liberals, who are able to bathe in bikinis and -God forbid- Speedos on Sharm El-Sheikh’s beaches, didn’t see a problem. Mubarak was pro-women, as would be his son, they assumed. As long as the Egyptian economy grew, who needs democracy? And grow it did. The ones that profited though were those that knew someone that knew someone. You guessed it, liberals.

Geert Wilder

When liberals forget that liberalism and its enabler; material wellbeing, is for everyone, they cease to be liberals. They ought to stop yammering and acting all surprised at the electoral success of Islamic movements that have for years provided social services and healthcare to those who needed it most. The revolutions sweeping the Middle East are an opportunity to establish a level playing field where all the currents of a society can vie for attention, approval, and influence. Liberals haven’t had a veritable opponent in decades. Ideas are crusted over with neglect and complacency. It’s time for some soul-searching and re-inventing. Arab liberals can do better than a simple copy-paste job of their European or American peers. Challenged by xenophobic rabble-rousers the latter have done a lot of caving in and Chamberlain-ing, and not a lot of self-criticizing and looking to a different future.

In ‘Sinai’, a tongue-in-cheek thriller, a Muslim Brotherhood-led government isn’t doing so great. The challenges are great, and the people’s patience threadbare. The ‘liberals’, represented by a pair of wily old generals, are more than yearning for a simpler past. A doofus backpacker winds up in the middle of this tug-of-war. Suddenly a lot more is at stake than the soul of Egypt… 

Leave a comment

Filed under Arab Spring, Cairo, Christianity, democracy, Egypt, Feminism, Islam, Middle East, Revolution, seismic changes, Sinai, Uncategorized

Democracy in the Middle East

Sinai is not a political treatise. Or maybe it is. Depends on your definition of ‘is’ perhaps. It’s a bit of a silly story of a dude lost in an Alice in Wonderland type of strange land. But even silly stories are set in a time and place. Sinai’s is a recent democracy, it’s foibles and turmoil.

It’s been a year since the revolutions began. It’s been a year since western pundits started wondering what’s next. Can there be such a thing as Arab or Muslim democracy? Will Islamist forces seize the opportunity to try and impress upon a volatile society its patriarchic and misogynistic views? Will the West be forced to reassess long-standing relationships, scramble to save contracts, jostle for new ones, and pragmatically pander to whichever regime or constellation of forces arising from the chaos? The answer to all of these questions of course is ‘yes’. Unfortunately the answer to all of these questions means nothing much at all.

Winston Churchill once said “The Balkans produce more history than they can consume.” The same can be said of the Middle East. The past couple of years have been especially prolific. So much has happened in fact, and is happening, that to draw ANY kind of conclusion today about the Arab Spring is not only futile, but very much at peril of sounding silly. The generals of Egypt are trying to claw back the power and influence lost in the process of removing their much-hated figurehead Mubarak. Hence, democracy is lost. Islamists are winning important democratic elections. Hence, the future will look like Iran. In lieu of finely-tuned sarcasm, I’ll just put it bluntly: It’s stupid! Fuck off!

Sinai’s main character, like a lot of newly-minted Mid-East pundits, isn’t well-versed in the matters at hand. Linus isn’t versed at all actually. He was looking for a beach, and found a war zone. Talk about great, dashed expectations. He has to learn the hard way that things don’t really end -no spoiler alert: the book does end! In reality, no such clear-cut narratives exist. Everything is a process. History is not a collection of periods that begin and end. It’s an oscillating wave. Likewise, democracy is not a point of arrival. It’s a conductor like copper wiring. Democracy allows for a society to communicate, first and foremost with itself. Suffrage allows for ALL ideas to be heard, however smart or retarded, and for a (often disappointing) common denominator thereof to percolate as collective action. Competing forces in a society can wage battle without actual blood flowing on the dance floor. Democracy is an imperfect means to an end that no one knows.

Buy Sinai here.

Leave a comment

Filed under Arab Spring, Cairo, democracy, Egypt, Feminism, Middle East, Revolution, seismic changes, Sinai, Uncategorized