Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Case in freaking point

I've said many times (though perhaps not here) that no communicative technology is instrumental to a political revolution in and of itself, for its own special reasons. Rather, a technology can be important in this respect simply by virtue of being new. The revolutionaries, being naturally future-oriented and tuned to marginal or otherwise non-institutionalized means of movement and communication, can dominate and make use of these new channels; meanwhile, the existing regime, which at the point of revolution is almost always stultifyingly conservative, backward-looking, and disproportionately focused on the spheres it already controls, has not bothered to learn anything about how to lock down those channels.

This is what's really at work in all the "Twitter revolution" and "Facebook revolution" buzz. (Note that things are constantly called Twitter revolutions and rarely, in my experience, called Facebook revolutions; this has nothing to do with which is more useful but rather with which is newer and trendier at the moment.) I tend to get really ornery about all the "Twitter OMGZZ" and "IT WAS WIKILEAKS" coverage, but it's not because I necessarily think those things are irrelevant. It's because the fact that new communication technologies played a role in a political revolution is so not news that most stories on those phenomena place way too much emphasis on the particularities of the medium in question.

My classic favorite example is the role of the new railways in the 1917 Russian Revolution; as I learned in high school, the critical mass of people, and the necessary in-advance networking, could not have occurred without them. Of course, trains' ability to move people around was very important to that; but if there had been a giant public taxi service, or a local teleportation service, more or less the same thing could probably had been achieved. The point is not trains; the point is the ability of people to communicate and organize in ways that the ruling regime has not managed, or bothered, to figure out how to dominate yet. Today, trains are about as likely to be a major factor in a political revolution as wagon trains are. (Perhaps they'll get so forgotten as a factor that they'll come back around to effectively edgy, but it's a long shot.) Meanwhile, who knows? Maybe we'll have a recorded-Skype revolution someday soon (there's a huge potential for a charismatic politician there--not unlike what Ayatollah Khomeini did in 1979 with cassettes).

Anyway, I bring all this up because this Middle East Channel post by Ashraf Khalil does a great job of giving a medium its factual due without way overemphasizing its impact:

I spent the day moving throughout downtown Cairo trying to keep track of a dizzying series of fast-moving events. It started with a lesson on how a new generation of activists -- dismissed ahead of time by Interior Minister Habib al-Adly as "a bunch of incognizant, ineffective young people" -- is using electronic means to stay one step ahead of the authorities.

Organizers announced long ago that the protesters would gather outside the Interior Ministry downtown, prompting police to lock down that area. But shortly after noon, it became clear that was a clever bit of misdirection, as a whole new set of gathering points was distributed via Facebook and Twitter.

Egyptians used the #jan25 Twitter hashtag to spread news and encouragement about the course of the protests. "If Mubarak goes down, there are going to be enough presidents in Saudi to make a soccer team!" read one representative tweet by @MinaAFahmy. Other tweets linked to Facebook groups that listed a series of new meeting spots and contact numbers.

As the day progressed, the series of scattered protests moved through different parts of the city, growing in strength as they joined up with other groups and induced onlookers and residents to join in.

Now that's what I'm talking about in terms of covering the role of a medium in revolutionary organizing! It gives the medium its due, explains how it's working, gives the humans involved full credit (rather than making it a technologically determinist story), and embeds it within the larger, and ultimately more important, human-social story. The real thrust of the piece, you see, is this:

The Egyptian government's standard operating procedure is to overwhelm any public protest with a massively disproportionate wave of black-clad police. As a result, most protests tend to boil down to the same 500 noisy hard-core activists hopelessly penned in by thousands of riot cops.

But today those numbers were reversed, and the police, at times, seemed completely confused and struggling to keep up. In one confrontation outside the Supreme Court building in downtown Cairo, the riot police attempted to lock arms in a human chain to block the protesters' path. Their effort, however, proved hopelessly ineffective -- waves of marchers simply overwhelmed them and continued on their path.

Which is to say that the point of the piece is that something real is happening in Egypt, and we should pay attention to it. The mechanics are just mechanics. Social media should not be the why; they should be a how.

Come on, people

I know we're all supposed to hate Iran, yada yada yada. But this Danger Room post really crosses a line for me:

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad likes to think of himself as a pretty patient guy, but all these dead Iranian nuclear scientists are starting to give him a rash, United Nations Security Council. The scientists who’ve been killed before today? He’s willing to float you those. But if one more gets killed — just one more — he’s putting all your Security Council asses on trial.

On Monday, unknown assailants on motorcycles attached bombs to the cars of two Iranian nuclear scientists, Majid Shahriari and Fereydoun Abbasi, killing Shahriari and wounding Abbasi. In the past, Iran has been content to point the finger at Israel for the mysterious ends that some of its nuclear scientists have met. But this is starting to get annoying, so now Ahmadinejad is taking his ire up to a higher geopolitical echelon.

“By God, if such an incident takes place one more time, we will bring each permanent member of the United Nations Security Council to trial,” Ahmadinejad said today, referring to Shahriari’s death.

Ahmadinejad didn’t elaborate on how exactly he planned to bring the entire United Nations Security Council to trial in Iran [...]. But he did explain why the U.N. Security Council is the responsible party in the killings. Sure, murder’s a crime in Iran and Ahmadinejad could have waited for a credible, transparent investigation into the incident. But that’s a formality. After all, those U.N. sanctions resolutions against Iran are practically a license to kill.

Dead Iranian scientists are still dead scientists. If this were happening just about anywhere else, you wouldn't see a post like this anywhere outside of some weirdo corners of the Internet. Seriously, I tried to think of an example of a country that I could switch out for Iran and leave the rest of the piece the same, and I couldn't.

Furthermore, even if we subscribe to the narrowest, most middle-of-the-road, neocon ideas about how dangerous Iran is--and the perception of that threat is way inflated--the last people we should want dead in Iran is scientists. If we recall the period of unrest in Iran in 2008, we may also recall that this sort of pundit was a huge fan of the Green Revolution. In fact, they all piled on Obama for not supporting the movement enough.

What was so great about the "Green Revolution"? (Side note: will we ever be allowed to observe a revolution or protest movement overseas without giving it a nickname? Because I cannot wait for that day.) It was an honest protest movement dominated by the educated classes, the young people, the intellectuals. It was a democracy-promoter's dream. If some of the most educated people in the country--and some of the few who can directly translate their higher education into a career (even in the US and Europe, people that educated have trouble finding jobs)--are being systematically slaughtered, that is not good for Iran's democratic or revolutionary prospects. It can't be good for the morale of the very people who might drive any such movement in the future. Indeed, Massoud Ali-Mohammedi, the first scientist to be killed, taught at the University of Tehran and supported Mousavi, the leading figure in the political opposition. (To be fair, the most recently attacked scientists seem to have been much more closely attached to the regime, so this incident may not apply as much.)

To focus on the substance of the actual killings for a minute: Iran has pointed to the US and Israel as responsible, and it seems entirely possible to me that they're right. While Mohammedi was not an ally of the regime, the two scientists more recently attacked (Majid Shahriari and Fereydoun Abbasi, the former dead and the latter injured) are apparently quite high up in the government's nuclear efforts. I can also imagine a scenario wherein some of Iran's friends who want to be able to continue straddling the fence--Russia is an example here--are trying to quietly forestall the day when Iran gets its nukes. It's plausible either way: this is the kind of thing nation-states have been doing to each other for as long as they've had specialized personnel to snipe at.

All of that is very interesting and worth covering--as in this excellent Danger Room piece from the first killing. (More like that, please!) I'm not saying we should all have a Very Serious national day of mourning; as I said, this is just reality in geopolitics. But just because we've all been conditioned to thumb our nose every time Ahmedinejad gets worked up about something doesn't make it funny.

Friday, January 21, 2011

A military exception

Steven Cook has a wonderfully illuminating and relevant post on why the military didn't step in to shore up Tunisia's existing power structure (via Andrew Sullivan, also up at Foreign Policy):

Although the armed forces intervention defied expectations of Middle Eastern militaries, the fact that officers sided with the Tunisian people actually makes perfect sense. The Tunisian military — made up of about 36,000 officers and conscripts across the army, navy, and air force — is not the oversized military common throughout the Middle East that is short on war fighting capabilities but long on prestige and maintaining domestic stability. Defense spending in Tunisia under Ben Ali was a relatively low 1.4 percent of GDP, which reflects not only the fact that the country has no external threats, but also part of a Ben Ali strategy to ensure that the armed forces could not threaten his rule. This was clearly a mistake. Had Ben Ali followed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who has always taken great care to make sure that the Egyptian armed forces were well-resourced, General Ammar and his fellow officers may have thought twice about tossing their sugar daddy overboard.

Yet there is a more profound difference between the Tunisian military than its counterparts in Algeria, Egypt, and Turkey to name a few. Unlike Mustafa Kemal and his comrades, the Free Officers, and Armee Liberation National, Tunisia’s military did not found a new Tunisian regime after the country’s independence in 1956. This was largely a civilian affair under the leadership of Habib Bourgiba — a lawyer. As a result, there is no organic link between the military and the political system.

There is a real risk for the military here, however. What if the civilians cannot manage Tunisia’s new political reality? [...] If the interim government botches this very sensitive phase in Tunisia’s transition, the military may have to stay on. This does not mean that Tunisia’s officers would become directly involved in governing, but they may be forced into a tutelary role during the search for a workable political formula that will guide Tunisia going forward. Any long stay outside the barracks could have serious repercussions for the coherence and professionalism of the armed forces as the officers are exposed to the vicissitudes of politics.

I highly recommend reading the whole thing; you'll get some nice comparisons to 1952 Egypt in the bargain.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The revolution will be photographed

The Big Picture has photos from Tunisia. Glorious and evocative, as always:

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Tinker Toy columns

I never understand what people whose worst fear is Sharia law--wherever it may arise--really mean when they say something could lead to "the imposition of Sharia law." It sounds like they think of it sort of like the Rapture: when the conditions are right, the prophecies are fulfilled and BAM! Each is judged and found wanting or worthy, and all of a sudden your wife can't drive the kids to school because driving is a big no, and you can't even drown your petty sorrows in a Scotch. Or maybe it's more like fairy dust: one minute you're sitting there in your nightgown, the next you're flying to Neverland, where all children are orphans, the infrastructure sucks, and nobody is allowed to kiss.

The Rapture model of sharia is one example of a kind of Tinker Toys, modular way of putting columns together that is sadly widespread, especially when dealing with complex subjects. This "instant sharia" idea is one of the Tinker Toys: it can be slotted in almost anywhere without much worry for logistics, time frame, context, etc., because it is a unit unto itself.

You see, this thought was triggered by this post by Aaron Goldstein on what might happen next in Tunisia (via Larison). In it, at one point, he writes:

The thing that has caught my attention about the events in Tunisia is the support it has received from al Qaeda. If elections are not held in a timely manner or if the results of said election are not deemed acceptable by the new administration an opportunity could present itself for al Qaeda to assert its influence and impose Sharia law. Should such a development come to pass then it could have grave implications not only in the Middle East but for the United States and the West. We could have an Afghanistan in Africa.

This is a brilliant example of Tinker Toy thinking, which I consider the worst kind of ignant, pundit-infected platitudinous thinking on Middle East politics. It's worse than the completely crazy stuff, like the thing about Hizballah and Mexico a few posts down, because at least the crazy stuff involves an actual thought process. The ingredients are totally wack, but at least there is an effort and some, um, creativity. Plus, it's pretty easy to spot.

Here, though, the writer is working with a highly limited set of ideas that came from elsewhere. To continue the toy analogy for a minute (follow me, here), if all you ever had was Tinker Toys--and not that many of them, either--there would be a limit to the kinds of things you could come up with. You could in theory go to the store and get a newer, fancier, more complex toy--by, oh, consulting an expert or doing some research--or you could play with something very basic and abstract, like blocks, and create almost anything just with your own thoughts. But Tinker Toy columns have neither of these virtues. They just keep plugging around the same limited repertoire.

Let me break it down for you here. Let's look at the last paragraph again:

The thing that has caught my attention about the events in Tunisia is the support it has received from al Qaeda. If elections are not held in a timely manner or if the results of said election are not deemed acceptable by the new administration an opportunity could present itself for al Qaeda to assert its influence and impose Sharia law. Should such a development come to pass then it could have grave implications not only in the Middle East but for the United States and the West. We could have an Afghanistan in Africa.

It's depressingly easy to translate this entire paragraph into some snarky equations and lose pretty much none of the meaning. Each equation is a Tinker Toy piece that we've all seen a million times in a million columns, most of which were likely Tinker Toy ones. The pared-down set of equations looks like this, where t = time:

Poorly understood Middle East event + (Al Qaeda connection ± relevance(x)) = DANGER
DANGER + (Elections + Perfection(x)) = Al Qaeda takeover
Al Qaeda takeover + t = Sharia law
Sharia law + t = problem for U.S. = Afghanistan

As it happens, the trusty formula has failed, because none of it actually makes any sense for Tunisia. This is what happens when you just string together a bunch of modular bits and bobs in a time-honored pattern without thinking too hard about it. Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (North Africa) is pretty negligible; their support for the revolution is because, um, they're revolutionaries. Their exhortations to the Tunisians to fight on in the good fight so they (Tunisians) can impose Sharia law later are just that: exhortations. That does not mean that they will be followed. This will really not happen. Fun fact: Tunisian feminists are talking about greeting one of the exiled opposition leaders--a fundamentalist--at the airport in bikinis. (I say rock on.) On a broader note, this Foreign Policy piece on Tunisia's history of fanatical secularism argues--convincingly, IMO--that the Tunisian political structure caved as easily as it did precisely because the revolution was absolutely not Islamist.

All that is well and good--after all, it's not a real day if someone writing about the middle East hasn't gone overboard regarding the threat of fundamentalism--but what really kicks the excerpt up a notch in Tinker Toys silliness is the nod to Afghanistan. The only way that makes sense is if you think of Afghanistan as more or less simply a cipher bearing the conditions of Fundamentalist, Uncivilized/Backward*, Scary, Ungovernable, and Big Problem For Us, which would mean anything else that bore those same conditions would be the same thing.

It's much easier to think this way when you don't know much of anything about the subject--if Tunisia is a completely non-defined cipher, it can become anything very easily, and if Afghanistan is an ill-defined cipher, then it's very easy to find parallels to it. The two places are very, very different, and no AQ In the Maghreb boogeyman can just show up, declare sharia, and change that. A much better parallel for Tunisia is probably Turkey: like Turkey a few decades ago, Tunisia has a fairly strong economic track record for a developing nation; trade, tourism, geographic and institutional ties with Europe (including strong French influence in political thought); an ingrained history of state-enforced secularism; and a strong class of intellectuals and professionals (who spearheaded the revolution in Tunisia's case). Turkey has evolved and grown since the '80s, but Tunisia is a plausible younger sibling.

The real things to worry about for Tunisia at this point are a relapse to authoritarianism, as has happened with many of the so-called color revolutions in the past few years; or, a bloody fight for a new equilibrium that leads to civil war like the Algerian Civil War. One of the things to definitely not worry about is impending, sudden sharia law.

*Barf. I do not endorse yada yada I hate those words.