Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Saturday, March 19, 2011

A Conversation: The Impact of the 2011 Uprisings on World Politics, The Final Word

First, I owe Brad an apology. This week has been very hectic, and my Internet has not been working properly. I can access emails using blackberry, but browsing is a huge pain in the neck as you got this very tiny screen to read, and typing is simply painful.

Well, enough with that, let us continue with the conversation.

First, let me deal with his last Friday's post. I think your question on whether there are any instances of state trying to reconstitute itself should be answered with "yes, all of them." It was a double-edged question: the question can refer to the state trying to remake itself, preventing civil wars from occurring, or "the state," the overthrown elites, attempting to claw back to power.

In African states, such as the Congo, the actor who overthrew the autocrat and his cronies did not have much power. Kabila, who overthrew Mobutu, was not a strong national leader. He created loose ties to other rebel groups only on the basis of their dislike of Mobutu. And when Mobutu was gone, he was not the only one monopolizing tools for violence and the country erupted in civil war. So for the first question, the answer depends how organized and well supported the opposition was. 

In the cases of Indonesia and Egypt, even though the military was sidelined from political power, it still monopolized the tools for violence and possessed the best organization in both countries. The autocrats fell when the military calculated that keeping the autocrats was disadvantageous to their interests. So it is not that the opposition was particularly strong. Instead, the opposition was dedicated and able to embarrass the state, giving discontented elites the opportunity to kick the head of state out of power.

Events in Bahrain in the past few days showed that a dedicated violent repression was adequate to keep the opposition down. Yes, there will be long-term effects, from repressed anger to radicalization, but in general, you can't say that they did not do an effective job keeping things down. We may not like the end result, but it is at least a short-term peace, nevertheless.

But in general, I surmise that an organized state, in combination with a strong opposition, can lead to reforms. A weak state, with a strong opposition, can lead to civil wars. I'd say Libya is actually a weak state. Keep in mind the only strong state entity in Libya is Qaddafi; all other institutions were neutered and kept weak by Qaddafi. Really, I consider Libya a fiefdom that belongs to a warlord. Bahrain is an interesting case: it is an organized state facing a strong opposition; but what really matters here was the Saudis' help. Without pressure from the Saudis, I think the ruling house may be interested in reform.

Of course, I still need to work on these theoretical arguments. Once I get them neatly formulated, I can use that model to explain the effect of colonization and also to explain/answer the questions in the Middle East. As a next step, I think one crucial area to look at is the notion of state formation. In particular, let us look at the process and legacy of colonialism.

Here, what is really important is that colonialism gives the sense of impunity, that as long as leaders have a satisfied selectorate (people whose opinion they really care about), they basically can do anything they want. If leaders face a popular riot due to their incompetence, the British/Dutch/French would be there to save their behind. Before colonialism, the king/sultan was deposed, then another rose to power. In Europe, the constant fragmentation of power due to revolts, etc., actually helped create the condition for democracy. Bad kings got kicked out, new kings needed support, so they appealed to feudal lords or the bourgeois for support and funds. One of the reasons why Louis XVI called for Etats Generaux was because the state was bankrupt and he could not raise taxes on the opposition nobles. He started the assembly, hoping to use the bourgeois to pressure the nobles.

In Asia and Africa, colonialism halted this evolution - though in China's case, it was the bureaucracy's ability to absorb everything, including the bourgeois class, into its ranks by the state exams that allowed absolutism to remain strong. (Perversely, it also allowed for promotion and advancement as everyone was able to become high officials regardless of background, as long as they have smarts and money to pay for study. On the other hand, it stifled innovation, as the doctrinaire type of exam forced a rote-learning system and only this type of system rewarded people.) As a result, Asia and Africa were in limbo: on one hand, they have some sort of proto-democracy, such as the petition system or audience time in the Middle East, where the leaders met with people. On the other hand, there was no leap to the popular democracy, as the rulers were impossible to topple thanks to severe oppression and the domination of rote-learning. That was the major impact of colonialism, which in turn, explains the authoritarianism in Asia and Africa.

Well, that is a really long answer to a single sentence, but bear with me a bit as I offer some quick takes on topics Brad previously covered.

1. On the transition to democracy: Yeah, it is a difficult road to follow, but I think we as scholars working on democracy mostly neglect a very important variable: the belief of invincibility, which, in turn, is a product of adaptation and survival skills. As people clamor for changes, the political elites cling to the authoritarian past. In Indonesia's case, the elite managed to adapt by forming some sort of oligarchy. Basically, every single political elite know each other and has ties either by friendship or even marriage. That is why efforts to eradicate corruption and waste is going at glacial pace in Indonesia. People are no longer shut down by force, but are either ignored or absorbed if they become too noisy or powerful. Not surprisingly trust in the government and support for democracy has hit all time low!

Mother Russia also experienced this kind of situation. The oligarchs and their cronies in the Kremlin were protected by Boris Yeltsin. People got sick of the corruption and waste. The economy went downhill. The communists and nationalists got stronger, so Yeltsin tried to bring in another neglected political elite, the KGB, as a buffer. Once the KGB was in place, they used their strong organization to infiltrate the state and took it over. 

2. On Israel: the best use for Israel in the past few decades was as a bogeyman, a country that could be blamed for any mess in the region. I hate to say this, but I think the relationship with Israel will only be good if the Egyptian government fixes the economy and quickly moves ahead with reform, which pretty difficult now (considering the Japanese economic mess, thanks to the earthquake, and Europe's impossibility to make a deal on how to bail out the deadbeats). Of course, the Israelis also need to bring something to the table if they are really serious to make peace, but I think the they are still playing the "wait-and-see" game, hoping that the new Egyptian government will indicate that they are willing to play ball.

3. On the U.S.: I really think Obama blew entire affair badly. You gave me a good-nature ribbing about my dissatisfaction with Obama, and visitors to my Facebook page could see that I was not amused with his Nobel Peace Prize. So, yeah, perhaps I am biased. Still, events in the past few weeks have convinced me that Obama is not an effective leader. It is 3 AM and he keeps pushing the snooze button. It is Hillary who actually looks presidential now.

Yes, the trip to Brazil is important. It is true, that South America is also brewing. But he could have seen that South America had been brewing from the day one he was in office. Now Columbia is gravitating to Venezuela, not to mention the fiasco in Honduras and various other places in both Central and South America. Recently, he has made time to play golf, announce his NCAA picks, approve the repeal of Defense of Marriage act, and so on, while only giving a few vague speeches on the quake and Libya.

Obama got lucky on Egypt, and I believe he has angered many people around the world. Not surprisingly, the Saudis just ignored his advice and sent tanks rolling into Bahrain. Now, both the government and protesters are both disgusted with America's lack of leadership in the region. Yeah, they hated Bush's overbearing leadership too. But Obama has failed to do much when it was clear that people wanted him to act more quickly and assertively.

4. On al-Qaeda (AQ): You made tons of great points in your last post. I mentioned in my previous post that political Islam was discredited by the revolt and the secular nature of the protests meant that AQ was not a factor, was not involved, and would not gain much. To put it simply, AQ's leadership is actually very simple-minded, not evil geniuses. They know what they want and they use brute force to reach their desired ends. So, yes, the successful uprising in Egypt was a huge blow to their model, that peaceful determined and organized protests do work. In short, I agree with most of your analysis.

In the case of Libya, though, I doubt if AQ will join the fray. It is true that they don't like Qaddafi. On the other hand, they don't like the rebels either. Actually, in every AQ-involved conflict, from Bosnia-Herzegovina during the Yugoslavia civil war to the Somalia civil war, AQ never really blended in well and the organization imposed its strict version of Islam. In Indonesia, AQ was involved in the sectarian civil wars in early 2000s, but most people noted that they did not blend in well with the locals. And AQ's actions got it kicked out in various places, most famously, in Iraq.

Call me an optimist, but even if AQ manages to infiltrate Libya, I doubt if it can do much. Compared to Saudi or Yemen, Libya's version of Islam is not that radical and, in fact, pretty moderate, not unlike in neighboring Tunisia. In addition, both Qaddafi and the rebels don't have any lost love with AQ. Qaddafi at first denounced the rebels as influenced by AQ. On the rebel side, they need world's support, which has made them loath to get associated with AQ. More importantly, with Qaddafi bringing in mercenaries, it has inadvertently created some sort of Libyan nationalism, in that the tribes have united against foreign interferences. AQ is seen as "foreign" influenced, not local, and the tribal leaders have too much at stake (including their tribal leadership) to have AQ come in and steal the limelight.

We need to thank Bush for this. The Iraqi fiasco showed the Arabs that AQ was not a force for good, that al-Qaeda was willing to destroy the lives of ordinary peaceful Muslim citizens. As a result, People no longer saw AQ as a legitimate agent of change, considering the massive civilian casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq. In fact, the reason why Taliban and AQ still rules in Afghanistan is not because they are nice, but because they are the only power in town, funded by illicit drugs, making it very profitable to join Taliban and AQ.

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