Dr. Dawg

Egypt: the democracy threat

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Egypt January 2011.jpg

The Middle East’s Only Democracyâ„¢ is backing Hosni Mubarak. Canada remains largely silent—no need to wonder why, given Stephen Harper’s predilections. And the US talks about “an orderly transition” (to what?) as it hedges its bets.

In an earlier thread here at Dawg’s, a conservative commentator warns us:

When I see leftists drooling happily over the mayhem in Egypt and lauding the “democratic revolution”, I can’t help wondering whose side they’re on. They, of course, will say “The people”. The question is, which people?

In 1979, when Carter threw the Shaw overboard, “progressives” everywhere cheered. Within a couple of years, with all of the secular democratic revolutionaries in jail, exiled or dead, the religious nut-cases were fully in charge. Except that Obama hasn’t (yet) lowered the boom on Mubarak, the situation in Egypt looks like a replay.

The Shah was a bad bastard but, he had nudged his country into the 20th century and was slowly loosening his grip. (Revolutions can’t succeed where the population has no room to breathe.) I wonder how many Iranians would trade the universal tyranny that they have now for the more selective tyranny of three decades ago?

I think it’s fair to observe that the commenter in question sums up rather well the conservative case against democracy.

The problem with democracy, of course, is that the people get to make choices, and not all of those choices are ones we would support ourselves. Indeed, they themselves might eventually regret the choices they made. The people, therefore, cannot be trusted—well, those people, anyway.

The satirist Tom Lehrer put it this way, back in the days of more explicit American engagement:

What do we do? We send the Marines!
For might makes right,
And till they’ve seen the light,
They’ve got to be protected,
All their rights respected,
Till someone we like can be elected.

Hence the conflation of Iran with Egypt—those Muslim countries all look alike. The conservative viewpoint is clear: democracy is for smart white folks like us, not for swarthy crypto-jihadis waiting to burst forth and win elections and whatnot.

Just as our high living standards depend very much on other nations having low ones (think of your cheap and powerful computer, and what it would cost if the folks who made the components were paid even Canadian minimum wage), our democracy, such as it is, requires dictatorships in other countries.

Dictators do our dirty work. They torture prisoners for us when we don’t want to do it ourselves. They maintain a docile labour force, in part by killing off union organizers—as in Colombia, for example, beloved by Canadian Conservatives and Liberals alike. They keep us awash in oil and natural gas and minerals. They conserve “regional stability,” by ensuring that nothing as unstable as democracy will be permitted—and they keep the cork in place with police and the military, who are equipped with the latest in American weaponry.

Human rights and democracy? Just fine in the abstract. The notions come in handy when we want to beat up rhetorically on those dictators who aren’t doing our bidding. But woe betide the dusky folks who take those ideas too seriously.

Take Canada’s clown-car outfit actually called “Rights and Democracy.” Now run by wacky far-right conservatives, grants to real human rights agencies on the ground in the Middle East, including an Israeli one, were “repudiated,” and the agencies themselves were slandered as “toxic” and “terrorist.” Now Egypt has boiled over, we hear not a peep out of them.

Democracy, for conservatives, is a privilege, not a right. They’d really like to do without it everywhere but here (and their commitment to it here is an open question). It’s too unpredictable. The people are never really ready. Well, those people, certainly.

We should not underestimate or wish away the racism that lurks not far beneath the surface of all this anti-democratic talk, which, it must be admitted, is not confined to conservative ranks. Here is a liberal Israeli journalist, indulging himself in an outrageous orientalism that would have had Edward Said nodding:

I asked people what party they voted for. The vast majority of Egyptians didn’t vote at all. Seemingly, they had the opportunity to try to change their government in a democratic way, but they didn’t do so because in Egypt there is an in-build despair, a thousand-year-old despair. People busy themselves with smoking hashish, one night stands and fantasies. Sometimes these fantasies are taken seriously. Like in the case before us: the fantasy that if they burn cars and tiers, something fundamental will change in Egypt.

The only serious alternative to Mubarak and people like him is a radical Islamist rule. And this, the Egyptians instinctively understand that they don’t want. What do they want? It’s hard to know, because the Egyptians are a great people, really great, whose charm is exactly that they don’t know what they want, and are waiting for someone on top to decide for them what to do. And when that someone decides for them, first they fear him and then they hate him. This is how it was with Nasser, whom people wanted gone at the end of his days, and then came Sadat, who was seen as a savior of sorts, but after a while the Egyptians also got tired of him and the end of that story is known. Now this is happening with Mubarak. Nothing new.

Democracy—the real thing—is always a threat to established order. It’s wild and crazy and unconfined. If some want to oppose it for that very reason, let them do so, and let’s have the debate. But can they please stop talking out of both sides of their mouths?

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This page contains a single entry by Dr. Dawg published on January 31, 2011 9:43 AM.

Double standards? was the previous entry in this blog.

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