“They were weak in material resources, and even after success would be, since their world was agricultural and pastoral, without minerals, and could never be strong in modern armaments. Were it otherwise, we should have had to pause before evoking in the strategic centre of the Middle East new national movements of such abounding vigour.” — T.E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, 1922
There’s only so long any self-respecting blogger can ignore writing about the news when there’s only one story in town. I’ve watched transfixed this evening as Colonel Gaddafi has appeared as a sort of reactionary situationist, appropriately enough in what looked like a Trabant, under an umbrella, mumbling a few words of defiance. With this surreal performance he seems to have stolen the spirit of Plastic People of the Universe and turned it on its head, offering the world a slice of performance art while dropping heavy ordnance on his citizens.
Anyway, here’s my dinar’s worth on the revolutions there, in Egypt, and across the Maghreb and the Levant. It seems to me that, if you can’t buy your people off with a decent standard of living (as the Gulf states have), then brute force on its own is rather shaky. Regimes that have explicitly co-opted hardline Islam into their rationales for power look like they’re on safer ground. In Egypt and Tunisia, Facebook-friendly teens in jeans have made common cause with conservative Muslims to bring down secular, military dictators: neither had any stake in the status quo ante. In Iran and Saudi, though, the regimes have ruled by division, giving the hardcore peasantry the sort of hardcore religious rule most of them still apparently want. Now the mullahs and the al-Sauds are all that stand between their pious populations and the abyss of Western modernity and liberalism (and, having had a night out on the Reeperbahn, I can’t really blame them).
In Egypt, then, the very supportive Western media have downplayed the potential of the Muslim Brotherhood, and up-played the legit gripes of hip, godless youngsters who only want nuff respec’ from the olds. I don’t see any reason not to go along with this analysis, but I don’t think we know enough about what goes on behind Gaddafi’s iron veil to say with any certainty that the same applies in Libya. (I also don’t blame the Israelis for being nervous, but I would remind them that democracies that trade with each other never go to war with each other. I would also remind them, as a critical well wisher, that they do themselves very few favours by continuing to build on occupied Palestinian land.)
Either way, for a while I’ve said that history was stuck with Islamism after the failures of socialism and Arab nationalism. If it turns out that democracy as we understand it has more appeal than Islamism after all, then I will happily find something new to say.
Here, then, is my first go at cod historiography. No doubt Wikileaks and Twitter will take the credit, but these revolutions, like revolutions generally, are about unemployed young men unhappy with rising food and commodity prices. For this, perhaps, they have the BICs’ (I refuse to include Russia) entry into world wealth to thank; perhaps the Arabs are just slightly ahead of us in realising that economic globalisation really does sort the men from the boys. It may be, then, that when the dust settles, those who predicted that the rise of China’s middle class would bring a fourth wave of democracy to hundreds of millions of people will be proved half right: they were just wrong about it happening in China.
“Our race will have a cripple’s temper till it has found its feet.” — King Faisal I of Iraq, quoted in Seven Pillars of Wisdom