Friday, February 04, 2011

Mubarak’s Parting Gift to Dictators (and the United States)

Autocrats around the world can thank Hosni Mubarak for showing some counter-revolutionary backbone.

The United States, I think, is secretly grateful he's hanging on.

Now, anti-government activists won’t believe that all it takes is a Facebook page and an ecstatic pro-democracy dogpile in the main square to chase a dictator out of his palace.

On one level, I’m being sarcastic.

It takes considerable courage to join demonstrations in an autocratic state, even if the regime’s ramparts appear to be crumbling.  The threat of violence and reprisal is always implicit; when the hammer does drop, it takes guts to stay the course.

But at the same time, Chinese media can point to the violence, the chaos, the economic losses, and widening political, confessional, ethnic, and social fissures exacerbated by Mubarak’s divide and conquer strategy and assert that bottom-up democracy is not a pain and cost-free absolute good: it is a political option with advantages and disadvantages, like all the other options.

As Xinhua’s English edition  frames it, it’s not democracy vs. autocracy.  It’s “Stability or chaos, Egypt at crossroad after 10-day unrest”.

Implicitly, the article invites its readers to ponder, what’s more important: democracy or stability? and what’s worse: autocracy or chaos? 

The article wrapped with intimations of democracy fatigue that China’s leaders no doubt hope will prove contagious:

The MB and the National Coalition for Change led by Mohammed ElBaradei, both insisted no dialogue without the stepping down of the president.

This stance has been highly criticized by many Egyptian protesters who say that they are trying to seize the opportunity to get what they want.

"Both ElBaradei and the MB should go out of our country after Mubarak," said a protester, sitting in a cafe relieving from the day's work.

People’s Daily Chinese language coverage—a link buried three quarters of the way down its miserably cluttered homepage, the rest on the International---News Briefs—Africa page -- is slanted to characterize the Egyptian government and army as as reasonable and reaching out, but facing ambivalent or obdurate opponents.

One article is titled, New Egyptian Government Begins Dialogue with Opposition Faction

It states that the dialogue will be completed within ten days; that the government has invited the Muslim Brotherhood to participate (thinking about it) and ElBaradei and his national reform alliance (refused).

Here’s the full Chinese text, which also bemoans the cost of the “protests and rioting” to Egypt’s tourist industry.






苏莱曼说,9天来的抗议和骚乱已使埃及旅游业遭受10亿美元的损失,有100万外国游客离开埃及。他呼吁抗议者回家,给政府时间和机会解决问题。(记者李来房 冯康)

Another article is Egyptian military calls on protesters to end demonstrations.

In a television broadcast on February 2, an army spokesperson called upon the masses to end demonstrations so that society could return to normal as soon as possible...”Your message has been transmitted, your demands are known...”





埃及总统穆巴拉克1日晚发表电视讲话,说自己无意竞选下届总统,将在本届剩余任期里努力保证政权平稳过渡,并敦促议会修改宪法中有关总统竞选人条件和任期的条款。(记者朱俊清 冯康)

This is an interesting media strategy, which shows a certain level of Chinese self-confidence.

“Government dialogue with protesters in a big square; army urges demonstrators to stop demonstrating” inevitably awakens memories of Tianan Men in 1989.  The Chinese government seems to be cautiously calculating that twenty years of economic growth has buried the ghosts of Tianan Men deep enough that Chinese public opinion will not automatically and positively connect with the aspirations of the activists in Tahrir Square.

Mubarak’s determination to hang on for the rest of his term is, I think, also something of a relief to the Obama administration.

If it became the consensus view that dictators were helpless before the onslaught of information freedom and demands for democratic reform championed by the United States, we’d have a lot fewer dictators (and allies).

Now, with Mubarak dug in and the democratic forces losing a certain amount of unity and momentum, it is easier for the United States (like China) to regard popular democracy as just another ingredient in Egypt’s stomach-churning political stew.

With popular democracy assigned to the category of “contested terrain”, the United States can continue to pursue objectives which run at cross current to the democratic fervor.

  • trying to identify and promote a viable, pro-US strongman successor;
  •  maintaining the prestige of the armed forces as the final arbiter of Egyptian politics;
  •  finding a way to keep the Muslim Brotherhood (which is cannily downplaying its Islamic agenda while acting as shock troops for the pro-democracy demonstrators during the riots in Tahrir Square) from putting in a strong showing in any upcoming elections;
  • and sustaining the Egypt-Israel peace (that underpins Israel’s hardline stance against the rest of its neighbors).

Given this slate of challenges, maybe the Obama administration, in its heart of hearts, isn’t really eager to see Mubarak bail out of the presidential palace today and head off to Saudi Arabia or wherever.

Of course, China can also can point to the spectacle of the Obama administration caught on the democracy vs. diplomacy cleft stick as it seeks to balance its information freedom and democracy agenda with its great power interests (contrasting Washington’s anxious rush to catch the democracy bandwagon with China’s sedate and consistent support for stability and autocracy) for the benefit of America’s anxious clients (and potential future allies of China):

In an appointed reference to Washington's call for an immediate transition of power, [new Egyptian prime minister] Shafiq said the transition should be in a civilized and courteous fashion, reiterating Mubarak will not seek another term when his presidential term ends in September.

Democracy ain’t simple or easy, is the message China hopes its citizens will extract from the Egyptian experience.  The longer Mubarak hangs on--and the more damage he does--the stronger the Chinese argument looks.


anty said...

With your remark about the Saudi king's comments delegitimizing smartphones Gaddafi, I can't help but wonder why anyone should care what a despot like King Abdullah thinks, particularly as the hostility of the Saudi monarchy seems to go way back to the dethroning and exile of King Idris in

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