Egypt: Berlin Wall 2.0?

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Protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square

Anti-government protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square

The Arab pro-democracy movement could have as big an impact on international relations as the fall of the Berlin Wall.

When asked about the impact of the French revolution, former Chinese premier Zhou Enlai is widely claimed to have quipped: “It is too soon to tell.”

Of course, since President Mubarak’s sudden resignation was only a few hours ago, it is definitely too soon to say what the impact might be. In fact, since the beginning of the Jasmine revolution in Tunisia, even though I really wanted to write something, I checked myself. After all, events take time to unfold, and it is all too easy to comment on events prematurely. But now, I cannot keep silent. After all, this could be the Berlin wall moment for our generation! And like the fall of the wall, the pro-democracy revolutions in Arab countries could mean a fundamental shift in international relations, which since 9/11 have been couched in terms of “the west vs. Islam”.

I don’t believe that that conflict has ever been about religion; it has always been about different political interests. But wrapping that conflict in terms of religion has made it easy for Muslim autocrats to command loyalty and justify their oppression of their own people. “Democracy is an attempt by the west to impose Christian values on Muslims,” they tell their people, consciously or otherwise. “So obey us.” Words like that have to be backed up with some sort of action, which necessitates a hostile relationship with the western world. That same philosophy had been used by the Soviet Union, until it turned out that it was the communists, not the westerners, who made the people so fed up that they rose to overthrow those regimes.

But the revolutions in the recent months tell us that that is a lie. The ousting of neither Ben Ali in Tunisia nor Mubarak in Egypt have been engineered by the west. In fact, they have caught the western world completely by surprise, even causing alarm. It is no secret that western governments promote democracy with their mouths but support authoritarian governments with their hands, leading to mind-bogglingly stupid actions, such as offering help to suppress the demonstrations (as one French government minister did to Ben Ali).

The revolutions are somewhat good news for all concerned. After all, a lot of fear in the west about Islam is about how, if it is popularised, it is going threaten our rights to life and liberty. But the home-grown pro-democracy movements in Arab states prove (once again, since this has already been proven in the anti-government protests in Iran in 2009) that Islam is not a single behemoth that wants to trample on all things free. Western governments fret that democracy in Muslim states could mean the rise of anti-western Islamists, like the situation in Gaza or southern Lebanon. But those places are an extremely poor example—not every Muslim country is so inhumanely blockaded by a foreign power that is so blatantly favoured by the west, or at least by America. Tunisia and Egypt are relatively western-friendly societies, probably partly because so many western visitors go there every year. The likelihood of those populations turning decisively against the west and all it stands for is not very high.

So the Arab revolutions could pave the way for better relations with the west. Extremists will be forced further into a corner, as the legitimacy of their belief that terrorism against the west is the only way out of oppression is dealt a big blow. The Arab revolutions will signal to Muslims: “The west isn’t the cause of your problem, and neither is religion. The cause of your problem is your own oppressive government.”

But of course, all that is conjecture, and my probably wholly unrealistic hopes. Things can certainly get worse before they get better—or they get worse and stay there. After the fall of the Berlin Wall Eastern Europe endured a lot of pain to emerge from the rubble of communism and it is almost guaranteed that the Arab road to democracy is going to be as, if not even more, bumpy. After all, Gorbachev, Ben Ali and Mubarak all failed to hold on to power mainly because they refused to use force against their own people. But meet someone like Milosevic or perhaps Deng in China, who had no such qualms, and the situation could turn very nasty indeed. The military is now in control of Egypt, but thankfully its recent gestures have been peaceful and positive, whereas Tunisia has entered a more or less peaceful transition period.

So here is hoping for the best. The people have spoken. Let their voices be heard loudly and clearly forever more.

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Erring on the side of freedom

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"Crap! I think I just condemned myself to hell..."

Recently there has been a spate of world headlines related to freedom, whether it is the joyous occasion of 33 trapped Chilean miners being freed from what could have been their tomb, or the gloomier news that the Nobel Peace Prize 2010 has been awarded to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, who is currently serving time in prison for his remarks and activities the government sees as a threat to its rule.

Freedom is a universal pursuit, despite claims to the contrary. Some charge personal freedom as essentially a western-centric concept. True, nowadays the west values personal freedom on a very visible basis, but how can the desire for personal freedom be a solely western construct when, for example, it is universally recognised that deprivation of freedom is regarded as some form of a punishment? That is why every country in the world has a penal system—in part to deprive the criminal of freedom as punishment. The universal pursuit of freedom is why slaves, prisoners and teenagers, from all cultures and eras, tend to try to run away. It is why, when invaded, enslaved and colonised, the founders of modern developing-world countries organised resistance movements to throw out the oppressors. Many charge the west for being hypocritical—espousing the virtues of freedom at home while imposing shackles on outsiders. But the charge goes the other way too: those who deride the hypocrisy of the west do so in confidence that their freedom of criticism will not subject them to the west’s silencing methods.

Of course, unmitigated personal freedom spells disaster—Thomas Hobbe’s famous quote “bellum omnium contra omnes” (“the war of all against all”) comes to mind. Freedom comes with responsibility and mitigation, as ultimately a compromise of some sort is needed if we are to form a community with one another, agreeing to sacrifice some of our freedoms in order to gain from communal living. Therefore at some point, personal freedom will always collide with communal values. There is no hard, fast way to balance the two; each case must be seen in its own light. But I believe that in such conflicts, it is much better to err on the side of personal freedom.

The benefits of freedom are plenty. Biologically and psychologically, humans like space—the bigger the better. That is perhaps why the houses of rich people are so big. Even the most authoritarian of dictators want freedom—they simply want it for just themselves and nobody else. Hitler’s expansionist foreign policy was based on the quest for “Lebensraum”, or “living space”, for the Aryan race. Imagine how Kim Jong-Il would react if he was told his supply of caviar was to be restricted, or if Robert Mugabe was actually forced to live on Zimbabwean dollars. For all the talk of “harmony” in China, how harmonious would Prime Minister Wen Jiabao feel if, say, he was jailed for something he said in a Politburo meeting? Actively restricting others from enjoying the same freedoms one does is at best dubious, if not simply hypocritical and deplorable.

More than us wanting it as a natural instinct, freedom brings visible benefits. The most obvious type is measurable: the economic benefits of freedom are plenty, as the freedom to specialise and innovate has created the most dynamic and prosperous international economy the world has ever seen.

Yes, there are drawbacks to unmitigated freedom. The sexual revolution of the 1960s precipitated family and social breakdown across the west. Our online freedoms have increased our vulnerability to cybercrime. The use of the freedom of expression by one cartoonist and a pastor inflamed people across continents. But such events or trends should not become arguments against the general desirability of freedom. The sexual revolution elevated the status of women. Telecommunications have made it easier to expose the wrongdoings of authorities. The offence caused by the Danish cartoon and the pastor’s threat of burning the Koran are beginning to take Islam into the place Christianity was in around the 1600s, when unrealistic expectations and assumptions about the world in the west were challenged. Although freedom does bring with it unwanted consequences, the first step to rectify shortcomings is actually freedom itself. Imagine a place where all wrongdoings are always hushed up. How will improvements ever be made?

Given humans’ natural desire for freedom, and freedom’s overwhelming benefits, in a conflict between personal freedoms and communal values, I believe it is much better to err on the side of personal freedom. I don’t think anyone should hold an opinion different from mine. But if you happen to disagree, guess what? You’re free to.

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