The Arab sprung …

Has the bounce gone out of the Arab Spring? It’s a legitimate question. Let’s take a moment to compare it with that other relatively recent time of great euphoria: 1989. From a safe distance (at least for most of us) we watched in astonishment as state after state of the formerly solid and immutable Warsaw Pact turned over and waved its paws weakly in the air. Five years before those glorious events, I had not only predicted that they would happen, but that they would be done and dusted by 1990. So I think it’s only fair, in retrospect, and with another such “springtime” apparently in progress, that I point out why it seemed so obvious to me at the time.

The fuse that set off the collapse of the Communist Bloc was a rather long one, composed not only of Gorbachev, Glasnost, the Pope and Lech Walesa, but of a host of frequently ignored socio-economic indicators that had been doing their damage in the background ever since Khrushchev:

-       Massive debt to the Western banks and the IMF,

-       A philosophical disenchantment with Marxism even among its defenders in academe and the higher echelons of the state;

-       The failure of socialism to generate growth once the subsistence threshold had been crossed;

-       An antiquated industrial base and centrally controlled labour market fed by a  surprisingly healthy and progressive educational system: something had to crack;

-       Collapsing birth-rates in many communist countries were further undermining an economy based on the ideal of “the many serving the many” in a mass-industrial state. There was no model for slimmed-down production, no concept of downsizing;

-       Disquieting levels of youth alienation and an endemic culture of substance abuse fuelled record-breaking rates of worker absenteeism and theft of state property (it was “normal” for more than one in every ten cars or washing machines to “disappear”, either entirely or in component parts, from the production line);

-       An intelligentsia at total variance with the establishment, with a wide clandestine readership at home and a considerable voice abroad, who were tired of being treated like unruly children;

-       Murmurs of discontent within a military establishment which, though not known for Bonapartist tendencies, was being sapped by a new generation of leaders putting butter before guns and a resultant lack of logistical and moral support (there was a persistent rumour going around NATO that the Red Army was unable to source replacement boots for its infantry and was almost entirely lacking in soap, socks and undershirts by the 1980s);

-       A growing and much resented apparatchik class, grown fat on the pickings of party appointments, but entirely lacking the traditional “bourgeois” virtues of moral integrity, civic responsibility and voluntarism …

Although we didn’t really have a “Tunisia moment”, as the first in a line of dominos, a formerly peaceful nation, suddenly and unexpectedly tipped into revolution, yet when Poland threw off fifty years of history in a brief space of months we had our “Egypt”, and in the bitter skirmishes on the streets of Timisoara and Bucharest we certainly had our “Libya”. One might even say that the influence of the Catholic Church in Poland was similar to that of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, but such comparisons don’t take us very far in understanding the challenges facing the Middle East or why they will probably defeat their and our best intentions.

Media wars

Where in the Arab Spring are the velvet-gloved equivalents of Czechoslovakia or Hungary? Where is the total capitulation of a vast apparatus of state surveillance (as in the GDR) in the face of hundreds of thousands of peaceful citizens first breaching and then dismantling a shameful wall and its attendant structures of terror with their bare hands? Where is the quiet resignation of a ruling class that comprehends the futility of staying on and is even prepared to midwife the transition into democracy and capitalism as in the Baltic States and parts of the Balkans? Where are the figures of resistance who have worked subtly but effectively behind the scenes for decades in cultural organizations, youth groups, the church and its social institutions (such as the “Offene Arbeit” facilities in East Germany)? Finally, where, oh where, is the almost unmitigated support of the rest of an eagerly expectant world and the panoptic attention of its media?

On this last point I am reminded of Isaiah Berlin’s interpretation of the ancient Greek poet Archilochus’ remark that “the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”. In a world that has almost entirely lost track of what makes a hedgehog great, we have become like distracted squirrels manipulated by a shallow, foxy mentality: a type of mind whose insatiable hunger for information and grasp of the “facts’ is only equalled by its attention-deficiency and lack of real empathy. This is not the kind of media landscape that can follow a developing campaign of civil disobedience on several fronts and not only keep us up to date, but even deepen our interest in the various motivations and forces that are engaged.

The modern media, with its multifarious web-based offshoots, commentators (yes, I plead guilty), experts, apologists and obfuscators, has become like a bizarre game of football. Lost possession? That’s OK, in this game your manager simply throws in another ball, so now there’s two in play, or three, or four, or a dozen. Still can’t score? No matter, we’ll double your complement of strikers, discredit the other team’s keeper and move the goalposts to a more convenient location. Back in 1989 we were not yet facing this variegated carnival of dissimulation, disinformation, distraction and deceit. Today, with every new crisis our ability to digest the last one is impaired. All the more so if we have been force-fed crisis number one (or seven), with a regime of slo-mo shots, rolling banner feeds, endless repetition of the juicy bits and superficial sound-bite analysis right up to the moment crisis number two (or eight) hits the fan.

The vision thing

But it would be churlish to only blame the media for our current fatigue with regard to North Africa and the Middle East or for the participants’ own failure to bring their issues clearly to the fore and effect a lasting change. There are three other significant factors which combine to undermine our enthusiasm for this largely honourable and certainly legitimate struggle and thus diminish our level of real interest in its outcome. These in turn exert a pernicious influence on the trajectory of events as they unfold on the Arab street:

-       Firstly, we tend to hold to the oft-proven dictum that the Middle East is a can of worms. Deep inside we believe that nothing much of any good will come from whatever is undertaken there. The area is too politically complex, too much in love with violence and the gun, too much in the sway of the more extreme and militant brands of Islam, too poor and also too rich to succeed in a transition that requires modesty, patience and discipline. Observers and activists alike within the countries concerned are also having a hard time struggling with this self-perception. Three centuries of failure does little to encourage the winning gene. The disaster zone that was once Lebanon is an example to all;

-       Secondly, – and we are not alone in this, because the instigators in North Africa seem equally confused – the entire enterprise lacks a coherent vision.  Freedom? Yes, but which definition, libertarian, utilitarian or theological. Democracy? Well, yes, but how Islamic should it be? Can you separate church and state in cultures that find it hard to grasp the essential value of that separation in safeguarding freedoms, both secular and religious? In 1989 it was patently obvious what the citizens of Eastern Europe wanted for themselves and what they aspired to for their future governments. The Judeo-Christian-socio-Capitalist values-set was already clearly demarcated. Valid market-socialist variants in France, Germany, the Netherlands and Scandinavia were available for study in the immediate neighbourhood. Nations that had lost their entrepreneurial and professional classes were eager to rebuild them. But even here the transformation has neither been easy nor entirely successful. How can we whole-heartedly support a revolution that lacks definition and a clear manifesto? There are ideals of civic engagement, political plurality, consensus and tolerance that are essential to the success of such an undertaking, but are manifestly lacking in much of the Arab historical experience. They cannot be created out of a vacuum. Meanwhile the hedgehog of the neighbourhood, Israel, waits to see what happens before implementing its own devastating response if things get out of hand;

-       Thirdly, we notice that the most immediate result (for us Europeans at least) of the liberation struggle has been a mass exodus, not of dictators and their lackeys, but of the newly liberated or wannabe liberated into the countries of the northern Mediterranean rim. The island of Lampedusa now hosts more Tunisians, Libyans and Algerians than there are penguins on South Georgia or cormorants on Rockall. Far from wishing to support the struggle and fight for their own freedom and that of their neighbours, vast numbers of Arab citizens have decided that now is their chance to get into paradise before the doors close. Not all of their intentions are benign. The collapse of the Soviet empire brought us waves of Polish car-thieves, Lithuanian racketeers, Rumanian prostitutes and Albanian drug-dealers … the jail population of Western Europe is more than 90% comprised of ex-Warsaw Pact ruffians (whose criminal records were conveniently deleted under the new order) and North African petty larcenists. Hardly a week goes by that one does not read of yet another former subject of the whimsically-named Enver Hoxha (a moniker not even Heinlein could have invented) who has accidentally incinerated himself while trying to steal a few kilometres of copper cable from a Belgian railway line. Moreover, a large proportion of those who are not actually in prison are either on their way there or living entirely off the extraordinary generosity of our social system. We’re on the ropes and can’t take any more, a situation that the extreme right is turning to its advantage for lack of any other real debate on the issue.

So, all in all, it’s hardly surprising that we can only raise one-point-five cheers for Yemen or Syria, and hardly surprising that you got bored long before you reached these valedictory lines, even if they were penned by your favourite blogger …

Edwin Drood

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