Crowded Democracy

Copyright © by Len Holman, 2/17/11


The president of Egypt has left the building.  The crowds are euphoric, flags are waved, hope is burgeoning, and shopkeepers are awaiting the next busload of tourists.  But wait—haven’t we been through this before?  Of course we have…many times.  A dictator rules with an iron fist for years, for decades.  He plunders the national wealth, has his own private death squads, abrogates the rights of his country’s citizens for the smallest of reasons—or no reason at all, like having a bad plate of foie gras at supper in his sumptuous digs, and has a military which is overpaid and undertaxed abroad, but is used extensively for domestic reasons—like keeping the dictator in power.  He takes U.S. dollars and military equipment, and the U.S. uses him for its own ends, and both parties benefit.  The fact that he is an odious, rapacious and repressive megalomaniac is just The Way Things Are.  Then something happens. people get fed up; they get angry and then stay angry. They begin to refuse to play the game.  Repression follows, always done in two basic ways:  dead-of-the-night kidnaps and “disappearing” in which the agitating, subversive abductee is never seen again, and full-on “crowd control” where naked force is used both as a repressant and a warning to others NOT to get too enamored of the idea of congregating in large groups.  Dictators hate those large groups.  The people in them might be mumbling mutinously, and that can only lead to trouble for the regime.   

  And so life—such as it is for the citizenry—goes on as before:  The dictator gets large sums of money from countries like the U.S., some of which is actually used in the country, but a lot of it is not.  Finally, some breaking point comes, and the dictator is left with two basic choices.  Stay and try to repress, or flee.  Repression has worked for so long, the autocrat will inevitably try it, but if it doesn’t work—and the length of time he may devote to this endeavor varies—then he will scoop up his passport, his family and various close advisors and mistresses, and get out of town.  The crowd goes wild!  But wait, there’s more.  Much more.  Our experience with the detritus of fallen regimes is not so good, overall.  We did wonders for the Shah of Iran, but finally, history caught up with him, as did cancer, and we graciously flew him out of the country for treatment, leaving the country to zealots we’re STILL dealing with.  Manuel Noriega helped us immensely, helped the CIA especially, but we finally got rid of him and his country never made it to the top 10 of economic powerhouses, while Manuel sits in jail wondering what the hell happened to his promised Super Bowl tickets.  Of course a classic example is in Haiti, which had Duvalier pere and fils, and which, after a series of inept and corrupt leaders, storms, earthquakes and floods, is the poorest nation in the Caribbean—still.  And let’s not forget Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, who was our anticommunist ally for a while, but his greed and repression, and the deaths of millions of his citizens led to his ouster by neighboring armies. And that’s just the tip of a very large iceberg.  In every case—including our own—people put up with incredible amounts of abuse. Some finally said, “No more!”  Some didn’t and let outside forces did the job for them.  So what about Egypt? The people were adamant and have won something.  It’s not clear what yet.

  The President made a brief statement after Mubarak decamped to Sharm el-Sheikh, saying we were witnessing history unfolding, which aside from the rhetorical flourish (it was a cliché, but still had a nice ring), was foolish to say, since, by definition, every past moment we are alive is historical and we are witnessing it as it unfolds.  He said the military is the caretaker of the Egyptian state.  Uh-oh, that may not be so good, even though the military still wants U.S. equipment, and money and other goodies andf must please us to stay in business.  The military—so beloved by the Egyptian people (or so CNN tells us)--can easily succumb to the temptation we all have when things go to hell:  “Hey, I can do better than that.  Watch.”  It claims it will facilitate elections in six months.  I think Egyptians would be wise to hold onto their “ Free at Last!” balloons until then.  A lot has to happen. And a lot is happening in Yemen and Jordan and Bahrain and even our dear friend, Iran, is experiencing some difficulty with people not appreciating their beloved governments. But these erupting crowds chanting about democracy and freedom need to know this:  it’s not magic and it’s not quick, and it most assuredly it is not clean.  We in this country should know that; our history is painful to read at times, filled with struggle and rapine, and tears, as well as joy and triumph—but it didn’t happen overnight, but to hear the politic-talk around, Egypt needs to get a democracy tomorrow, and the other Arab states need to do it by next week—or at least in time for our next elections, for which people are already posturing and positioning and spouting off about “power to the people.”  John Lennon already sang that, and look what happened to him.  There are a lot of self-righteous statements being made by self-appointed pundits about democracy and the American Example and all that, but then those people already live in a more or less structured State, with rules of a democratic flavor already more than 200 years old. They don’t have to fear mobs in the streets—at least, not yet.  But those lionized and exemplary crowds need lessons in what it takes to make a more egalitarian state.  When the crowds finally leave the streets, each person needs to know that the real work is just starting.  A crowd chanting slogans and working Facebook doesn’t make a democracy.


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