Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Why are the Arab states toppling?

Almost every day one hears of unrest from one of the authoritarian states of North Africa and the Middle East. Even Syria, which had been, I thought, relatively progressive and had provided refuge for Christians fleeing from Iraq, seems to be in trouble. Yet the economies of these countries and their literacy levels have been improving and some concessions have been made to the pressures for political reform. 

So why now?

In their highly perceptive book The Great Reckoning (1992) James Dale Davidson and William Rees-Mogg concluded that microchips and floppy discs were the main causes of the Soviet break up around 1990. Information could be stored, distributed and accessed without the knowledge of the apparatchik.

Today we have the incomparably more powerful Internet, global in extent and with immense potential for good and evil use in the whole spectrum of human societies. In particular, authoritarian nations are finding it impossible to control  information flows within and across their borders. But if a country closes down its web infrastructure it suffers economically and the rulers themselves are denied social networks, access to the sum total of human knowledge, computers games, international trade, online banking and all the enhancements of life offered by the web.

In other words the autocrats and dictators have little choice but to keep the Internet running and linked in to the rest of the world. The Internet is not, on balance, a friend of tyrants. It seems likely that the increasingly demanding cries for freedom in such regimes have been given power and impetus by the tools of the Internet; and as the authorities make concessions this only increases the demand for more.

Activity undermining dictators and autocrats (distinguished from dictators by hereditary rights) can be grouped under three headings: person-to-person, surfing and publishing. Much of this applies equally to the leaders of terrorist cells and no doubt the list below is far from exhaustive.

Free exchange of ideas and information both within and across borders, including, e.g., bomb making, weapon procurement, demonstration plans and disruption strategies. Learning first hand about how friends abroad are discussing or perceiving world affairs. Hearing about how individuals live in parliamentary democracies.

Exposure to subversive websites; awareness of goods and services abroad; ability to learn with increasing objectivity about world history and ideas emerging from the Enlightenment; appreciation of the diversity of views expressed without fear.

Ideas dangerous to the holders of power; information on demonstrations and exhortations to civil disobedience are published on websites produced and edited in places and by individuals difficult to locate geographically. E.g. a  website dangerous to the elite of nation A could be edited from the front room of someone in nation B on the other side of the world.

Concomitant with the Internet are the young median ages of these countries. They all have large young populations with rising aspirations impatient for signs of progress and rising prosperity.

It is, of course, easy to be sanctimonious. Even an ideally democratic nation state could not afford to let activity directed to its replacement by an autocracy go unchecked. It is a tragedy that a small group led by a ‘dominophile’ (a term I use in 2077 AD for a person with the desire and ability to control others and incite them to hatred) and with the necessary destructive means can remove the freedom and ruin the lives of millions.

There is no doubt that those wanting freedom in the Arab states have a good case. Yet  if a power vacuum is created it may be filled by something worse, such as an Islamic theocracy with world caliphate ambitions. The aspirations of today’s freedom seekers would have come to nothing.

Author, 2077 AD