Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Dictator is gone - yay?

Mubarak is no longer in charge of Egypt.  The country managed to oust a dictator who had imposed 30 years of 'state of emergency' powers with really minimal death and destruction, which is a good thing by all accounts.  The trouble with turfing the megalomaniacal autocrat is that fairly often what replaces him (it doesn't have to be a him, but it turns out it pretty much always is) is worse or no better.  There are plenty of countries in the world that had revolutions against really terrible governments which ended up being utterly disastrous in the long run.  If you look at basic Communist ideology you might assume that they would be much better for the common person than a ruler born into a lifetime of power and privilege and yet look what a disaster communism turned out to be in Russia.  Never mind the gradual economic decline, environmental disaster and cold war antagonism that came out of Russia, you can just look at the things Stalin did in the earlier years and shudder.

The trouble with booting out a dictator is that you have to replace him and the normal structures for choosing people to lead and curbing their power are not in place.  You also have to face down a society where corruption is the norm which makes it very difficult to have fair elections.  That same corruption also makes it exceptionally hard for any new leader who is actually trying to do a good job because they must end up directly at odds with their bureaucracy, police and military as soon as tackling corruption becomes important.  There are plenty of people too who are in privileged positions under the dictator who will retain those positions after he is deposed; they will often resent the new order and actively work to undermine any changes to the old ways that were so profitable to them personally.  Even people who are behind a newer and better form of government don't all agree on how things should go and who needs to sacrifice to make the necessary changes happen.  There is always a lot of work and pain to go around when restructuring a society and nobody wants to the one paying the price.

This is not to say that revolutions aren't worth having or that we should all just suffer whatever indignities a dictator may shove down our throats.  Moreso I think it is just a note that the unrestrained optimism and celebration that follows the toppling of a leader is usually overblown and often heralds much worse things to come.  More than anything when you finally get rid of a despot you induce change.  If the despot was bad enough while in power then nearly any change may be a good thing but in many cases that change actually makes things worse.  Imagine if North Korea suddenly lost the top 5 most powerful people:  Would it help?  I think the answer is no as someone else just as bad would end up seizing power.  The trouble is that it is so devilishly hard to predict just what is going to happen next.  Especially in countries with very powerful religions I think it is rough to know what is going to happen as the difference between a very religious organization taking power and a secular one is extreme in many cases - Iran is a good example of a country that had a revolution that ended up leaving the country ruled by a totalitarian religious group and destroyed much of what had been accomplished in the country in the preceding decades.

It is good that Mubarak is gone and that Egypt has the possibility of really seeing big improvements for its citizens.  However, when I see that the military has dissolved parliament and suspended the constitution I wonder if things are just going from bad to worse.

1 comment:

  1. Egypt is a very weird case. Even during the mass protests, people saw the army as being there to protect the people rather than intimidate them. The army has taken over with the promise of elections within six months, and I'm sure there will be no shortage of outside help from the UN and the US to run elections.

    Obviously things can still go very wrong, and there are a lot of other countries in north Africa that are on the verge of revolutions right now so we probably will see things go terrible wrong in a number of places. Things in Egypt at looking pretty hopeful for now, though.