Monday, February 21, 2011

It really is revolutionary contagion in the Arab world - at least for the moment

This Aljeerza English (AJE) video provides a long analysis on the unrest in Libya. It includes some interesting comments on the clout that Libya, as a major oil producer, has been able to apply to Western governments. Commentators note that despite his eccentricities, Muammar Qaddafi has shown real sophistication in applying that pressure and also improving the general international position of Libya in recent years.

At this writing, El Mundo/EFE is reporting on the possibility of Muammar el Qaddafi leaving the country in the short term. (Reino Unido dice que Gadafi podría haber abandonado el país 21.02.2011) The Justice Minister of Libya resigned in protest over the level of repression. AJE is also reporting a new massacre of protesters in Tripoli on Monday, including using planes to fire on protesters. (Libya protests spread and intensify 02/21/2011)

The anti-government movement that began in Tunisia really did spread to other countries.

This things are near-impossible to predict. Processes can develop for a long time, then with the right spark can break out into rapid change. It's rare, but it happens. It's obviously happening now in the Arab world, and apparently to some extent in (mostly Persian) Iran.

Über-Realist Stephen Walt published a post on 01/16/2011 at his Foreign Policy blog whose title is now embarrassing, Why the Tunisian revolution won't spread. He wrote then of revolutionary contagion in such situations, "the history of world revolution suggests that this sort of revolutionary cascade is quite rare, and even when some sort of revolutionary contagion does take place, it happens pretty slowly and is often accompanied by overt foreign invasion." Among other reasons, he writes, "the actual revolutionary potential of any society is very difficult to read in advance, and a rising revolutionary wave often depends on very particular preferences and information effects within society." True enough.

But his caution is still partially applicable:

All of this is not to say that a cascade is impossible, that events in Tunisia won't exert a long-term effect on political discussion elsewhere, or that it is not a telling sign of democratic aspirations that are likely to bear fruit eventually. But "eventually" could be a rather long time, and if you are expecting to see a rapid transformation of the Arab world in the wake of these events, you're likely to be disappointed. [my emphasis]
Walt obviously quickly realized that in this case, short-term revolutionary contagion did start occurring. He explained ten days later in his post From Tunis to Cairo? 01/26/2011:

Do the large and angry demonstrations in Egypt mean that I was wrong to predict that the revolution in Tunisia wouldn't spread? Not yet, but I will be watching events closely and developments there could eventually prove me wrong. (As Keynes famously retorted, "when the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?") But thus far, I'm sticking with my original forecast. ...

A couple of quick points. In my original post on the subject, I emphasized that revolutionary upheavals are always inherently unpredictable, because it is hard to know how much the population is willing to risk to overthrow the authorities and because each person's reaction will depend on what they think others will do. (Someone might be reluctant to join an angry mob if they thought only ten other people will show up, but if they are convinced that 5000 other people will be there, then there's safety in numbers and they'd be willing to be the 5001st).

I didn't deny that events in Tunisia might generate some sympathetic rumblings elsewhere, because this is common after a revolution, but I said that I didn't expect a wave of upheavals that ultimately overthrew neighboring governments. The main reason was that authoritarian governments would be on their guard against contagion, and would act quickly to snuff out any rising revolutionary tide. Thus far, that's precisely what the Mubarak regime seems to be doing, and they have a lot of practice at this sort of thing.
As we know, Mubarak is gone. But it remains to be seen - maybe I should say it remains for the Egyptians to accomplish - what kind of regime will replace his dictatorship.

Juan Cole analyzes the fast-changing situation in Libya in Revolutionary Situation in Libya Informed Comment 02/21/2011. As he points out, Libya has many of the contradictions familiar to other "oil states", and also a potentially more immediate effect on international oil prices:

Because Libya is an oil state that exports 1.7 million barrels a day, its fate has more immediate implications for the international economy than unrest in non-oil states such as Tunisia. On Sunday, the eastern Zuwayya tribe threatened to halt petroleum exports in protest of the brutality of the regime in Benghazi, a city of over 600,000.

Petroleum accounts for much of Libya’s $77 bn. a year gross domestic product, the 62nd in the world, which affords Libyans a per capita income on paper of over $12,000 a year, more than that of Brazilians, Chileans or Poles and the highest in Africa. In fact, the oil income is not equitably distributed, so that a third of Libyans live below the poverty line and 30% of workers are unemployed. The regime favors the west of the country with oil money largesse, neglecting the east. [my emphasis]
But as his title indicates, he judges this to be a real revolutionary situation:

All of these developments– the falling of Benghazi, the split in the military there, the defection of major tribes, and the outbreak of protests and violence in the capital– point to a revolutionary situation. Central to such a situation is dual sovereignty, the development of two distinct camps with authority in the same country.
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