March 6, 2011


Fear of Freedom: Democracy Virus Has Dictators Fretting (Erich Follath, 3/01/11, Der Spiegel)

Have we finally arrived, perhaps not at the "end of history" that some had prematurely predicted after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but at least at the end of the reigns of a host of brutal rulers? Is there a recurring pattern for how best to overthrow governments -- instructions for a peaceful revolution, so to speak -- that applies everywhere from Serbia in 2000, to Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine in 2004, and now to Tunisia and Egypt?

A Shy Revolutionary

If the young revolutionaries from Kiev to Cairo are to be believed, the answers to those questions can be found with an 83-year-old man who lives in a modest house near Boston. Gene Sharp, who was profiled in a 2005 SPIEGEL story, is the guru of a global network of freedom activists. The former Harvard professor wrote the bible of freedom that was recently used by Egyptian bloggers like Ahmed Mahir.

The thin volume is titled: "From Dictatorship to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation." Sharp, an admirer of Mahatma Gandhi, lists "198 methods of nonviolent action." He insists that his principles have nothing to do with pacifism. Instead, they are based on the analysis of power in a dictatorship and how it can be broken -- namely by citizens refusing obedience at all levels of state power, including its institutions. Sharp also points out, however, that it isn't enough to topple a dictator: Once he has been ousted, everything possible must be done to prevent a new one from replacing him. Following the euphoria of liberation, the democratic successes achieved in Ukraine and Georgia were largely frittered away. Sharp, who modestly gives all the credit to the courageous protesters, says that the same risk applies in Egypt and Tunisia.

Nonviolent resistance worked in the overthrow of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, in the Orange Revolution in Ukraine and the Rose Revolution in Georgia, because the system was rotten, a civil society was in the making and the autocrats refrained from using excessive violence. But can the same recipe work with despots who are prepared to commit murder?

Only the Strong Survive

The Obama administration has discovered a pattern in the current maelstrom of upheavals in the Middle East. In the words of the New York Times: "The region's monarchs are likely to survive; its presidents are more likely to fall." The advantage the royal families have is that they can replace the governments they have installed, and they are more flexible and willing to compromise. The White House is apparently confident that countries like Morocco, Jordan and Bahrain will be able to reform themselves.

In Bahrain, however, where a Sunni monarch rules an impoverished Shiite majority that makes up two-thirds of the country's population, the American optimism could prove to be premature. Although the ruler withdrew the military's tanks from the square where protestors had gathered in the capital Manama, it was only after shots had been fired and seven people died. In the Gulf emirate, where America's Fifth Fleet is based, more concessions to the protestors will be needed than monetary gifts and the release of political prisoners. The same holds true in neighboring Saudi Arabia, the country with the world's largest oil reserves, should the wave of unrest spread there.

Washington already appears to have written off one of its former strategic partners: Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, 68, who has been in office for more than 32 years. Saleh, who runs the country with near-dictatorial powers, declared in February that he would not run for reelection in 2013. Though meant as a major concession, the announcement only challenged the regime opponents to stage even angrier protests. Saleh is the type of politician that former US President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously referred to as "a son of a bitch, but our son of a bitch" -- he may be a brutal dictator to his people, but he is useful to the United States in its war on terror.

This almost cultish worship of stability has routinely failed in international politics: among right-wing politicians, who assumed that military dictatorships could remain a reliable bulwark against communism and then found themselves confronted with their liberal successors; and among leftist politicians who tended to see Eastern European dissidents as troublemakers and not comrades-in-arms, and were then astonished to find that leaders like Poland's Lech Walesa and Czechoslovakia's Vaclav Havel were not gradually changing the old order but sweeping it away instead.

And why shouldn't the revolutionary recipes now being applied in the Middle East be effective in other parts of the world? What should prevent dissatisfied youth in Africa, Asia, Latin America or even Europe from expressing their anger?

SPIEGEL presents an overview of a changed world, with a special emphasis on countries with revolutionary potential.

Globalization is the process of universal infection.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 6, 2011 10:35 AM
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