Democracy and the Mob

Democracy and the Mob

By David Warren - February 17, 2011

You cannot argue with a mob -- the choice is between feigned obedience and defiance -- and the Egyptian army chose to dispense with Hosni Mubarak last week. It is trying to play the forces loosed on Cairo streets and elsewhere as a bull; with a cape of promises, revised daily to keep up with the demands. Reforms, yes; a new constitution, yes; multi-party elections, yes; ... and now, more money for everyone!

You cannot write a constitution in 10 days, or rather, you can, but it won't last. Most old-world constitutions were written in blood (Canada's was unusual); the alternative is to write them in water. That the existing Egyptian constitution is a defunct, humourless joke -- dictated by a dictator -- may be conceded. And yet there was one thing to be said for it. It corresponded approximately to the reality, and made limitations upon democracy fairly plain. It wasn't a tissue of false promises.

Democracy is itself the loudest false promise being casually offered in the Middle East. It will not be available within days or weeks, in Egypt, or Iran for that matter. It exists only arguably, and then very tenuously, in Iraq -- after nearly a decade of bloodshed. And there, only because Bush and company dwelt upon the "civil society" aspects, consciously resisting "one man, one vote, one time."

Even reduced to "free and fair multi-party elections," democracy remains unavailable for the foreseeable future, because in Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, Algeria, and elsewhere, only two "parties" are seriously organized, and neither is parliamentary by disposition. One would be the civilian military order behind each existing autocracy; the other the Muslim Brotherhood, or Islamist equivalents (Hamas, Hezbollah, and so on). These latter have already created their parallel welfare and regulatory agencies, their protection rackets, even a kind of judicial and legislative apparatus, operating through the mosques.

The more sophisticated commentators in the West have been drawing contrasts between the older and younger manifestations of Islamism. In the case of Egypt, we are asked to compare, for instance, the social-media-savvy Moaz Abdel Karim, age 29, with the rhetorically bludgeoning Mohamed Badi -- age 66, and the actual "supreme guide" of the Muslim Brotherhood (with the infrastructure of the movement entirely behind him). The former speaks sensitively but vacuously about pluralism in religion and politics; about the aspirations of women. The latter prefers to raise the banner of Jihad, while belabouring three topics: Zionism, Israel, and Jews. Whom should we trust?

We have read much about those twittering "social media," which the younger generation of Islamists have mastered, along with everyone else. The demonstrations were certainly organized through them. They became possible because social media gave people the sense of strength in numbers -- well before they actually had the numbers on the street. And al Jazeera leaped in quickly to spread the word and excitement from there. The Internet, in combination with partisan and sensationalized mass media, have rewritten many of the rules.

The mob is now electronically summoned and enhanced, but, to return to where I started, this does not make it any easier to argue with, nor contribute to the possibilities for mature and intelligent deliberation over the path ahead. It instead creates a new and much broader field for anarchy. From anarchy to totalitarianism is one Persian step.

Iran is different from Egypt, in the sense that the military autocracy and the Islamists have been, since 1979, one and the same. For some reason that escapes me, the Obama administration, and European allies copying their lead, turned their backs on Iranian demonstrators. They then gave full attention to Egyptian ones, echoing their demands. Odd, when you remember that the Iranian regime is our mortal enemy, and the Egyptian one our imperfect but indispensable ally.

Neither Western nor Arab mass media can be so easily blamed for their own effective bias, since they cannot easily enter Iran to report. It is only because Egypt presented the more open society, that its government was so vulnerable. The ayatollahs continue to imprison, torture, and hang leaders of the Iranian uprisings, but this is hardly reported. Whereas, in Egypt, a demonstrator knocked down by a charging camel triggers a planetary avalanche of outrage.

But balance would only have been possible in some lost world, where editors still controlled the diffusion of news, were capable of reviewing events broadly, and adjusting their coverage to compensate. Perhaps that world never existed; for it also required an audience that was patient, and mature; and a political order in which those who reduced events to canting phrases like "Cry freedom!" were ostracized, when not merely ignored.

The whole Middle East is dissolving into chaos, with unpredictable, even unimaginable, consequences. Perhaps worse, thanks largely to the same "social media," in combination with mainstream reporting focused sensationally on spectacle alone, our response dissolves into a similar incoherence.

© Copyright (c) The Ottawa Citizen

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