I can’t embrace the mantra, “Think globally, act locally.” Once we start thinking globally, it’s hard to constrain ourselves to acting only locally.

Still, incredible things are happening in the Middle East, and here we are, most of us unable to leave Lancaster to hang out in Egypt for a while. It looks as if I may have to be content acting locally after all, even as my thoughts are elsewhere.

So where should our minds be at this historic moment? How should we be acting in response? Here are my initial thoughts.

This is something to get excited about, not to fear

25 BahmanThe popular uprisings in the Middle East are massively important and of lasting significance. In Egypt, the military (which is in control until elections are held, months from now) will be unable to wrest real power from the people. The people are too energized, informed, and coordinated. So far, the indications are that the military realizes this. They’ve already convened a panel to rewrite the constitution.

Across the entire region, the zeitgeist has changed radically. Tunisia inspired Egypt, which is inspiring Yemen and Bahrain. Iranian supporters of the popular opposition in Tunsia and Egypt gathered yesterday to celebrate those countries’ victories, but when as many as 350,000 people turned out, they couldn’t help but revive their aspirations for a free Iran.

We need to get on “the right side of history,” as many are saying. Here’s what we mean by that: People are meant to be free. Each of us is born with inherent worth and rights. Totalitarian rule, communism, and fascism ignore that worth and deny those rights. Self-governance is the only viable option for guarding those rights and making room for all individuals, families, and communities to reach their full potential. When the natural order of things is constantly steering history toward freedom and democracy, oppression is an uphill battle, always doomed to eventually fail.

Whatever Glenn Beck might say, the new societies we’re watching emerge aren’t some kind of Islamist caliphate. Instead, they’re secular democracies. As reported in the New York Times:

The Muslim Brotherhood, the outlawed Islamist movement that until 18 days ago was considered Egypt’s only viable opposition, said it was merely a supporting player in the revolt.

“We participated with everyone else and did not lead this or raise Islamic slogans so that it can be the revolution of everyone,” said Mohamed Saad el-Katatni, a spokesman for the Brotherhood. “This is a revolution for all Egyptians; there is no room for a single group’s slogans, not the Brotherhood’s or anybody else.”

The Brotherhood, which was slow to follow the lead of its own youth wing into the streets, has said it will not field a candidate for president or seek a parliamentary majority in the expected elections.

The Muslim Brotherhood will be a political party, not a ruling oligarchy.

I’m with Tom Friedman (who has been in Cairo throughout the events) in being convinced that Islamism is not the future, but rather something that has now been toppled in Egypt:

The message coming out of Cairo will be: We tried Nasserism; we tried Islamism; and now we’re trying democracy. But not democracy imported from Britain or delivered by America — democracy conceived, gestated and born in Tahrir Square.

Even the very conservative Weekly Standard declares, “Fears of a Muslim Brotherhood Takeover are Overblown”:

The chance that Islamists will capture the Arab uprisings is slim unless anti-democratic, oil rich Arab dynasties like the Saudi and other Gulf monarchs, or their Iranian rivals, are allowed to pour billions of dollars into the coffers of their respective proxies, as they did in Gaza, Lebanon, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. The West can prevent this from happening, but even if it does happen, whoever seizes power in the countries in revolt will be forced to remember the fate of the ousted rulers they replaced.

On the question of whether we’re looking at lasting change, my favorite insight so far comes in the form of a letter to the editor of the New York Times:

To the Editor:

Judging by the images of Egyptians cleaning up after their uprising, I think it’s fair to conclude that they are ready for democracy.

Glenn Alan Cheney
Hanover, Conn., Feb. 13, 2011

Technology is a huge piece of what’s going on

My belief that we’re looking at permanent change in the Middle East is due in large part to my understanding of technology.

To understand modern life, it’s requisite to grasp the concept that technology is not morally neutral. Different technologies are predisposed to certain uses. Broadcast television is predisposed to addressing the least common denominator—on TV, success is easier and greater if you’re dumbing things down than if you’re trying to raise the level of intelligent discourse. Automobiles are predisposed to increasing individualism and isolation—with a car, you’re far more independent and can live further from the people who know you.

In this way, technology in the form of television and automobiles is not neutral. It’s not just “what we make of it,” because different technologies lend themselves to certain uses.

In the same way, the Internet and mobile networks, along with the social technologies that are built on them, are not simply “whatever people make of them.” Saying that it’s up to people to decide whether or not they’ll use Facebook and Twitter to  organize revolutions is like saying it’s up to people to decide whether or not they’ll use a hammer to drive in nails. Facilitating discourse is what social techologies want to do, in the same way that driving nails is what hammers want to do.

Facebook, Twitter, e-mail groups, and text messaging systems want to be used to facilitate discourse among empowered citizens. The people of Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, and Iran have a lot to talk about—specifically, decades of frustrations and aspirations they’ve been unable to express or pursue.

I dare you: arm an entire nation with hammers and try to keep them from hammering stuff. Arm an entire nation with social technologies and try to keep them from talking about freedom, organizing protests, and establishing self-governance. Just try.

The imperiled despots in the Middle East are rushing to block these networks and communication platforms. That tactic won’t work—people will be infuriated, and a complete shutoff is impossible.

The U.S. may the greatest threat to the success of these democratic revolutions

Again, Tom Friedman:

In some ways, President Barack Obama did the Egyptian revolution a great favor by never fully endorsing it and never even getting his act together for how to deal with it. This meant in the end that Egyptians know they did this for themselves by themselves – with nothing but their own willpower, unity and creativity.

The United States’ Middle East policy has, for generations, been preoccupied with “stability” in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Yemen, etc. In The American Prospect, Matthew Yglesias writes:

The first problem with the U.S.’ foreign-policy approach with these states is that you can’t just count on unpopular regimes staying in power forever. And the second problem is that the longer the U.S. government stays in bed with kleptocrats, the more severe popular discontent against the United States becomes. It’s an untenable and counterproductive posture, and obviously so.

So what should our foreign policy be? I think there’s only one real option right now: Our role is to stay out of these countries’ business except when it comes to helping citizens establish democratic governments that we will acknowledge as legitimate and sovereign.

That’s crudely put, I know. We’ll never completely stay out of anyone’s business, because the business of all Middle East nations is intimately tied to our business. But still, it’s the essence that’s important. Egypt doesn’t need our help toppling an oppressive regime. They need our help with matters of diplomacy. We can help facilitate the process by which they will form their own government. We have the muscle to keep would-be despots at bay—telling Egypt’s military to back off, if it comes to that. We also have the expertise and third-party standpoint necessary to aid diverse groups as they create a new government, whatever help they may need. And then, at the end, we can lead the world in recognizing the new Egypt and other new democracies as sovereign nation-states.

The other thing we can do? Help to spread unhindered access to the Internet and to mobile networks in these countries. The only agenda we would be pursuing is empowering people to gather information and share it freely.

So what we can do in Lancaster?

I’m not entirely sure, but here’s what’s on my list right now:

  • Get inspired to fight for our own democracy, which is in peril (see Bob Herbert’s column on this subject)
  • Encourage elected officials to pursue a sensible policy that favors the people of the Middle East above all else
  • Follow the evolving story intelligently, and let the people of the Middle East know they have the support of the American people
  • Learn Arabic

How do you think we should be reacting to the news from the Middle East? What’s the appropriate response from our community here in the U.S.?

4 thoughts on “Freedom spreading

  1. During last year’s protests in Iran and the Egyptian Revolution I was providing real support to people in both countries by providing SSH accounts that helped them circumvent Internet filtering.

  2. Excellent posting! It is hypocritical of the US to judge the legitimacy of the Muslim Brotherhood. Worse, interventions in the internal affairs of any nation, especially those going through revolt, is likely to backfire. The USA has a terrible track record in creating friendly states during middle-class revolutions. Ipso facto: Iran in 1956, Cuba 1962, Hungary 1956, Viet Nam 1958-1973, etc.

    The victory for America is that democracy leads to peace, thus allowing us to reduce military spending and focus on domestic economic growth. The best way for us to influence the outcome is through innovation. The technologies that are enabling the revolts in the Arab world are almost entirely “made in the USA.” Moreover, these innovations foment conditions where the mathematics of social change are inevitable.

    Want to change the world?

    Act locally by fostering innovation. Learning Arabic is also a good start… likely will lead to new ideas and new ways to look at the world.

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