Arab autumn?

At last, good news from the Middle East. Democracy has been overthrown in Egypt. The generals taking over promise new elections in a few months, but with any luck they are lying.

Nothing lasts in this world, & I mustn’t get carried away. In Cairo, the show is far from over. It would be too much to hope for a similar coup in Turkey, where I fear the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has had too much time to re-arrange the higher ranks. And in Iran, the Islamists are fully militarized: after thirty-four years, external force is still required. The tide is turning against the Islamists in Libya: the government there seems finally to be killing them off. There is still some hope for Tunisia; maybe even Iraq. But let me be cautious, if first in the field, to declare the arrival of the “Arab Autumn.”

When the Ayatollahs finally fall, supposing they do not fall directly on Israel, the peoples of their realm will be inoculated against Islamism for a generation to come. (Gentle reader may recall that the “Persian Spring,” or more precisely winter, arrived in January 1979; & all the democratic euphoria that came with the fall of the Pahlavi dynasty.) For truth, the people of Iran have probably been inoculated these last thirty years, but again: Mao Tse-Tung was right about power. Those with the guns have it. Those without do not. The trick is to manoeuvre into possession of the guns, & then a peaceful transition follows. Those who think the world is governed by ideas cannot know much about it. Nor is it ruled by guns, to be clear: but by the people who hold & are willing to use them — & for as long as the rest of us think they’re still awake.

I’m sure that sounds cynical. But power itself is a cynical thing, & we must look to the psychotic dimension of human behaviour for the appeal of holding it. “Democracy” does not eliminate this dimension. It offers to channel violence into peaceful competition for the monopoly on force. It provides a plausible & upholstered alternative — fighting with boffers instead of spiked clubs. It can even work, for as long as the electorate is confined to gentlemen with a strict code of honour, a comprehensive sense of personal responsibility, an apprehension of God, & sufficient wealth to resist the temptation to appropriate. As the franchise is enlarged, all this collapses into what we have now: government by cynical manipulation of the ignorant masses.

You do not win elections today by telling the whole truth so far as you are capable of understanding it — even about the obstacles to fulfilling an agenda; let alone the most likely “unintended consequences,” which if not you, your advisers know perfectly well. You do not win by giving an honest account of the stakes in play. Nor do you win by polite self-deprecation, leaving the argument for your merits to your colleagues & oldest friends.

You win by bamboozling the public; by shamelessly vulgar boasting & display; by making promises that can never be fulfilled; by colouring low motives with high-sounding phrases; by offering pay-offs in not-too-subtle ways. You win by mastering the methods of Hollywood & the entertainment media; by employing the tricks of mass advertising to “create demand” & “shape the marketplace.”

Later, after you have made a hash of everything, your old loyal supporters will cuss you into retirement. That, almost alone, remains as a palpable attraction of democracy, or “unique selling point” as the marketing people say: the routine humiliation of once-successful politicians, & with it, the visceral satisfaction of turning them out of office. (But even this is lost in systems of proportional representation, or by the gerrymandered tenure of Congressional USA.)

Meanwhile, in democracies, the bureaucracy grows & grows. This is absolutely inevitable: for the people will always vote to collect more, from programmes to be paid for with other people’s money. Peace may prevail, in the absence of actual bloodshed, but knot by knot the entire population binds itself in the cat’s cradle of tax & regulation, & freedom is lost from sheer aversion to risk. In a fully-fledged democracy, no one can hope to be let alone by the authorities. Whereas, that is the only freedom a government can confer.

Monarchy may offer peaceful transition, too; & rulers born not made, thus eliminating much squalid competition, & shutting the power hungry outside the gates. It has many other virtues I have elsewhere puffed, though also several flaws. A legitimate heir is not always available. Or, he is available, but happens to be insane. Or, though perfectly adequate, he falls on the field of valour, or gets murdered in a palace intrigue. Chance comes into everything, & there are times when a good monarchy isn’t in the cards. That is when we need a fall-back position: somewhere to turn when better options fail.


And that is the beauty of military dictatorship. If we must have a republic, I recommend the “banana” variety. Generals, in the main, are men of little imagination, & simple tastes. They love order, to be sure, but in the balance of public vices, a little order is seldom a bad thing. They are not easily infected by ideology, or any other form of intellectual ambition; even those who acquire some may lose it after a while. They don’t much care what one is doing, so long as it will not threaten the peace, or otherwise interfere with their breakfast. Should the general be smart enough to fully understand his need to avoid free elections, he will become unobtrusive. He won’t go out of his way to antagonize anyone. He may line his own pockets, & those of his friends — for as Valéry said, “Power without abuse loses its charm.” But the odd billion into a Swiss bank account is a small price to pay for freedom.

It is the officer who may not be lining his own pockets whom we need to fear; the one possessed by revolutionary zeal, associated from the start with Party. Those, let me admit, give Generalissimos a bad name. No, it is only the career general I’m proposing to push forward: the sort already used to giving orders & having them obeyed; who will not feel the need to redesign his own uniform. Real generals, a little on the plump side, & entirely without charisma: that’s where to turn in a pinch. Not to hothead colonels.

For a real general is a man with a trade. He understands the value of elementary professionalism. He’ll appoint boring accountants to the budget office, prosecuting attorneys to every judicial bench — the sort of men who have some vague idea what they are doing. They won’t be like the czars in the Obama administration. A few technocrats here & there won’t do much harm. Better them than the bug-eyed idealists.

Granted, real generals have their foibles, too, that go with the tendency to be stupid. Alas, perfection is not available in this world. But while they may be rough & somewhat brutish in their ways, may eat ice cream with a fork & so on, there is usually some underlying decency in them.

That would be the weakness. They are good at seizing power when the people riot against a stale-dated regime, & genuinely enjoy their brief candle of popularity. But the wish to be loved may scramble their later judgement. They will hesitate to turn their guns on the people who come out rioting against them, in their turn. This we saw in Cairo the year before last, when the military stood down rather than shoot more students in Tahrir Square. Not that I recommend carnage as a principle of public policy, Heaven forfend! Rather, the cultivation of a certain tone of voice that projects well through television, & makes people not want to test you.

Add that to policy preference for mom & apple pie, & a general may last a few decades. He could be the next Franco, or Pinochet, or Park Chung-hee — the next Mubarak, perhaps — granting his (ungrateful) countrymen a prolonged respite from the horror of politics, “interesting personalities,” & “events.” Eventually, the devils displaced will find some way back to power. The world is the world, & nothing works forever. But a long holiday is better than a short one.