Lessons from Tahrir to Tiananmen

2011-02-17Asia Times

BEIJING - Aside from geopolitics and the balance of power, Egypt is also an issue of principle - of democracy, an idea crucial to the West, one that found its identity and role during the last century in the fight against totalitarian regimes.

Nowadays, democracy is vital for the West and the global world order as the old West is economically weak following the 2008 crisis, or perhaps in decline before the rise of China and other developing countries.

It was difficult for the Barack Obama administration to stand by a repressive regime in Egypt tyrannizing its own people. If it stood aloof while former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was killing unarmed demonstrators, then its policy towards repressive regimes like North Korea, Iran and possibly, partly also authoritarian China, would be unhinged. Those regimes would be fully justified in dragging their feet on all accusations regarding their lack of democracy.

Half of the Western world says it, the other half thinks (or hopes) for it: in Cairo today, in Beijing tomorrow; Mubarak today, the Chinese despot tomorrow. The powers of the contagion of revolution are larger than those of colds, and the viruses of street protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989 will no doubt be back. The West, bearer of universal values of democracy, will emerge triumphant.

Or will it? For the Chinese leaders, the current situation in Egypt poses no risk, only advantages. If the transition to democracy works in Cairo, prudent China could accelerate its process of political reform preceded by the example of Egypt. The lesson of Tiananmen has been simply that of trying to anticipate, and thus cull, mass protests by setting forth reforms first.

If democracy wins in Egypt, the global signals will be clear, and China will have plenty of time to play along. Its situation is by far better than that in Egypt and Beijing in theory will have plenty of time to adapt to the new circumstances. If, otherwise, things go wrong, Chinese prudence will have triumphed.

In reality, the attempts to export Western democracy to the Islamic world, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, were all unsuccessful. In Tehran, almost 30 years ago, it was an American president, Jimmy Carter, who gave the green light to drop the tyrannical shah. It took only a few months because the moderate entrepreneurs of the Iranian bazaar, who in the beginning had dominated the protest, passed the hand to Ruhollah Khomeini's Islamic fundamentalists.

The Iranian religious revolution, which at the time had to be a signal against the atheist Soviet enemy, became the tombstone of Carter. The Shi'ite Khomeinists managed to wangle between the two blocs and survive well, so far, even the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Nor did things go better when the United States did not try to drive the political process from the outside but instead ventured into trying to micromanage democracy implants in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Certainly, the two countries no longer export terrorism nor pose a threat to neighbors, but it is doubtful that today they are more democratic than when the Americans entered, while a war at various levels of intensity lasted some 10 years.

In Egypt, the conditions are no better than anywhere else in the Muslim world. Many women are forced into the medieval practice of infibulations, over 20% of the population lives below the poverty line, 30% are illiterate, despite the supreme traditional wisdom of writer Neguib Mahfuz or the library of Alexandria.

From this history, cynical Chinese senior leaders, who experienced the revolution firsthand in the days of Mao Zedong and the Gang of Four, infer the possibility that the days after Mubarak could be similar and even worse than the 30 years of Mubarak's rule. That result would humiliate America's simple democratic enthusiasm and would give new weight to the prudent Chinese political choice.

Beijing knows that as people took to Tahrir Square the streets in Cairo several old counter-revolutionary forces took in action in the region. The Egyptian protest scares known infamous despotisms of Syria or Libya, but also the less notorious ones of Saudi Arabia, Jordan or Morocco. They fear the contagious virus first and know that the battle for their stability is being fought today on the streets of Cairo.

The situation will not be resolved anytime soon. The push for elections in the coming weeks or months will be tailed by international grain price hikes, of which China's present drought and new appetite for meat also contributed. These price hikes have ignited the powders of protest in the first place.

In June, when the poor summer harvest comes in, it could be a time of global inflation for food products and this, in turn, could kindle a new wave of demonstrations in Egypt and in the whole Middle East. That is to say that in June, no matter what government is in power, a tough choice could arise: either topple the new government or accept a violent crackdown of the more radical protests.

Neither aid program that could prevent the spiral of demonstrations would be easy to implement. It would not be easy to move sacks of foreign flour from the airports to the homes of the poor; it would be much easier to sell them on the black market. Two forces have an interest in this happening - some corrupt profiteering officials, but also the extremists who want a radicalization of the protests because they ride the hungry and angry masses.

The Chinese are not gloating about the situation. They are concerned because they see the confusion and difficulties of their beacon, America, as a sign of a tarnishing global order in which they have thrived for over 30 years. Without America, China does not know what to do and yet does not want to be embroiled in setting a new political world order.

Earlier, a People's Daily commentary warned the United States of the dangers of supporting a protest that could soon turn anti-American. [1] If this happens the US would shift attention from the Pacific to the Middle East, which would then reinforce the need for America to rely on China. This, too, Beijing saw how within a few days after September 11, 2001, the George W Bush administration, which had been poised for confrontation with China, drastically switched its priorities.

Certainly American choices are stark in Egypt. Supporting a crackdown would further smear the US image in the Islamic world and globally. The alternatives, if things spin out of control, are doomsday scenarios: The Suez Canal blocked, choking off trade between Asia and Europe, or Israel, fearing for its survival because of a new anti-Jewish Egyptian government, attacking Egypt, and shock waves reverberating around the whole Muslim world.

In fact, can America guarantee that Egypt will not fall in the hands of radical Muslims? Its army is not professional, is made of conscripts and the middle-ranking officers can be sympathetic with the cause of their fellow protesters. Furthermore, already once, with Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1952, Egyptian colonels took matters in their hands by staging a coup that changed the destiny of the Islamic world.

There is a broader issue, that democracy is not easy implant, and for this reason before trying to spread it, one should try to defend it where it exists, as there are many places in the world where democracy was suppressed.

This means that possibly America should have been more careful, less enthusiastic, as it is not certain that mass protests mean that the majority of Egyptians are against Mubarak's rule. But perhaps in present circumstances, even if America's democracy will be "beaten" in Egypt, its mistakes were unavoidable.

This is a further lesson for China. What would China do is it were number one and had to take an international stand in Egypt? Staying aloof would just be siding against the protests and thus against popular sentiments in the Muslim world, something that for all its prudence and realism could put China on the wrong side of history, something that Beijing could pay a dear price for sooner or later.

Now China can comfortably seat back, comfortably side with America and wait for developments to unfold just knowing that it will win anyway as things develop and it will learn a lot about how to be number one in a distant or not so distant future.

1. "Washington doomed to be caught in Mideast unrest," by Li Hongmei January 31, 2011.  (2011-02-17 Asia Times)


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