Theology of the Arab Spring

A few thoughts arise from whyiamnot's latest.

The first is to restate the huge benefits that Western democratic governments get from the illusion that the people are actually in control. People can go out in the street, change politicians, and think they've achieved something, while at the same time accepting that the establishment will carry on ruling with a passivity and fatalism that is the envy of every generalissimo-turned-president-for-life.

But it is the comparison with the demonstrations of the "Arab Spring" which really got me thinking.

There are two kinds of mob, and at first it's sometimes hard to tell which kind one is.

First is the real revolutionary mob. It is a simple fact that if a large number of people are allowed to congregate in a capital city, they can physically overthrow the government. The government is, after all, right there. All they have to do is break the doors down and take it.

The second kind are demonstrators. If the same number of people just wave banners, they can cause traffic delays, but that's about it. They can only get rid of the government if they choose to, by becoming the first kind. That can happen, because just demonstrating does prove that the government hasn't got the will to stop them, and that indicates that a revolution is possible where previously it was assumed not to be. That was largely the mechanism in Eastern Europe twenty-five years ago. In some cases the mob actually happened (Romania), in most as far as I recall the proof that it was possible was enough for the regime to quit before any actual lynchings started.

In a state ruled by fear, then, the fact of a mob in the street is the end. Everyone knows that, if allowed, the mob will remove the government, so proving it to be possible makes it inevitable. If the state has wider support, though, a demonstration can be a bluff. Mubarrak seemed quite willing to just let the demonstrators hang about Tahir Square, and they showed no signs of actually taking advantage of their position.

They won anyway though. That is because they were playing a different game altogether. Their banners were not for Egyptians, either in their houses, in the army, or in the ministries. The banners were in English -- they were for Americans to read.

The democratic religion says that all governments everywhere ought to be subject to the will of the people. Given a clear demonstration that the people oppose a government, democrats have a religious duty to assist them, even if they themselves actually like the government in question.

The actions of the US and EU in Egypt and Libya only make the slightest bit of sense when seen as the fulfilling of an unwelcome religious obligation. Mubarrak was shoved out easily enough, but Gadaffi required a bit more action. However, it is obvious that nobody's heart is really in Libyan regime change. Reluctantly, a few planes were flown over, a few missiles shot off. The Americans have apparently now done their bit and gone home. There was never a plan for victory, because there was never a desire for victory, only a duty to "help", fulfilled with the same enthusiasm as dropping a fiver into the collection plate at the end of the service.

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