Le Québécois Libre, February 15, 2011, No 286.
On December 17, 2010, street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi doused himself in fuel and set himself on fire in front of a government building in the remote Tunisian village of Sidi Bouzid. Not since the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand has a single death changed the course of history so dramatically. Bouazizi’s act of despair – the result of one humiliation too many at the hands of local police – unleashed a tsunami of pan-Arab rage that has now swept away Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his erstwhile Egyptian counterpart Hosni Mubarak… as other regional autocrats tremble.
Neither Tunisia nor Egypt is set to become a “night-watchman state,” and even a liberal, Western-style democracy – if it ever comes – is at best years away. But these revolutions are certainly an inspiring step in the right direction. From a libertarian perspective, so much of the events surrounding them reinforce our beliefs that state action is harmful and that individuals can govern their affairs without coercive leadership. While focusing on these narrow aspects hardly does justice to the courageous accomplishments of the demonstrators, they shed light on the disastrous consequences of statism and the resilience of human ingenuity.
I will not dwell on the abominable state of civil rights under the pre-revolutionary regimes. Suffice it to say that while marketing their countries as sunny tourist playgrounds, both Ben Ali and Mubarak built exceptionally vicious police states that were among the most repressive on the globe. Who can dispute the wickedness of those systems? Who can fail to grasp the role that they played in inciting public anger?
Let My People Work
A less obvious point is the role that limits on economic freedom played in triggering the demonstrations. Economic interventionism played a role from the very beginning of these protests and was a major source of the public anger that fuelled them.
Mohamed Bouazizi supported his mother, stepfather and five siblings by selling fruits and vegetables in his local market – when he could. Harassment by the police was a constant, whether in the form of soliciting a bribe, confiscating his merchandise and scales, or imposing fines for operating without a permit. Six months before his suicide, he was fined two months’ worth of earnings. The last straw was yet another police seizure of his means of earning a livelihood, which ended with him being spat on and slapped. The state had robbed him of the dignity of earning an honest living. Bouazizi’s plight was typical of a region where government policy sometimes appears designed to inhibit economic activity.
While denying the masses the right to work, the Arab state grants economic privileges – essentially, licenses to steal – to a select few. Tunisians knew the Trabelsi clan – Ben Ali’s in-laws – simply as “The Family.” A Wikileaked diplomatic cable explained, “Whether it’s cash, services, land, property ... Ben Ali’s family is rumoured to covet it and reportedly gets what it wants.” Such was their rapaciousness that local investors, fearful of being fleeced, would forego opportunities, “keeping domestic investment rates low and unemployment high.” Of course, the regime’s thuggery was hardly limited to the Trabelsis. Similarly, an investigation into Mubarak’s corruption charged that it was “routine” for businesses to be forced to give his sons a 20% to 50% cut simply to open shop. His family’s wealth is said to be in the billions.
The Tunisian and Egyptian kleptocracies simultaneously crushed the economic hopes of their citizens while giving free reign to thieves in suits. There was a price to pay, in the form of a weaker economy and, most crucially, seething popular resentment.
The day after Ben Ali fled in disgrace, French President Nicolas Sarkozy released a statement asserting that France’s policy was based on two constants: non-interference in the internal affairs of sovereign countries and support for democracy and liberty. Hours after Mubarak’s resignation, US President Barack Obama offered to help Egyptians “pursue a credible transition to a democracy.” While both declarations are positive, leaders with a better-developed sense of shame might have hesitated before making such lofty pronouncements. Since the two dictators seized power, the US and France have been among the staunchest allies of their regimes.
Despite Tunisian independence in 1957 and Ben Ali’s palace coup 30 years later, relations between Paris and Tunis remained close. Then-French President François Mitterrand’s pledge to tie aid to human rights did not prevent hundreds of millions of francs from flowing to Tunis in 1994. A year later, President Jacques Chirac increased the figure to over one billion. He acclaimed Ben Ali’s progress on the path to democracy, while his successor, Sarkozy, claimed that people were too “harsh” on Tunisia, which was advancing “openness and tolerance” as the “space of liberties” expanded.
In the final days, Paris did its utmost to revive the dying regime: three days before Ben Ali’s flight, France’s foreign minister said that France’s “world-renowned security forces” stood ready to help end the violence. The next day, the government authorized a shipment of tear gas grenades to re-supply the Tunisian police.
But the closeness of the Franco-Tunisian relationship paled in comparison to the tight, decades-old embrace between Washington and Cairo. Since the 1979 peace treaty with Israel, the US has given an average of about $2 billion in annual aid to the Egyptian government, most of it for military assistance. Mubarak’s regime was a key component of the American program of secret renditions. As a former CIA agent put it, “If you want someone to disappear – never to see them again – you send them to Egypt.”
As did France, the US administration had difficulty letting go of its long-time ally even as the end neared. When the protests began, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton labeled Mubarak’s government “stable” and ventured that it was “looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people.” Days later, Vice-President Joe Biden stated that “I would not refer to [Mubarak] as a dictator” – on the bizarre grounds that he had helped advance US foreign policy.
The US, France and other foreign countries should not be blamed for the existence and endurance of the two dictatorships. Tyrants such as Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi have held power for decades without the kind of foreign patrons that Ben Ali or Mubarak could rely on. But the support that they received certainly did not help, and makes it less likely that they will look to our liberal democracies as a model – and should be recalled by anyone who asks the age-old question, “Why do they hate us?”
We’ll Do it Ourselves
While there are many lessons about the ills of government, these protests brought many positive examples of spontaneous organization – not just without state assistance but despite its active and violent hindrance. This section focuses on Egypt, since although this phenomenon was seen in Tunisia, the best-documented cases were along the Nile – where, incidentally, the protests emerged with no leader guiding the masses.
No Police? No Problem.
As the Egyptian protests spread, the police vanished from the streets. Civilians responded by directing traffic themselves and creating “ad-hoc, self-appointed groups” to provide security through checkpoints. They became increasingly sophisticated, developing a pass system to allow cars to bypass checkpoints ahead. While the system certainly had the potential for violence, the chief danger seemed to be for journalists, due to state media blaming the disorder on a foreign conspiracy. The regime exacerbated the problem further by releasing thousands of prison inmates and ordering plain-clothed police to instigate violence. By most reports, and especially under the circumstances, the “popular committee” system functioned quite smoothly.
The Republic of Tahrir
As impressive as the neighbourhood watch system was, the Egyptian revolution included one of the most incredible cases of spontaneous order in memory: the liberation from state control of Midan Tahrir – which, conveniently, means “Liberation Square.”
As Cairo’s main square, Tahrir was where protestors converged on the very first day of protests, camping overnight despite the regime’s determination to stop them. It quickly became the revolution’s epicentre, where the protests exploded on the “Friday of Anger.” Days later, it became the scene of violence as the regime set loose paid thugs and plain-clothed police on the protestors, some riding horses and camels. That night, it turned into a literal battlefield, as the regime’s thugs unleashed a hellish combination of bullets, Molotov cocktails and snipers to crush the uprising. Only through the sheer bravery and courage of people willing to die for their freedom was the revolution saved. And it was in Tahrir that countless Egyptians expressed their delirium when the regime finally fell.
Early in the protests, the state effectively abandoned the square to the protestors. In response, the demonstrators built the “Republic of Tahrir.” It soon acquired signs and pathways, free access to bathrooms within and around the square, a network of medical clinics, a pharmacy, a barber, cell phone charging stations, a prison for pro-Mubarak infiltrators, a litter crew, video screens, trash-sorting facilities, food vendors (and handouts for those in need), a newspaper, a radio station, a lost-and-found – in sum, all sorts of amenities, including some that allegedly only the state can provide. Tahrir hosted a wedding and Sunday mass. The security of the inhabitants was assured by a network of security checkpoints ringing its perimeter. When attacked, they were alerted by a warning system and protected by barricades. One protestor claimed that the square was “the most organized I've ever seen anywhere in Cairo.”
The square’s occupants formed their “republic” not only without state assistance but while their government was actively undermining and even trying to kill them! This revolution will leave many with the memory of tens of thousands of people occupying a public space and organizing themselves without coercion or guidance. Perhaps some might even begin to ask whether central planning is required for us to run our own lives.
In the Arab world’s first two popular revolutions, the state disgraced itself while the people showed what free human beings are capable of when left to their own devices. The future looks bright, as Tunisians and Egyptians blaze a path away from tyranny and despotism.
Some have expressed concern over what might happen if those countries embrace democracy. While we cannot say for certain what will replace the fallen regimes, I give the last word to a man not known for excessive pro-Arab or Muslim bias: Israeli Likud Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.