29 January 2011

Mumbling While Cairo Burns

Hosni Mubarek — who is what post-Second-Thirty-Years'-War westerners think of as a "third-world strongman" — finally addressed the Egyptian people last night. In Modern Standard Arabic, not Egyptian dialect. Imagine, for a moment, that Obama had given the State of the Union address in formal Queen's English (treating most collective nouns as plural — "the company are" rather than "the company is" — and so on)... and that there was an even greater division in the common language called "English" than appears in ordinary public discourse. Imagine, for a moment, Hugo Chávez lapsing into the classical Spanish of Don Quixote while giving yet another fiery anti-American address at some OAS conference. Now think back, for a moment, to what Mubarek did... and keep in mind "Johnson"'s mistaken embellishment. Mubarek's speech was not aimed entirely at the Egyptian people, even though it was broadcast to them. It was also aimed at the rest of the Arab world, and to a lesser extent the world outside the Middle East that — when it is familiar with Arabic at all — knows only Modern Standard Arabic.1

That leads to an interesting inference from Mubarek's speech, and some further musings in general on the situation in Egypt (and elsewhere). Were I placing bets — and I don't, not when lives are on the line — I would bet that at least part of Mubarek's motivation for both the speech and the manner in which he gave it were to convince another Arab power (perhaps Saudi Arabia, perhaps somewhere else) to grant him asylum if he needs to flee Egypt. And by "convince another Arab power," I mean the polity there, not just the formal leaders. By making at least some of the right noises, he is laying the ground for believing that granting him asylum would not be just giving him a power base for a return strike, or for destablizing their own (less than democratic) regime.

But what this really points out — and the Western powers have not been helping, at all, over the past six decades — is that dictators are people too, with families and friends that they want to keep safe. Imagine, for a moment, that Mubarek capitulates and relinquishes power at daybreak next Friday. What guarantees do he, and his family, and his friends, have against retribution? The Romanians didn't execute just former dicator Nicolai Ceauşescu, but his wife too (a thoroughly repulsive individual from all accounts), and — less publicly — a number of other family members over the succeeding years. The continuing proceedings against Radovan Karadžić, however well-founded they are in fact and in principle, undoubtedly frighten dictators who fear being tried by their enemies in courts they do not control (and probably cannot understand) for actions that they continue to believe were justified, necessary, and appropriate.

Perhaps the way forward is some foreign aid from elsewhere... such as South Africa. Although the truth-and-reconciliation process has been imperfect, it has done quite well at preventing attainder, whether by legislative act or otherwise. In short, dictators are people too, and their personal concerns have to be recognized (even if reviled in private) to give them the personal security to exit gracefully. That, in the end, is the point of democracy: That the loser of an election is not going to be thrown in jail merely for losing, and that his/her family won't be either. Even though Fox News hasn't figured that out yet, it is the entire point of all of those freedoms that President Obama mentioned last night: That nations, peoples, and individuals are strengthened by engaging with (and hopefully learning from) dissent, not by suppressing it. The obvious difficulty that Mubarek faces is the very high probability that if he leaves power he, and his family, and his friends, will at best be tried in hostile courts... and will be more probably killed.

I do not defend Mubarek's continued hold on office; I have never been a fan of the "yes, he's a dictatorial bastard, but he's our dictatorial bastard" brand of foreign policy that has been popular in the West since colonialism began disintegrating. I am only suggesting that understanding his personal stakes helps explain why he has not yet exited, pursued by a bear... or an eagle.

  1. All of that noted, Egypt is also the home of Modern Standard Arabic — the place where it was, in fact, developed. Although the Egyptian dialect is still more distinct from MSA than, say, American English is from the Queen's English, it is not nearly so distinct as "Johnson" mistakenly analogizes — it is nowhere near the Latin/Spanish comparison. Thus, Mubarek's decision to use MSA did not exclude the Egyptian people from his audience in the same way that an address by Hugo Chávez in Latin would exclude the Venezualan populace.