The Middle East’s “Black Swan”

January 29, 2011

By David Keyes, who is the director of The opinions expressed are his own.

Who would have believed that the immolation of a single fruit vendor would spark nation-wide protests and lead to the precipitous downfall of the Tunisian dictator who ruled for 23 years? Who could have imagined that these protests would spread almost immediately to Yemen, Jordan and Egypt? This has been the ultimate Black Swan, a term made famous by economist Nassim Taleb, meaning a cataclysmic event that was entirely unpredicted.

The past two weeks in the Arab world are unprecedented in recent history. Hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets protesting corruption and dictatorship. When Ben Ali was forced from power, Arabs throughout the region looked at each other and said collectively “Why not our dictator too?”

For three decades, Egyptians have been subjected to repression and marginalization. The country is dysfunctional, impoverished and highly illiterate. Fear permeates daily life. While staying in an Islamist slum in Cairo in 2006, I began to talk politics with an Egyptian friend. He immediately silenced me saying “il hitan liha withan” — “the walls have ears.”

Moments ago, President of Egypt Hosni Mubarak spoke publicly for the first time since the protests and said he would replace the government. He tried to appear as an ally of the Egyptian people claiming he understood their suffering. Few Egyptians will be convinced, and certainly not bloggers like Kareem Amer who spent the last four years in prison for criticizing Mubarak.

In 2009, Mubarak visited the White House and President Obama called him a “friend of the United States” who was working to “advance the interest of peace and prosperity around the world.” Kareem Amer asked me how peace and prosperity were advanced by his four year imprisonment. This echoes the sentiment of so many Egyptian dissidents who see a wide gap between Washington’s rhetoric and action. Just days ago, for example, Vice President Joseph Biden said he would not call Mubarak a “dictator.” Ordinary Egyptians who have been ruled by a single man with no vice president for three decades know better.

The Egyptian regime has long said that it alone can prevent the rise of radical Islamists to power. But Kareem Amer sees a direct link between lack of human rights and the empowerment of extremists. “The primary driver of [Egypt’s] radicalism, and what most increases their numbers, is the absence of freedom — social freedom, political freedom, freedom of speech” he said.

Precisely one year ago, I asked one of Egypt’s leading bloggers if crackdowns on Internet activists made them more afraid. She replied”No! The opposite always happens. When someone deprives you of something, you want it more.” Kareem Amer’s imprisonment actually “increased the number of bloggers not decreased it! The more activists jailed, the more new activists appear.”

In November 2010, Egypt’s finance minister boasted that in addition to press freedom, “There is also Internet freedom; Google searches are unfettered.” Today, Mubarak has completely shut down the Internet. This can only mean that the regime is fearful and deeply insecure.

After three decades of a repressive and corrupt dictatorship, the Egyptian people have simply had enough.


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One needs to remember that the most undemocratic regimes in the world have been propped up by those who claim they are the most democratic. Irony or hypocrisy? Obama, Cameron and the like (including their predecessors) are directly responsible for the atrocities committed by these dictators and now they are all trying to say they are with the people of Tunisia and Egypt. Liars!

American and British politicians are not to be trusted! Right now they are collaborating how they can ensure that indirectly they remain in power. Let the people continue to protest until they achieve real change.

Posted by SaeedK | Report as abusive

The premise that the events in Egypt and Yemen were unforeseen by the United States reveals a breathtaking degree of naiveté. Having spent time in both countries, I can assure you that considerable time and effort has been and continues to be spent by the State Department, USAID and other agencies in strengthening government and non-government institutions and attempting to make them more responsive to the needs of citizens in both countries.

In Egypt there was obviously room for maneuver, but in Yemen the limits of American attempts to reverse long-term negative trends are writ large. It could be argued that Egypt, with its linguistic and cultural ties and a history of military interventionism, has exercised greater positive impacts on Yemen (or at least the YAR) than the United States during certain periods of Yemen’s recent history. As the Egyptian example in Yemen shows, there are limits to military and civilian intervention.

Egypt’s long slide into crisis, while painfully obvious to Americans in that country, could ultimately only be corrected by the Egyptians themselves. Conversely, Egyptian and American efforts in Yemen did not end the General War. It was ended by the same elements who now stand ready to reignite it.

Posted by AnthonyMitchell | Report as abusive

The U.S. says it supports Democracy in the whole World.
Obama is supposed to be an idealist. Why has he turned into pragmatist?
He thinks, if he supports the Egyptian people, all the people in the middle east will run into the streets wanting democracy. What is wrong with that? All Americans support that!!! Democracies want peace not war, what a beautiful world that would be. This is a new world, the age of the internet, globalization!

Posted by altruistic | Report as abusive

According to the book “The Black Swan”, folks in the old world would say something like: “I’ll believe this or that when I see a black swan. The thinking then was there is no such bird as a black swan. With the discovery of Australia, “black swans” were found there in abundance. Let’s hope, for our economic sake, this rebellion thing doesn’t spread to the oil fields less we suddenly find a barrel of crude at, say, $400.00 and counting.

Posted by jimbee | Report as abusive

I won’t pretend to speak for all of anywhere. But around here, freedom must be fought for and defended. We believe what we do for others to gain or maintain freedom is right regardless of what intentions the world attaches to our support of the Marcos or the Mubaraks. The other choices are yours. Don’t take petro dollars or yuan. No democracy is perfect but because obviously no one better has stepped forward here, we are.

Posted by pHenry | Report as abusive

I have been to Cairo and felt like in Near East “1984”. In the same time I can presume that it is one of the most democratic countries in the Muslim world. Attempts to judge the current situation in Egypt like it should be the same democracy like Finland is strange and even dangerous. The change of the power in Egypt may be very painful for most of the Egyptians. I saw pictures of Naser in the hands of some demonstrators. God save Egypt!

Posted by qwerty17 | Report as abusive

Obama and company; politicians, liars and the like – exposed again.

They finance dictatorship in Egypt and criticize the lack of human rights in China.

All in the name of commercial benefits. U.S. is run by big business. They want to control the situation in the Middle East for the oil profits; simple.

Iran and Saddam Hussein don’t kowtow to the U.S. So the U.S. make them look ugly. Actually, the U.S. should look in the mirror.

Did you read the article that the U.S. orchestrated 9/11 and paid Laden to become a star? With the prowess of the U.S., they cannot catch a bearded middle-aged man? Think.

Posted by doctorjay317 | Report as abusive

Each twitter brings shivers down the backs of tyrants throughout the Arab world. Damascus, Tehran, Amman and possibly Riyadh may get a little of what they see marching across Africa. The Islamist just wish they could take the credit. People get a taste of political freedom and they’ll blend it with religious freedoms. The west may not like the final recipe but the cake is already in the oven. But for me, Israel defending Mubarak simply out of selfish interest takes the cake. Maybe the U.S. should reset the bribe for peace quotient. A billion here or there and we have a much better set of friends anyway. Which black swan peddler predicts democracy will surround Israel and they’ll defend themselves?

Posted by pHenry | Report as abusive

Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

Winston Churchill

Posted by Sinbad1 | Report as abusive