The Middle East’s “Black Swan”
By David Keyes, who is the director of CyberDissidents.org. 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.