Monthly Archive for February, 2011

Thoughts on Wisconsin

To me, there are two tip-offs that Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s recent union busting crusade isn’t completely on the level. First is his insistence on blaming collective bargaining rights for his state’s budget mess.

Governor Walker says his proposals are all about fiscal necessity. “We’re broke,” he declared in a press conference last week. “Like nearly every state across the country, we don’t have any more money.” But state workers have already agreed to accept Walker’s demands for them to contribute more to their health insurance and pension systems to help close the $3.3 billion deficit. Walker has refused these concessions, and is maintaining his insistence on curtailing collective bargaining rights. Is this just good fiscal probity on his part?

Well there does seem to be some positive association between a state’s budget deficit and the percentage of public workers in unions. But there is no correlation between state deficit and the existence or absense of public-sector collective bargaining rights. The states have all different kinds of collective bargaining policies for public workers, but as Walker himself rightly notes, all states are in some form of a major financial mess.

If it’s not some spontaneous surge in nefarious collective bargaining activity that has bankrupted the states, what other post-2008 economic news could account for the shortfalls? Hmm, let’s think back. Oh yes, plummeting state revenues as a result of the deepest recession in 80 years! Housing sector crashes, unemployment spikes, demand for state services increases sharply, income and sales tax revenue plummets since people aren’t working or buying anything; states can’t deficit-spend, federal government won’t help much. Voilà, financial crisis! It somehow all fits together without Gov. Walker’s magic collective-bargaining glue.

States certainly were not alone in failing to predict or plan against such a historic downturn. And previous state governments were no doubt reckless in assuming unrealistic rates of return in their pension funds. But contrary to the prevailing narrative, the pension shortfalls aren’t really so bad, and are almost entirely the result of the stock market crash. And apart from recession effects, as is true in every other sector of the U.S. economy, it is not retirement benefit schemes (state pensions or Social Security) but health care spending growth that is the main driver of long-term public- and private-sector fiscal woes. But thinking up solutions to get health care spending growth under control is hard. Much easier to just blame the greedy public workers and their preference for freely associating and assembling with one another.

Though of course, not all public workers. No, the governor wants us to believe it is presence of certain collective bargaining rights for certain public-sector workers that constitutes a big chunk of the blame for his budget problems.

This leads to the next hint that there is more political grandstanding than substance in the governor’s gambit: his decision to exempt police and firefighters from all of the proposed changes. These sectors will see no curtailing of their collective bargaining rights. The most common argument I’ve seen for this is some variation on the theme that since public safety employees put their lives in danger, they should be treated better than other public workers (such as teachers’ unions, towards whom the governor seems to harbor a particular antipathy) who toil in less dangerous sectors. Governor Walker has endorsed a version of this, saying on Meet the Press that he exempted police and fire fighters not as a “value judgement” on teachers, but because a police or fire fighter strike for even a day would endanger public safety. I don’t think these arguments hold up.

First, Wisconsin’s police and firefighter unions have come out in solidarity against Walker’s attempt to curtail the bargaining rights of other workers.

Second, if he is so worried about a police or fire fighter strike shouldn’t he want to pare back, rather than preserve, their rights to act and bargain collectively? If you fear a strike, it seems bizarre to insist on making them the most powerful unions in the state. And isn’t it an unfair attack on the character of Wisconsin’s law enforcement and fire fighters to imply they would reflexively endanger the public safety by striking? Maybe they are not as shallow and parochial as Gov. Walker thinks?

Here is my main problem with Walker’s logic. Gov. Walker thinks collective bargaining for cops is a necessary benefit that helps ensure steady recruitment and retention of good people; but collective bargaining for teachers is a force for ill that drains the public purse and leads to the retention of bad people. It would take some amazing grand theory to explain the different mechanisms across the different sectors. I would argue that in most places a good-teacher shortage is a much more pressing problem than a good-cop shortage. If collective bargaining is such a valuable tool to stave off strikes and shortages, why not deploy it universally? If it’s because Gov. Walker cares less about teacher strikes and shortages than he does about police strikes and shortages, how on earth is that not a values judgment?

My point is, I have no idea if public collective bargaining power is a net good or a net bad for society. But I know it does not cause state budget crises and it does not cause global recessions. And whatever its effect, I think it works in the same way across different sectors. Some public sectors are more dangerous and some are more important and higher-skill. We presumably need good quality people in all of them. Fiddling with collective bargaining rights in one or the other sector doesn’t make sense other than as a political play or an expression of ideological animus.

I think one factor at play in this case is an extension of Republican dogma’s fetish with “toughness” and “strength,” and the mad-lib style of politics that leads Republicans to identify tough cool things like fighting crime or fires as “conservative,” and weak things like PBS and clean energy as liberal and elite, and therefore worthy of opprobrium. Culture war nonsense, in other words, and in Wisconsin it is obscuring more problems than it is solving.

Shutdown [Updated]

I think a federal government shutdown is now more likely than not:

House Republicans told Senate Democrats on Wednesday that they would agree to a temporary spending bill to avert a government shutdown next week only if the measure began instituting House-passed cuts on a pro-rated basis. […]

Democratic aides said the short-term proposal was likely to be deemed unacceptable since it simply reflected a staggered version of the $61 billion in cuts approved by the House on Saturday in a proposal Senate Democrats already oppose.

As Matt Yglesias notes, this is basically a non-offer offer by Republicans. The power dynamics here portend bad things. Boehner has to cut something—anything!—to appease his restive caucus of  Laffer-curve obsessives who are sure that they have a mandate to run the country now. And the White House and Senate Democrats can’t possibly just concede that the country is now run by a restive caucus of Laffer-curve obsessives. So who backs down?

Not President Bartlet, that’s for sure: 

UPDATE: At the New Republic Jonathan Bernstein has a nice piece on the details of why a shutdown now seems inevitable. Unlike President Bartlet above who just had to contend with negotiating an across-the-board percentage cut, the bill passed by Boehner’s Republicans has all kinds of provocative amendments attached, spelling out specific injunctions on a host of controversial issues: 

Indeed, instead of just raising or lowering spending levels for federal agencies, these amendments prohibit the government from using any funds to carry out laws that House Republicans don’t like. So, for example, the funding bill now tells the EPA that it cannot regulate greenhouse gases; it tells the FCC that it may not implement net-neutrality regulations; it cuts funding from Planned Parenthood; and, perhaps most critically, it blocks money needed to carry out health care reform. […]

Boehner had the chance to make this battle about just spending levels. In that case, a shutdown could still have happened. But, instead, the speaker allowed the fight to become about so many policy issues that it’s hard to keep track of them all. He can neither win nor abandon the amendments he let pass, meaning an ugly shutdown is all but certain.

Even if House Republicans wanted to reverse all their public committments and reach a deal, the time it would take Senate Democrats to disentangle and excise all the stuff they clearly can’t abide (defunding health reform?) all but ensures some shutdown time. But of course there’s absolutely no sign that Boehner can corral his members into compromise so it could be even worse than that. 

On Dictators and Awful PR

Joshua Tucker at the Monkey Cage asks a good question: Why do public protests bring down regimes?

The key to answer this question, I think, is to understand the basic nature of authoritarian rule. While the news media focus on "the dictator", almost all authoritarian regimes are really coalitions involving a range of players with different resources, including incumbent politicians but also other elites like businessmen, bureaucrats, leaders of mass organizations like labor unions and political parties, and, of course, specialists in coercion like the military or the security forces. These elites are pivotal in deciding the fate of the regime and as long as they continue to ally themselves with the incumbent leadership, the regime is likely to remain stable. By contrast, when these elites split and some defect and decide to throw in their lot with the opposition, then the incumbents are in danger.

So where do protests come in? The problem is that in authoritarian regimes there are few sources of reliable information that can help these pivotal elites decide whom to back. Restrictions on media freedom and civil and political rights limit the amount and quality of information that is available on both the incumbents and the opposition. Moreover, the powerful incentives to pay lip service to incumbent rulers make it hard to know what to make of what information there is. Rumor and innuendo thus play a huge role in all authoritarian regimes.

In this context, protests are excellent opportunities for communication.

Yes, an information environment dominated by overt propaganda, rumor, and conspiracy makes it hard for the masses and elites alike to know what the hell is really going on. Also, as I noted last week, there is so much preference falsification in these closed or semi-closed societies, with people in every strata of society having different signals of allegiance they need to present to their peers and their superiors. Everyone is like Vaclav Havel’s iconic greengrocer; when nobody can speak freely daily life becomes a sort of dramatic production with everyone consumed by overt and covert affiliation signaling in an attempt to avoid all sorts of unpleasantness.

Here’s another reason protests take down long-time autocracies: Dictators are terrible public leaders.

In one of the most bizarre public presentations I’ve ever seen, Libyan president Muammar Qaddafi just gave a largely incoherent 90-minute speech from what appeared to be the basement of a bombed out meth lab (actually a bombed out palace dating from Reagan’s 1986 attack).

He shouted most of it, and he managed to make reference to the Branch Davidians, Tiananmen Square, Boris Yeltsin, and Fallujah. He drifted in and out of the center of the frame, often gazing off-camera. There were long pauses, several changes of eye glasses, frequent awkward adjusting of his head covering and clothing, a recitation from his Green Book, and a random guy wandering behind him every so often. The poor English translator made exasperated audible sighs when he couldn’t understand what the hell Qaddafi was getting at, which was often.

This followed yesterday’s 22-second Qaddafi speech delivered from inside a small vehicle, holding a large umbrella while the microphone is thrust in his face by an aide. Qaddafi’s son Saif also gave a speech yesterday, a disdainful and defiant affair from what looked like a high school AV room from 1982:

     

There were similar visual gaffes and tone-deaf inanities in the speeches of Hosni Mubarak and Ben Ali before they cleared out (though Qaddafi is clearly occupying his own universe in this regard). What is wrong with these people? Why can’t they present information in a normal fashion? Dan Drezner takes a crack at it:

Indeed, it is striking how utterly incompetent leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya have been at managing their media message.  Speeches are announced, then never delivered on time, and then delivered with production values that woulds embarrass a public access channel in the U.S….

[M]ethinks that one problem is that most of these leaders have simply fallen out of practice (if they were ever in practice) at personally using the media to assuage discontent.  I’ve been on enough shows on enough different media platforms to appreciate that there is an art, or at least a tradecraft, to presenting a convincing message in the mediasphere.  Authoritarian leaders in the Middle East are quite adept at playing internal factions off one another.  That’s a different skill set than trying to craft a coherent and compelling media message to calm street protestors no longer intimidated by internal security forces. 

[S]tate media outlets…excel at producing tame, regime-friendly pablum during quiescent periods, but now they’re operating in unknown territory. 

In democracies we often roll our eyes at the poll-driven, focus-grouped pandering that makes up so much of our regular political interaction. Likewise we recognize political campaigns as largely exercises in artifice, message control, media manipulation, and delicate image crafting. Though the trick is that it can never seem like you are poll-driven, or pandering, or engaging in artificial myth-making. You must come off as genuine, above politics, humble, and modest, while at the same time make a case for why you alone deserve to be assigned enormous political authority and stature. Call it cynical if you like, but it is a tremendous skill to pull off this balance.

Pursuading large numbers of actual human beings to vote for you, or to support your policy initiatives, is difficult. It’s a lot easier to stuff ballot boxes and ban anyone from disagreeing with you in public. But if you do that long enough your ability to craft pursuasive public arguments will atrophy. There is indeed a tradecraft involved in presenting information in different media environments which demand various oratory techniques, knowing that you will be held accountable if you mess things up. Take a glance at old Colonel Qaddafi again. That’s what failure looks like.

Our best politicians are expert communicators, and our most beloved leaders are those who spoke well and true to us. We memorialize their words in lapidary grandeur and make our children learn the lines. For all the madness of the election process gauntlet, and all the lamentable aspects of the permanent campaign style of modern politics, it at least demands a refinement of those skills and a deep respect for their central place in democratic civic life, and we should be very glad for it.

Democracy Promotion After Egypt

In the last few weeks Egypt has transformed from an autocracy to a—well let’s be extra hopeful today and take the military at its word—to a nascent democracy. The U.S. had extrememly little to do with this transformation. There were a few exogenous and unpredicable sparks, the people rose up, a critical mass was mysteriously reached, the security forces refused to murder civilians, and the army pushed Mubarak out and took over. Even if the U.S. had some influence on the Egyptian military’s calculus, or on Mubarak’s relative restraint, our role was hardly dispositive, and only stemmed from circumstances that caught us, and everyone else, completely by surprise. All the Obama administration could do was position itself on the right side of this thing, and pick a winner before it was clear who the winner would be. By all non-crazy accounts (here’s a crazy one), they did it as well as could be expected, emerging from this (so far!) without having made any new enemies among Egypt’s new stakeholders.

This allows us to consider our prevailing models for democratic change and America’s role in that change.

For decades there have been innumerable reports and symposia and panel discussions and congressional testimonies in which experts have opined on the best way for the U.S. to help “bring about” the transformation that it took the Egyptian people eighteen days to accomplish by themselves. Should we pressure dictators in private or shame them in public? Should we condition any aid we give them on concrete political reforms? What should we fund? Who should we train? And will any of it actually lead to a genuine democratic opening?

The point is that we know very little, almost nothing, about how to help usher in the transition from authoritarianism to democracy. We have pumped millions upon millions into “democracy promotion” measures in Egypt over the years, funding and training non-governmental organizations and civil society groups and elections monitors. But of course Mubarak is not an idiot, and so he wasn’t going to allow us to come in and train people to essentially overthrow him. So while we could fund domestic NGOs in Egypt, we could rarely do so directly; all the money had to go through Mubarak; and the laws governing the formation and activity of NGOs were severely repressive. Likewise, we could teach people best practices in running elections, but of course in Egypt all the election outcomes were assured ahead of time. And we could talk about how to organize political parties, but Egypt was a de facto one-party state, and it was essentially illegal to form a viable opposition party. And so on.

Democracy experts have known all along that the inhospitable environment for democracy promotion measures meant that they were essentially useless. Everyone knows the game these dictators play to defuse public anger and to placate querulous Western patrons: they implement cosmetic liberal reforms which are ultimately toothless and which do absolutely nothing to change the underlying structure of political power in the country. It’s true that many liberalizing reforms can lead to spectacular improvements in people’s lives (women’s rights, family law reform, education reform), but these must be pushed and encouraged for their own sake, not because they’ll ever “lead” to the genuine changing of hands of political power. In fact many Arab authoritarians prefer these sorts of substantive reforms, since they are tangible enough to please or co-opt many of their aggrieved citizens, and they mollify the West because they are indelibly associated with real, actual democracy without having any causal relationship to real, actual democratic change.

And so the great tautology remains: Arab countries are authoritarian because they have authoritarian leaders. If the leaders only stopped being so damned dictatory, the countries wouldn’t be authoritarian anymore! But of course the reforms that actually dislodge political power from the hands of the dictator—what Marc Lynch calls “bill of rights freedoms”—speech, assembly, association, press, judicial independence, rule of law—are the ones that dictators won’t touch since it would be them orchestrating their own obsolescence. Dictators don’t tend to do that willfully.

So where does that leave the U.S.? In an elegant Catch-22: We are only allowed to provide democracy assistance in areas that can never bring about actual democracy.

So is it worth it? Many say yes; that, well, these ineffectual, play-acting measures on our part are still worth the effort. Even if they don’t get us anywhere closer to actual democratic reform, they at least begin to inculcate the outlines and forms and ethics of basic democratic practice, sort of, and they also show the people that the U.S. cares, sort of. I do agree with this view. The basic point is that the U.S. is incapable of being neutral on these issues. Like it or not we are deeply enmeshed historically, politically, and economically in the affairs of the people and regimes in the region. Isolationism contains the same fatal fallacy as passifism: doing nothing doesn’t mean nothing happens, it just means something else happens. This is particularly true for the world’s greatest economic and military power. We cannot avoid taking a side. If we do nothing, we are seen, rightly, as complicit in the oppressive status quo. If we act on the margins, or even play-act, maybe it helps, maybe not. It is true that we are sometimes loathed for appearing to meddle in other’s internal affairs. But we are doubly loathed for hypocrisy, for preaching universal democratic values yet acting in a way that forsakes the people who need them most.

This is not a very satisfying conclusion. We can’t do much to bring about democracy abroad, yet we can’t stop pretending that we can, and acting as if we were. Oh the travails of the lonely world superpower! Lucky for us, as Egyptians just showed, the people are endowed with more effective methods.

One final point. While we know very little about getting countries to cross the threshold from authoritarianism to democracy, we know very much about how to consolidate and robustify existing young democracies and keep them from failing. We know how to advise willing representative governments on writing awesome constitutions, on the separation of powers, on political party formation, how to bolster and train NGOs, how to encourage vibrant and participatory civil society.

There is a famous international relations tenet that says no democracy that has reached a per capita gdp level of $6000 has ever regressed back into authoritarianism. Egypt is at $6300. The U.S. should do every single thing asked of it to help the Egyptian military usher in this democratic change, and when the new government is seated, to help assure that the change is irreversible.

Pharaoh Falls

A MUBAR

Hosni Mubarak has resigned, and bloggers everywhere, this one included, have had to decide how to salvage whatever suddenly outdated Egypt post they were halfway though writing. Some have utterly and charmingly failed. I’m going for the impressive retrofit.

Daniel Larison has been challenging the prevailing optimistic pro-democracy narrative on Egypt, and I think his contrarian take is more useful than ever in the wake of Mubarak’s resignation, though I think he ultimately underemphasizes the awful damage wrought by the Mubarak regime, and the immense improvement-by-subtraction that has just occured.

But Larison’s questions are apt, which I paraphrase and update in light of today’s events: Will a precipitous political change go smoothly? The Army is now running the country: did we just witness a democratic revolution or a military coup? Pharaoh is gone, but would you take a bet that Egypt will be economically and politically stable in any reasonable time frame? Constitutional overhaul? The emergency laws? The rubber stamp parliament? A credible transitional government? Here’s Larison (remember he was writing yesterday):

What I am most interested in here is that everyone paying attention to these events give some serious thought to how representative of the Egyptian people the protesters are, how Egyptians perceive these protests, and the possible consequences of rapid political change.

If the protesters are actually unrepresentative, that makes a significant difference not only for how we understand what to expect in a democratic Egypt, but it also tells us how successful democratic reformers are liable to be. Austrian liberals made great strides in forcing their government to become a constitutional monarchy with a representative parliamentary system, but they represented a small minority of the population and their politics and their agenda were profoundly unpopular in rural areas and among the working class. As the franchise expanded, they were swamped by mass movements that were more representative of the population and were also strongly illiberal and anti-liberal. Should democracy ever come to Egypt, that process will happen all at once. The Ghad and Wafd parties will be buried under tidal waves of populist, Islamist, nationalist, and socialist sentiment. Perhaps Egypt will still be better off in the end as a result, but it does no one any good to overlook the potential pitfalls.

Well clearly now we know these protests were "representative" enough to cause the complete collapse of the regime; a regime structure that began not with Mubarak but with Nasser sixty years ago. Egyptians have experience with a constitutional order and respect for rule of law and an independent judiciary; and while we do not know the specific domestic policy preferences of each and every person now in Tahrir square, and while things can still end in the democratic rise of illiberal or anti-liberal forces, it is absolutely premature to make assertions about tidal waves burying this or that political strain. Egyptians want peace, opportunity, and dignity, and a constitutional arrangement that codifies this will keep any strain from "swamping" any other. It’s also worth noting that the military will have a large influence in both the transition and in any post-Mubarak regime, and the U.S. essentially owns the Egyptian military. Larison goes on:

It may be that the economic policies that would most benefit Egypt and most effectively address the economic grievances of the protesters would also be enormously unpopular and politically radioactive in a democratic Egypt….If most Egyptians see the protests as protests about economic conditions and unemployment, the main causes of instability in Egypt are not authoritarianism and repression as such, and Egypt will likely continue to suffer from political instability as long as these economic problems persist.

This is a good point. It’s true that even if this political transition goes uncommonly well, per capita income for Egyptians will not magically spike tomorrow, thereby allaying all of the people’s economic concerns and grievances. But what Larison misses is the extent to which the specific structure of Mubarak’s individual authoritarian rule has exacerbated every single economic woe plaguing the country.

I am not a macroeconomist and so I don’t really know what combination of monetary and fiscal policy has been lacking in Egypt thus far, and whose implementation will now inexorably rescue the country from its economic malaise. But I do know that thirty years of corruption, nepotism, cronyism, centralization, underinvestment in education and infrastructure, and a preoccupation with regime survival leading to overinvestment in internal security and military apparatus, has not been a very good recipe for economic vitality and efficiency. The underground economy in Egypt is almost as large as the private and public sector combined. And so to the extent that all of that ends, or at least gets severely mitigated, that’ll be a really great for the economic well-being of the people. Of course, improvements in education and infrastructure policy have long lag times before they manifest in GDP or median incomes, but the thirty-year neglect and mismanagement in these and other areas means there just isn’t room for any nostalgia on "realist" grounds for the regime of Hosni Mubarak, nor any pessimism on the occasion of his demise. 

And I say that an entrenched atmosphere of political repression and brutalization is one that cannot possibly marshall the full innovative and productive capacity of the citizenry. If the new constitutional order frees the citizenry from such repression and brutalization, which certainly seems likely, and restores a sense of agency and meritocratic opportunity, this will stop or at least slow the debilitating brain drain that has contributed so much to the economic stagnation. And perhaps is it not too rosy to think that a liberated Egypt will attract a wave of diaspora repatriation, and with it an influx of social and financial capital.

Back to the idea of Larison’s skepticism of a "representative" movement:

When the Green movement protested the election results in Iran, we were bombarded with commentary that expressed with certainty that the movement represented the Iranian people and that the Iranian government was tottering and gravely wounded. These were things that we Westerners wanted to believe, and so for the most part they went unchallenged. They also happened to be wrong.

Of course, just because a regime survives doesn’t mean the protest movement against it isn’t representative. I think that over 60% of Iran’s population is under thirty years old, and a vast majority of them do not want to live under a repressive sclerotic theocracy. So why did Egypt fall but not Iran? And why Egypt 2011, but not 2010, or 2005, even though the same economic and political problems persisted?

The idea of preference falsification explains a lot. It was articulated and popularized by economist and political scientist Timur Kuran in 1989. It says that societal opposition to a regime can be severely underestimated because people hide their true preferences for fear of social disapproval, or of violent reprisal. And if many people hide their discontent it makes it harder for others to express theirs. This is why all revolutions seem to "come out of nowhere" and why all repressive regimes seem stable up until the moment that they crumble. Once a critical mass of public disapproval is reached, other people’s calculations change as to whether the movement is more likely that not to succeed, and so they join in too. That’s how it took Egyptians 18 days to uproot a thirty-year autocracy.

I remember reading about small protests in central Cairo a few years ago. A few dozen or maybe a few hundred people, all young, would gather to protest economic or political conditions. They knew that the dreaded security forces would soon be by to break things up. They would yell to all the pedestrians around them and implore them to come join the protest and stand up for their rights and oppose the dictatorship. But these pedestrians would just put their heads down walk right by, leaving the protesters at the mercy of internal security, and heartbroken at their countrymen’s apathy. But preference falsification explains why those pedestrians walked by then, and why those same people joined the crowds in Tahrir after January 15.

The point is that that tiny group of ill-fated protesters was not in any way "unrepresentative" of the larger sentiments in Egyptian society, even though it certainly appeared that way at the time. We have no way of knowing now who has an eye toward "swamping" whom in Egypt (and you can dismiss any writer or analyst who mentions the Muslim Brotherhood today). In a government bounded by and responsive to a constitutional rule of law, nobody "swamps" anyone. Long live free Egypt.

The Butcher of Tahrir

At Foreign Policy, Scott Horton makes a good point:

So why is Mubarak trying to squeeze a few more months out of his three-decade career in office and avowing his intentions to stay in Egypt rather than packing for the Riviera? It may be because exile isn’t what it used to be; over the last 30 years, things have gotten increasingly difficult for dictators in flight. Successor regimes launch criminal probes; major efforts are mounted to identify assets that may have been stripped or looted by the autocrat, or more commonly, members of his immediate family. I witnessed this process myself, twice being asked by newly installed governments in Central Eurasia to advise them on asset recovery measures focusing on the deposed former leader and his family.

More menacingly, human rights lawyers and international prosecutors may take a close look at the tools the deposed dictator used to stay in power: Did he torture? Did he authorize the shooting of adversaries? Did he cause his enemies to "disappear"? Was there a mass crackdown that resulted in dozens or hundreds of deaths? A trip to The Hague or another tribunal might be in his future.

In this context Mubarak has a tremendous self-interest in hanging onto office through September and maintaining his veneer of legitimacy as president. Allow yourself to be run out of town, and you’re basically conceding the worst of the opposition’s accusations and grievances. Why flee if you don’t think you’ve anything to answer for? No, much better to stay on and orchestrate a heroic democratic "transition," implemented by a pliant parliament and overseen, after your graceful exit, by your trusty septuagenarian henchman. Anything to avoid a successor regime that will necessarily be comprised of a coalition of political actors whom you have spent the last thirty years harassing, intimidating, torturing, detaining, censoring.

So you go on television and assert that you have lived your whole life in service and sacrifice for the Egyptian people and you want reform as eagerly as they do, and that you just want to finish your term and die on Egyptian soil. This appeal to paternalistic nostalgia had an effect. Prominent Egyptian blogger Sandmonkey, who just today was beaten and arrested by police (in that order), his phone and equipment confiscated and his car vandalized, described the reaction of some friends and family to Mubarak’s speech:

Hell, some people and family members cried when they saw his speech. People felt sorry for him for failing to be our dictator for the rest of his life and inheriting us to his Son. It was an amalgam of Stockholm syndrome coupled with slave mentality in a malevolent combination that we never saw before.

As he goes on to say, as Mubarak tries to soften his image and coopt the opposition movement with these pitiful appeals, it’s most useful to remember, and reassert again and again, that he is foremost a murderer, a liar, a plunderer, a torturer of innocents. He is a first-ballot hall of fame dictator. Even today—day one of the great Mubarak reformation!—his thugs from the Interior Ministry are rounding up journalists and human rights activists, after a night in which they rained molotov cocktails down upon peaceful protesters. What’s in store in the coming seven months?

I’m not sure he realizes that however he leaves his office, whether he rides it out until September or skulks out on the night train this week, he will leave in total, complete disgrace.

First, because he has been humiliated in the streets of his own capital. Until last night, the scenes in Tahrir Square were relaxed, convivial, fraternal, joyful. In other words, Mr. Mubarak’s subjects were simply overjoyed to be flouting his imposed "curfews" and making him look foolish, spent, inconsequential; deriding his authority and legitimacy, defaming his visage which is ghoulishly plastered all over the city. One can’t recover dignity after such open public defiance and contempt.

The other reason he’s doomed for disgrace is that the forms and motions of true democratic leadership are not exactly intuitive for him. Even the heroic plan he presented for the great transition was so amazingly tone deaf. "I will instruct the parliament to change the presidential election laws." Hosni, catch yourself, you’re dictating again! Democratic leaders don’t "instruct" their parliaments to do stuff. That’s because they don’t have parliaments full of obsequious stooges who maintain their positions through fraud and corruption and unquestioned fealty to the dear leader. And while he was "instructing," for some reason he didn’t find it in his newfound magnanimity to instruct his parliament to immediately lift the repressive emergency laws, which have been in effect for thirty years, and which allow for arrest and detention without charge. (If he hangs around that’ll prove useful in the coming weeks and months, no?) Or to change the truly Kafkaesque process by which new political parties are approved and registered with the state. (Hint, if you make it through the process it’s safe to say your party ain’t that great.) We already know that free media and free expression will be denied, and, as ever, journalists will continue to be harassed and arrested. What will be the fate of brave intellectuals and activists who continue to dissent even after his pseudo reform program begins? Will they, as ever, be tried and convicted in absentia under capricious laws? It didn’t come up in his speech, nor in Omar Suleiman’s big interview this afternoon. Instead, we were reminded how steadfast and selfless he has been as absolute ruler, and how shameful that "foreign elements" are fomenting a conspiracy to bring chaos to the streets of Cairo. These guys simply have massive, massive balls.

But whether he dies of a heart attack in the dock at the Hague or while sipping a Mai Tai in Monaco with suitcases of cash under his bed, he will forever be known not as the father of Egypt but the butcher of Tahrir.                       

فلتسقط الحكومة Down With the Regime.

The Long Arc of the Moral Universe, Bending

Many hundreds of thousands of people, perhaps in the millions, are in and around Tahrir Square in Cairo demanding the ouster of Hosni Mubarak. (NYT live blog here; Guardian live blog here; Live stream of al-Jazeera English, which has been exemplary and which I have been watching nonstop for 4 days, is here.)

Elsewhere:

Following protests throughout Jordan, King Abdullah has fired his cabinet and replaced the prime minister, saying in an official statement that the new government should take "practical, swift and tangible steps to launch a real political reform process, in line with the king’s version of comprehensive reform, modernization and development," and to proceed "with nation building that opens the scope for broad accomplishment to all dear sons of our country and secure them the safe and dignified life they deserve." Someone sounds nervous.

In response to riots and protests throughout Algeria, President Bouteflika, in his twelfth year in office, has signaled major moves to his cabinet, including the replacement of the prime minister.

Here is Freedom House’s 2010 Map of Freedom for the Middle East. Tough to see (here’s the full map), but Israel (green) is the only country listed as "Free", with Kuwait, Morocco, and Lebanon "Partly Free." All others are "Not Free."

Freedom House 2010 Middle East North Africa Map

What will this year’s map look like? If Tunisia and Egypt change color, with their combined almost 100 million people, it will represent the most significant expansion of human freedom since 1989.  Democracy in Egypt, the cultural and political lodestar of the Middle East for so long, simply changes everything with regard to our geopolitical posture in the region. The "realist" choice between freedom and stability has been a false one, and a self-defeating one, for a very long time.

I have studied political reform in Egypt for several years, and now that it is imminent (inshallah!), I can’t think of anything but platitudes. I will try to find something non-hysterical and non-banal to write about these extraordinary events. Ok, back to al-Jazeera.