Leadership: The Arab Spring And The Winter of Discontent

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 May 25, 2011: The Arab Spring rebellions this year have revealed an ancient problem; the many tribal, ethnic, religious and political divisions in Arab countries. The monarchies or dictators being overthrown had gained power by manipulating these divisions, to divide and rule, as it were. But one point that is being missed here is the fact these divisions are the norm, not the exception, in most nations. It's an old problem that the largely homogeneous Western nations tend to ignore or play down.

But for decades, peacekeeping and diplomatic efforts have been running into a wall called multiculturalism, and the wall has been winning. Trying to get an effective government out of these Arab Spring revolutions requires overcoming the curse of multiculturalism. It's dangerous stuff. For the past few thousand years, the majority of little wars have been caused by different ethnic or religious groups not getting along. Today, this is generally dismissed as primitive tribes squabbling over women or livestock. Well, that was often the case, but there are still thousands of tribes out there. And you don't have to belong to a tribe to get agitated about rustling or who's dating your sister. The fact is that nearly all the wars peacekeepers and diplomats are trying to end are ethnic conflicts.

While peacekeepers have weapons to deal with the violent side of these wars, there is still nothing that works consistently well on the ethnic hatreds. Bribes and the threat of violence works for a while, but not in the long term. A few decades ago, you had a lot less ethnic violence because many of the tribes lived in isolation from each other. Cheap transportation and television has changed all that. Many ethnic groups have dispersed because it's affordable to move to another country or continent. But the ethnic ties, as they are wont to do, remain. When an atrocity against a landsman is seen on the tube, money and volunteers head back to the homeland to right the televised wrongs.

Even in the homeland, people of different ethnic groups see the ethnic violence on TV and get fired up. The Nazis and communists were the first to realize how effective electronic media were in mobilizing public opinion. But even if you are not doing it on purpose, it happens. The electronic media has played a major, often singular, role in instigating and inflaming ethnic animosities in the last few decades. Only recently have diplomats and peacekeepers recognized that, umm, maybe we should do something about the media angle in these hotspots? In some cases the peacekeeping nations, especially the media savvy ones from the West, have taken the local media in hand and cut down on the ethnic propaganda and hate mongering. But this still leaves the peacekeepers with the short end of the stick, as the attitude still is that ethnic hatreds can be quickly fixed.

Now if only someone could figure out how to quickly cope with all these differences. So far, no one has come up with any easy solutions. Some of the traditional ones no longer work. In the 1920s, as Western nations sifted through the wreckage of the Ottoman empire, and not wanting more costly to maintain colonies (because of the enormous expense of the recently ended World War I), they decided to go old school. The various Arab provinces had not been ruling themselves (except for Egypt, and then only with British help) for a thousand years. But everyone knew what a king was, and noble Arab families were persuaded to undertake the thankless (and dangerous) job of making these new nations work. Most of those monarchies were gone by the 1960s, and the others had adapted. Thus the Arab Spring movement is failing against monarchies in Arabia and Jordan.

Dictators are another matter, as many of these are governments formed by groups that overthrew the old, post World War I, monarchies. The problem now is, will the fallen Arab dictatorships be replaced by new dictatorships, perhaps after a period of multiculturalism inspired civil war. It's happened before, and if everyone is not careful, it will happen again. Lacking things the West takes for granted (law and order, economic freedom, free and fair elections) the Arab Spring is quite likely to slip into a Winter of discontent.

 

 


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