Egyptian Revolution (2): The Egyptian Army’s Moral Superiority to China


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For part 1 of my thoughts on the Egyptian revolution, go here.

4. China shot its own people; Egypt has not. Much of the analysis has focused on possible parallels with Iran 1979. But another more recent parallel, especially relevant to this website, is Tiananmen Square 1989. In their moment of crisis, the Chinese turned their guns on themselves, and the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) will be forever stained by the blood of its own citizens en masse. This strikes me as major moment in the evolution of dictatorships. All dictatorships suffer from legitimacy problems, of course, but none want to openly rely on naked force. Militaries are usually the hidden albeit central prop in dictatorships, but they don’t actually want to do the dirty work themselves. That is for the paramilitary thugs and secret police. No officer wants to think the primary enemy of the a state’s military is its own people, not some foreign enemy. Their dignitary and right to rule is based on the whole idea that thy are defending the people, not massacring them; in fact this is the myth of 1952 Free Officers coup in Egypt itself. Hence the call by a dictator in dire straits to shoot the citizenry is a rubicon for any army that cannot be uncrossed. In 1989, the eastern European militaries balked; in China, the PLA did not. My sense is that the social costs to the PLA were lower though, because China is so big. The CCP purposefully brought in rural PLA units for whom Beijing was like another planet. But in small countries like Poland 1989 or Egypt today, army repression in the capital would immediately be felt and transmitted everywhere. So hear, hear to the Egyptian military (I can’t believe I just wrote that sentence). For all its corruption, despotism, and insulation, it still did the right thing when the chips were down. Did anyone imagine even a month ago that we’d be speaking of the moral superiority of the Egyptian military to the PLA?

5. Beyond this evident parallel to Beijing 1989, this is whole things isn’t really that relevant out here. The news media coverage has been thin. The current El Nina cold snap in Northeast Asia has gotten more press time regionally than that Egypt. Not surprisingly the Chinese haven’t discussed Egypt much, but I am disappointed the the Korean and Japanese press seems so disinterested. Initial Korean media coverage focused on the possible loss of ME export markets (groan). From this I would draw two conclusions. First, for all the talk about a flat world, cultural hurdles still matter a lot. The parties caught up in the war on terror (the West, Israel, the Arab/Muslim ME) are riveted by this, but East Asian’s just aren’t, sadly. My experience in East Asia is that locals don’t really care much about the developing world. It’s far away, the languages and religions seem unintelligible, and the societies look backward, especially to East Asians obsessed with development. East Asians worry a lot about the US, and some about Europe, but there is tremendous ignorance of places like Latin America or Africa. Second, I think this disinterest is as much political as it is cultural. Newly wealthy places like Korea or China demonstrate their earned, rightful place in the OECD through an almost purposeful disdain for the third world. Koreans love to demonstrate how worldly they are by spending a year in the US or West; I’ve never met a student or teacher who thought a year a in developing country would be vastly more interesting. (It is.) So Barnett’s ‘new core’ flaunts its new status by forgetting its roots in the third world: disinterest as a mark of superiority.

6. A comment about the commentary: Frank Rich is right that far too few people have any idea what to say on Egypt because so much of the commentary is really about the US (or Israel). This Amero-centrism is why so many are saying the US should do this or that: the working assumption is that that US guides the world and can easily direct events. This is no longer true, so the mountain of US, rather than Egypt, -focused commentary creates unrealistic expectations that we can direct this thing.

Rich also makes the excellent observation that if Americans could actually watch al Jazeera, they might actually learn something about Egypt itself. Instead the mainstream commentary has revealed the embarrassingly nativist ignorance of much of the punditocracy on anything beyond US borders. In general I was very pleased to see how well academics requited themselves in the blogosphere on this; I think especially Walt, Mead, Cole and the Duck of Minerva have been super.

But if you read the op-ed pages, you got recycled banality and the usual suspects: Friedman gave you his typical, ‘this-is-a-defining-moment-in-the-ME’ schtick; Bush neocons desperate for rehabilitation strove to take credit and somehow blame Obama for…what exactly?; Palin blithered; Parker told us that the big story was really about the US media and Cohen that it was about Israel; Colbert King forgot the rest of the world exists; and Beck, well, you already know – just watch the loopy video from part 1. Score yet another point for blogging.

Without the informed blogging voices of people who actually know something about Egypt and revolutions, you really wouldn’t learn much about the events at all. You’d have just gotten an endless series of stories from a royalist, uncosmopolitan press in which Washington was the real story, because that’s all the pundits know how to talk aboutDouthat, for example – and whom I think is a pretty good writer usually – clearly had nothing to say, so he just gave up and wrote about Obama yet again under the guise of Egypt. How easy; this is how the press for a nation of untraveled monolinguists infatuated with their own power evolves. Its all about us. By contrast, here is an example of a non-expert, trained in traditional Washington self-obsession, who nonetheless tried. 

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ADDENDA:

The Japan Security Watch (JSW) blog of the New Pacific Institute has taken to cross-posting some of my stuff.  JSW is a good review of Japan, and a nice a compliment to my over-focus on Korea and China. They do on a lot on the nuts-and-bolts of hardware and deployment. Mil-Tech junkies on Asia will love it. JSW and I are working on some cooperation in the future. I want to thank them and commend readers to take a look at their good website.

BusanHaps, the big expat newspaper for Busan, SK, has also reposted some of my stuff. I want to thank them too and commend their site. Busan readers almost certainly know it already, but non-local readers will find it a good window on the way expats live here.

Finally, I want to point out that a published version of my remarks on North Korean shelling of Yeonpyeong Island is now available here (RINSA 15) from the Korean National Defense University (KNDU). If you really want to get into the details of SK defense against N, KNDU is the place to go. I want to thank them for soliciting me and thank readers for all the helpful comments that went into the final product.

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16 thoughts on “Egyptian Revolution (2): The Egyptian Army’s Moral Superiority to China

  1. I watched a lot of Al Jazeera English online. As did – to my great surprise – my Fox-watching rightwing father. His reaction to AJE was glowing, and I think the sight of hundreds of thousands of mostly non-violent, mostly secular Arab protesters demanding democracy and liberalism did a lot to change his view of the Muslim and Arab worlds.

    It has been essential since 9/11 to distinguish between the small sliver of violent jihadists and the great bulk of ordinary Muslims who we must convince to turn on the radicals instead of supporting or tolerating them.

    No telling how Egypt’s revolution ends, but so far (as these things go) it has been pretty glorious. It reminded me of nothing less than the civil rights movement in the American south, which of course was modelled partly on Gandhi.

    Military juntas tend not to be liberalizing democratizers, to say the least. Here’s to hoping this is a huge exception.

  2. Dr. Bob:

    As you know here comes Act II of the revolution. The part when the unifying factor is gone (in this case Mubarak). Now comes the political in-fighting and jockeying for position. In the West we soooo many times “mistake the machanisms of democracy with democracy itself”. Actually, only as it applies to non-western states. In Bosnia for example we didn’t let them vote until the society had matured enough (many years), in Egypt, CNN, FOX, ABC, et others hail voting in 6 months. Hint, you can’t go from 30 years of dictatoship to democracy in six months, I don’t care who you are. And especially if you have not had democractic tradtions or continuity as in the case of Liberia. Especially, when the Egyptian miltary is also a business multi-millioni dollar organization (they own the railroads, etc.-the generals etc. reap the profits). Fact is this military council has always ruled from the backset. Mubarak was the front man. In fact Mubarak was greedy and tried to break tradition by trying install his son, a non military man. Didn’t go over well with the Generals. Anyway in the past now.

    Also, how quiclky we forgot about Tunisia where Tunisians are now fleeing by boat to Italy en mass (their ACT II). Dr. Bob, you nailed the US Media spot on. Also, we have forgotten about the Ivory Coast with its two presidents following “elections”.
    I think that ACT II will persist for about two years then blow up into ACT III. Maybe sooner.

    I think that the only thing that will prevent an ACT III in Egypt is if by some incredible reason, the ecnomy picks up and people have decent jobs within one year. Not.
    What the generals could do is let civilian leadership take over, then wait for the population to get restless over the slow pace of reform (jobs, etc.), then make a coup d’etat to save the population from the corrupt politicians. Oldest trick in the book. Works in Pakistan every time. In fact this is how Egypt got a military government in the first place.

    Dr. Bob also don’t forget about mission creep.

  3. Dr. Bob:

    What I found most fascinating was that the Egyptians exchanged one Mubarak for a council of Mubaraks and people are still jumping for joy. This is magic at its best. They (the ruling class Generals) were able to vector all of their deeds in the person of Mubarak. Talk about mis-direction. These are the same Generals who have been ruling them (backseating) and will now write/supervise the writing of their new constitution.

    Fascinating indeed. What a case study.

  4. Also, what happened to “elections” in Haiti. The US media was all over that not that long ago. Wasn’t Haiti supposed to be next bastion of democracy? Haiti is in like ACT XXV. Those poor people. Next two coconut elections to watch, Niger and Uganda.

  5. Dr. Bob:

    I have been looking for a historical parallels to the Egyptian uprising and see similarities (apart from Tunisia) to the Orange Revolution of Ukraine. Both uprisings follow fraudulent elections on a mass scale (and authoritarianism). Egypt just had parliamentary elections on November 2010. No need to go into that. I remember laughing at it back in November. And both had more to do with drastic negative economic conditions, continued high price of commodities (maybe only Egypt), lack of advancement in societies unless via cronyism and less about civil rights, although civil rights were an issue but not in the traditional sense. A fight against corruption, nepotism, etc. The main difference between Ukraine and Egypt however is that unlike Ukraine the Egyptians are trying to ditch their system of government completely.

    Dr. Bob, BTW, I am watching France 24 and they have just stated that the Tunisians are fleeing by the thousands for Italy (by boat).

    More on coconut elections, the Palestinian Authority has announced elections in September and HAMAS is boycotting.

  6. Remember that Korea, too, has its own recent history of the military firing on its civilians. And enough of it to make Tiananmen Square look insignificant by comparison. But it mirrors a general national disinterest or apathy towards Korean modern history after Japanese occupation, and before the 1990s. There’s no rush to relive a similar story, I suppose.
    Korean media might not care much for the Middle East, but outside of China, Koreans hold little interest in rest of the developing world, too. I would contend that this is actually less of a superiority complex, and more one of inferiority. Korea feels that it has yet to make its mark in the world, especially next to similarly-populated cultural powers such as France or Italy. And by neighbouring China and Japan, there’s a strong “Me too!” mentality in Korea. So it’s more of a desired association with the developed world, rather than a purposeful disassociation with the developing one. They just happen to be almost incompatible.

    • Yeah, ok. This sounds right. I was speculating, but I do have the sense that Koreans aren’t that interested in the third world. To be sure, Americans don’t really know much either, but the difference in news coverage was pretty striking. It might also power-driven, rather than cultural. If you are a huge superpower with bases and interests all over the world, inevitably you get interested in almost everything. Just about every part of the world is strategic for the US; that is clearly not so for Korea.

      Thank you for reading.

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  13. انا اسف على الكتابه بالغه العربيه وهذا لاننى لا اجيد الانجلزيه
    احترم كل الاراء ولاكن وجهه نظرى هى ان كنا لا نستطيع فى ستة اشهر تغير ما حدث فى ثلاثون عاما هى ان كان العالم يسبقنا 100 عام سنفعل من الان ما فعله العالم من 100 عام كى نصل الى ما فيه العالم وافضل
    مواطن مصرى

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