Interview by Akif Tugcu (JTW)
Journal of Turkish Weekly conducted an exclusive interview with the President of the USAK Center for Security Studies Prof. Ihsan Bal regarding civil unrest in Egypt. You can read the full text of the interview below.
Q: As is known, authoritarian regimes were applying intense pressure on their people in the Middle East. What do you think the reasons of successive uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt? What is the role of other states in these developments? Did somebody press the button?
A: First of all, while mentioning very broad based people movements, using ìpressing buttonî phrase is not a proper way of explanation. Using such an expression for the peopleís revolt in the region is to ignore Middle Eastís thousands of years of history and savings; to underestimate social dynamics and to show significant degree of disrespect. Moreover, the movements in the Middle East today are wide-ranging and long-term movements that are being continued by millions of people in many cities.
In todayís modern world, even parents have many difficulties in guiding their own children. It is not reasonable to regard these movements as management of millions with social engineering. In this context, disregarding the excitement of the people and explaining the existing situation by using ìsomeone in somewhere pressed the buttonî metaphor would be a very incomplete and inadequate explanation. Interpreting the events in this respect is being unable to perceive the existing situation correctly.
Of course, there would be some actors and global powers which try to observe and foresee the developments. They may want to guide and manage the events. However, in todayís world, they are not the only actors. There is no unique rule maker or guide. Social events carried out by social dynamics which triggers each other. Without trying to understand underlying dynamics, arguing that the events emerged under the guidance of others is simplifying things and escaping from the truth. Although crowds filled the squares may not have put out their road maps clearly, they know what they criticize and what they demand. Perhaps, the problem is how these desires and demands will be fulfilled.
Q: Protests against Mubarak Government in Egypt continue over two weeks. People are very exhausted and distressed due to setbacks in daily life. Do you think it is possible that the people quit the protests and Mubarak regain the power?
We should underline something. First of all, while people get exhausted, they learn and adapt. I do not think this process would lead to fatigue and boredom. On the contrary, actions and their affects will evolve into waves in a wider base. Because these resistances do not aim to provide people a more luxurious life. This is a resistance of the people who wants to get their basic needs and have rightful demands. If you are hungry, if you cannot speak freely, if you live under a government which tortures its people, you have nothing to lose. In their routine life, what Middle Eastern people are given is very limited. They have been excluded from many material and spiritual rights for years. Now, people aware all of these.
Mubarak, as an authoritarian leader, misreads the people. These clearly indicate his egocentric and authoritarian leadership structure. Cost of this movement might be heavy for the people. It would get more bloody and tragic. However, Mubarak does not have any chance to be successful by playing to exhaustion of people.
Dictators have a tendency of just giving importance to their own prejudice and the things in their minds. They are unused to listen others, they just pretend like listening. This blocks learning process of authoritarian leaders. When someone gives up learning, then he becomes a person who always teaches and dictates. This kind of person, because of absence of receiving information, cannot recognize real reasons of peopleís demands and background of facts. This is exactly what we saw in Egypt.
Mubarak and his administration thought ìIf we were not here, there would be chaosî, therefore misread the facts without being aware of Egyptís 7000 years of history and civilizations they had set up. Their elitist and cussed approach to society which assumed that people were ignorant and have to be tamed disdained the people.
In her book, while explaining the transformation in East Europe and Arabian Gulf; Margaret Thatcher mentions a characteristic of dictators. She thinks, dictators should be evaluated due to their behaviors not their claims. Because speeches they make are just serving their aims according to their ideas.
I hope, authoritarian government in Egypt hear the voice of people and try to compromise with them. With perception of ìThey cannot do anything without meî, seeing itself in distorting mirror can be observed in Turkish democratization process, too. It is obvious that this does not bring any good result.
Q: Civilians in Egypt have never experienced real democracy and don not have any governmental organization experiment. Do you think can the people create a real democratic environment? Otherwise, are we going to witness a competition of domestic and foreign powers to control the power?
A: This is a movement that has its own characteristics, but it can be compared to others to find more concrete answers. One of the most important discussions in Egypt and the other Middle East countries are whether they are ready for democracy or not. In an authoritarian point of view, it is assumed that people cannot understand conjecture, situations and governance. Nevertheless, in todayís world, especially for a highly civilized society like Egypt, there is no exact time for democracy. This is a process. There might be rise and fall in the process. Surely, everything is not going to be perfect during the transformation. Maybe, some costs have to be paid to recover the loss. Democracy comes with bitter prescription that includes some duties. It is not easy to gain symbiosis culture and applying it to governance.
I do not think, Egypt lacks of advantageous domestic dynamics and other experiences. They have the experiences of some similar countries. As is known, East European countries have chosen Anglo Saxon experiment as a model. While Soviet Union was collapsing, UK and US inspired other countries in terms of the market economy, individual rights and freedom, rule of law etc. These models guided East European countries to draw their own road map. As a result, people of completely a different system like Communism produced their own democracies. For instance, Poland started its march of democracy after a strike in a shipyard. Czechoslovakia started its democracy movement under leadership of a poet and accomplished its integration successfully. Likewise, many countries in Central and Eastern Europe democratized consequently.
At that time, there were also similar concerns about of regime change. People said ìMafias will control the countryî,î Organized crimes will increaseî, ìNew government will also be authoritarianî, ìThere will be more repressive regimes after changeî. But democratization succeeded with the support of sincere domestic and international communities. I think Egypt and Tunisia can overcome this issue with Turkey bridge and Turkeyís experiences in the Middle East. I mean, there is a laboratory in front of them proving more confidence, producing more enthusiasm. For Middle Eastern countries, this is an example which can be adapted and applied in different geographies.
Turkey can actually take responsibility in the process with its institutions and NGOs. This active contribution is very important for the peopleís expectations and demands. Democratization process might not be parallel to East European experiment. Because the democratization process under USA and UK support were providing enough confidence with its security frame and value system. At this point, Turkey can be seen as the closest society and the most proper model in respect to common cultural basis with Egyptians.
In this transformation process, there cannot be an appointed time for democracy. When democratization starts, it is the time for democracy. Especially if civilians demand, that means conditions have been met for democracy already. This is completely different from a military or totalitarian leaderís claim: ìWe brought democracy for youî efforts to put democracy suit on the people. In this sort of democratization, there could be some concerns. Society could resist and found it difficult to understand or deny it.
Q: In demonstrations in Iran and the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt, mobile phones, internet, Facebook and Twitterís affect has always been. Technologic devices helps people get information from all around the world and organize well. On the other hand, it provides detailed information to governments and intelligence organizations about every action of the peoples. Considering the both aspects, do you think despot governments or civilians benefit more from the technology?
A: Every kind of technology provides more benefits to who has more abilities to use of technology. If a state can use its apparatus more efficiently, it would get more benefits. However, communication between the people with devices, Facebook and Twitter can create a great synergy. Its effects are asymmetric. Development is so fast and can create snowball effect easily.
We received our democracy and value system from Western countries. Western societies also faced with similar processes in their history. Improvement of publishing, gathering together and communicating with others, giving peopleís strength to each other, reaching consensus, cohere their complaints, increase in of percentage of urbanization... All of these are very important factors for democracy. Technology made great contributions to all of these.
Western revolutions have direct relations with industrialization and development of technology, this should not be forgotten. If they had not had port towns, textile factories, printing houses, increase in city population, and if society had remained as an agricultural and peasant society, they could not achieved democratization.
Today, we can realize that technology has triggered todayís public dynamism compared to the past. Surely, some entities try to control this dynamism and governments use them. But technology is a big obstacle against the entities who wants to control society. If you try to act against nature of society and human, no matter how hard you try, technology works against you. This is the fact in Egypt. People notice what others have and they do not have, they see the success of other governments and failings of their government. Today, ìTurkey windî blows in Middle East. There are portraits of Turkish leaders more than portraits of Middle Eastern radical leaders in the streets. Technology has big contributions on these. Because people observe other places and ask, ìWhy we could not do? Why our leaders are not like them? Why our share in income is so little? Why our streets, houses are not as good as theirs?î This is a sort of explosion of complaints; it is the result of spread of technology.
Now, open debates in Turkish parliament and Turkish movies are watched and Turkish businessman and their activities in the region are observed by the Egyptian people. All of these have big impacts on the recent developments in Egypt with the assistance of technology. I think, Mubarak thinks that his biggest political competitor or the man who damaged his political position most is not the leaders like Ahmadinejad but the leaders like Tayyip Erdogan from democratic regimes.
When civil commotion had started, government tried to censor internet and block the communication channels, but it did not work. If the time comes, social dynamics, sociologic and economic background are formed, social movement can become a political culture & tradition with the effects of technology s.
Current developments in the Middle East are transformation of social, economic and cultural dynamics into political tradition with the assistance of technology. For the first time in four or five centuries, Egypt is writing its own political history and its future on a civilian base. We should admit that the writing has started already, and technology has a big impact on it.
Q: Could we see similar movements in other countries?
A: No doubt, this is not a phenomenon which is unique to Egypt. People who are not satisfied with their governments had made revolts many times before.
The uniqueness of this movement is demand for democracy in Islamic world. Now, young people in Middle East regard these values as a cultural inheritance and shout; ìWe want justice, we want rule of law, we want rights and freedom, we want real democracy and we want transparent governance.î
These demands are put words in a period which Islamic world found a moderate way other than being squeezed between radicalism and fanatic secularism. Notions which believed to be in conflict with Islam for a long time are not regarded as problematic anymore. Now Turkey ñalthough it is criticized about its democracyñ stands as a model in front of these nations. When these movements become successful, it will lead domino effect and spread to all Islamic world.