29/01/2011

Advice for every dictator, Clinton was right, its the economy, stupid

As the former Tunisian president goes in to exile and half his cabinet is removed and now trouble is flaring in Egypt and other places it is worth considering what has caused the popular uprising.

It isn't a lack of democracy, much as  those of us who cherish democracy we would like to think, its lack of economic opportunity. It wasn't the lack of a vote that caused Mohamed Bouazizi to torch himself, it was grinding poverty and lack of opportunity that someone with a degree and ambition had to put up with. The French revolution wasn't about the vote, it was about the poverty of the proletariat whilst the rich looked after themselves. The same can be said for many revolutions and the fall of the former Soviet Union.

One history lecturer I had whilst doing some Army eduction courses reckoned that the reason that we never had a revolution in the UK around the time of the French revolution was that the political elite kept one step ahead of popular unrest by doing just enough to improve the lot of the proletariat to keep them mollified.

I'd even go as far as saying that the revolt against apartheid wasn't about the vote, it was because the white population enjoyed a wealthy lifestyle whilst the black population lived in poverty with no hope of improvement.

For all his faults Clinton knew this, as do most politicians. The reason Blair and Brown got away with so much bad government and authoritarianism was that they created the illusion of wealth through rising house prices and throwing money at the public sector. There is no way Blair would have got away with taking us in to war if we had all been feeling the pinch of economic down turn.

And this is where the Chinese come in. The Communist Party isn't stupid and and wants to cling on to power for all its worth and the only way to do this is to let the people get gradually wealthier. If they hadn't started to liberalise (I use this term in a relative context) the economy after Tienanmen Square they knew they faced ever increasing threats to their rule. Things are still bad in the countryside in China but for city dwellers life is getting better and they aren't minded to challenge the Communist Party and put up with the lack of civil liberties we regard as underpinning our freedoms. The same happened in HK, British rule was tolerated because the Chinese were allowed to get gradually wealthier.

Perhaps Egypt and Syria might hold down the protests with some brutality for now, but if the dictators don't listen to Clinton the end is inevitable - its benign dictatorship or eventually bloody revolution. They can build up the instruments of terror and try to impose brutal suppression but as
Mohamed Bouazizi  showed eventually the regime they impose can't cope with desperation and the human spirit. 

The only thing that is worrying is that their may be a more brutal regime stepping in first, as Iranians learned when they threw out the Shah and accepted rule by mad men who used the authority of some desert dwelling warlord to justify their own brutality.


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