global agenda 88.
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Benvolio: Romeo, away, be gone!
The citizens are up and Tybalt slain,
Stand not amazed.
– Romeo and Juliet, act III, scene 1
It is difficult not to stand amazed at the course of events across the Middle
East. Arguably, what is happening in Libya is even more amazing than what
happened in Tunisia and Egypt, even though the Libyan dictator is playing by the
dictator’s handbook by using every means at his disposal to crush his rebellious
After all, what most amazed outside observers regarding Tunisia
and Egypt was that the autocrats there did not resort to overwhelming force –
or, perhaps, were prevented from doing so by the refusal of their armed forces
to obey such an order.
Libya is nevertheless the most amazing development
we have seen to date. Gaddafi is, of course, a bona fide lunatic for whom doing
weird and surprising things is normal. But what is truly amazing about Libya is
not the behavior of the chief honcho, but of the people, from whom far more has
been demanded than from any of their peers in other countries. Once it became
clear in Tunis and Cairo that the army would not going to use force against
their fellow citizens, the degree of danger posed to participants in the
demonstrations dropped dramatically. Not surprisingly, this encouraged more and
more people to join in.
Indeed, that is why dictators are well-advised to
use force as soon as possible, to get the message across to all would-be rebels
that they might well end up dead. Once the early opportunity is missed and
people start feeling more confident, the momentum has shifted in favor of the
rebels and against the regime, so that its chances of survival sink
So what makes Libya exceptional is that even after it became
clear that their lives were on the line, the people did not pack up and go home
but, on the contrary, pressed on with their revolt. The same phenomenon is
observable in Iran, although – in fairness to the mullahs, so to speak – it must
be noted that the Iranian regime’s security forces have so far used only
policelevel violence, in which many people can be injured and a few killed. That
is a far cry from calling in the air force and tanks to strafe and shell
Libya is thus the most extreme case to date in this stunning
outbreak of “The citizens are up.” Yet for this phenomenon to occur, several
conditions must be fulfilled.
The first is the emergence of a strong
feeling of solidarity and common purpose. To prevent and preempt this happening,
dictatorships almost always employ a “divide and rule” strategy, dividing the
population along tribal, ethnic, religious or any other convenient
The second essential condition is for the sense of solidarity to
move from a passive to an active mode – although “active” will almost always be
reactive, rather than proactive. The reaction may be to a statement, a policy
move or, typically, an act of violence in which someone is killed or executed.
This event or development serves to trigger the pent-up anger against the
regime, which people then share so that overthrowing the regime becomes their
All this is stirring stuff, especially for people in
democracies to watch on TV from the safety of their armchairs.
cheer the good guys and urge the bad guys to “away, be gone” – all in the safe
delusion that it doesn’t touch them personally. The most they expect to be
required to do as citizens is to vote some bunch of rascals out of office, not
to risk life and limb facing the police or army.
But that is a very
narrow view of the idea that “The citizens are up.” To take a broader view,
let’s move far away from Libya and the Arab world, to the Korean peninsula.
While virtually everyone is following events in Libya, probably very few people
know that: a) on Wednesday there was a violent demonstration by the citizens of
a town in northern North Korea, to which the security forces responded with
violence, wounding some and apparently killing a few people; meanwhile, b) in
South Korea, there has been a series of runs on savings banks – at least eight
or nine over the last two or three weeks.
There was a time when South
Korean citizens had to get up and demonstrate against their army-led regime,
eventually forcing it to adopt democracy. Now they are up again, but this time
their fight is against crooked bankers and their fear is losing their savings
rather than their lives. But the emotions involved in a bank run are no less
powerful than in marching against tyranny, albeit less noble. You can be sure
that those bankers are not standing amazed, they are of the “away, be gone”
It’s a toss up what is more amazing: that the citizens are up in
North Korea or in Libya. But what’s clear is that the entire world is gripped by
a fever, in which citizens everywhere are up, irrespective of race, color or
Moments of mass psychology such as these are rare, but immensely
powerful. Dictatorial regimes facing them are in deep trouble, but the leaders
of democracies – especially corrupt and/or incompetent ones – will find that
that they are equally, if not more, vulnerable.