Global Agenda: The citizens are up

Leaders of democracies – especially corrupt and/or incompetent ones – will find that that they are equally, if not more, vulnerable than dictatorial regimes.

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 subjects.
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 accordingly.
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 civilians.
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 lines.
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 common purpose.
All this is stirring stuff, especially for people in democracies to watch on TV from the safety of their armchairs.
They can 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” class.
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 creed.
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.

[email protected]