The Weiner affair got me thinking about how people use the modern communication tools at our disposal. For good or ill, we are connected in ways we never were before. Social networking sites like Twitter have been rightly praised for their impact on authoritarian societies, where dictators have been unable to stop the spread of information and the ability of citizens to organize large numbers of people. In a mature democracy like ours, the political uses seem to be somewhat less laudable.
The continued and spreading unrest in the Arab world presents enormous challenges to the United States and other Western countries which have supported and continue to support autocratic regimes such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. We’ve given lip service over the years to backing democratic reform, but when it came to protecting our oil supply, democracy has taken a back seat to stability. We now find ourselves encouraging the protests against the very regimes we’ve underwritten with economic and military aid for decades. In Egypt we were caught by surprise, hoping for a slow and orderly change we could get behind while not abandoning our longtime ally in Mubarak. That didn’t work so well, although the Obama administration ultimately calibrated it reasonably well. It’s easy in Libya, where there’s been no love lost for Ghaddafi. What will we do when the revolt overtakes Saudi Arabia?
I couldn’t resist this one. In the Arab world and wherever else there’s a popular revolt against autocratic rule, it’s the dictator who ultimately flees. Not so in this country, evidently. In Wisconsin, where Republican Governor Scott Walker has proposed outrageously punitive restrictions of collective bargaining rights for select public unions, sparking massive demonstrations, it’s the Democratic supporters of the unions who have fled to avoid a vote on the measures.
What Walker has proposed will certainly pass the GOP-controlled legislature when the Dems return. It’s a union-busting package, pure and simple, having nothing whatever to do with balancing the budget. In fact, the unions have already agreed to the proposed salary and pension cuts, but this is driven not by budget necessity, but by the reflexive Republican hatred of unions. It would be a little easier to swallow if the pain were spread equally, but the bill unfairly selects only those public unions that have traditionally supported Democrats and spares those that have not. Teachers get the axe, but Republican-leaning police and fire unions are spared. So much for sharing the burden.
Worse, this is a trial run for Republican governors in other states who are salivating at the chance to decimate their own public unions. After a few more years of this kind of authoritarian rule, will Americans rise up and throw the bums out? One can only hope. In the meantime, the wrong people are being forced to flee.
It will be interesting, to say the least, to see how far the spontaneous popular revolution in Tunisia will spread through the Arab world. Will it stop in Egypt, or will the assorted monarchies and dictatorships that dominate the Arabian peninsula and other Muslim countries, fall like dominoes? Of equal interest is what will replace the current governments if they do fall. As we saw in Iran, there is no guarantee that a popular revolt against authoritarian regimes will result in democracies. The beards may not be in the streets, but the Taliban, the Muslim Brotherhood and their ilk are waiting in the wings.
Will whatever replaces Mubarak honor its treaty with Israel? Will the regimes we have allied ourselves with continue to help stabilize the region, or are we witnessing a regional breakdown of our influence, as well? Stay tuned. To Al Jazeera.