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« Is the U.S. exceptional in its policy towards Arab oil? | Main | Guest post #1: Egypt, day five, backgrounder »

January 30, 2011

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Urk, it appears to have eaten my comment.

Anyway. The point of the Satellite TV/Internet boom in authoritarian regimes isn't that they let the underground parties and would-be dissidents take the vast, mute, inglorious Miltons to take the street, but lots of people are seeing that end result and jumping to that conclusion.

If you look at the good stuff on the relationship between the authoritarian state and the public sphere (Davis' "Memories and the State" for example) as the dark vision of Benedict Anderson's idea of nationalism, the dictatorial state can establish a Gramscian hegemony, or monopoly, over the public sphere and civil society.

The advent of Al-Jazeera, Al-Arabiya, and the internet isn't that you can organize your people to "take the street" but it's the step before. There is no doubt in Egypt, in Tunisia, in Bahrain, that the government is 1) Brutal, 2) corrupt 3) vile. The Satellite TV networks offer alternative frames to every idea the state is force-feeding its people; the monopoly breaks down and regular market competition takes over. The internet amplifies this--watch a man being beaten to death by the Interior Ministry (Egypt) or create a vibrant alternate public sphere where embittered public servants steal and leak documents demonstrating kickbacks at the Ministry of Defense (Bahrain) or whatever.

If "my government is a bunch of shitty thugs, but they keep my lights on and my daughter safe" goes to "my government is a bunch of shitheel thugs, look at these pictures/documents/video" you lay the groundwork for the possibility of serious protests. You go from students, the communists, and the Muslim Brotherhood to Timur Kuran's model ("Now Out of Never: The Element of Surprise in the Eastern European Revolution of 1989" World Politics, 1991) where by ones and twos, the crowd gets bigger, and every time it gets bigger, more people are comfortable joining in.

The opposite threshold is how many different coercive agencies the country has. If it's just the Army, and that's mostly conscripts, aces. But if it's Army in one ministry, secret police in another, and regular police in a third, it's much harder to break all three, or hope that one has enough manpower/hardware to take out the other two. (this is why Iran ground down).

I was in Egypt in 2005/2006 when there was another serious stab at democracy. The difference, this time, is the proliferation of images and video of the government doing bad things to its citizens as kindling for mass demonstration. (That, and the economic conditions are AMAZINGLY worse).

You should post that thing I wrote.

What thing you wrote?

I'm still not seeing the internet as decisive. Other places have revolted without it ... like Eastern Europe in Kuran's piece. I don't think I follow.

You asked me for an updated and expanded version of that email that I sent around earlier. It's at your HBS email, running just over 2,000 words, though it's not that out of date.

I'm not advocating for it being decisive, either, but that can give more leverage against an authoritarian state with a media monopoly than the population would otherwise have.

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