THANKS FOR PLAYING

This is somewhat brief, but tomorrow is going to be the shizzle. Promise.

Mubarak has now given two speeches since the civil unrest in Egypt began in earnest – one in which he asked the resignation of the government (which appeased no one) and another today in which he promised to surrender power after September elections (ditto). During both speeches I could not get this out of my head:

To me, this is the moment that defines the end of the Cold War. Most people think of Germans dancing on the Berlin Wall but the video of Nicolae Ceaucescu's final speech (1989) does more to stand out. The speech is famous as a symbol of the End of Communism (and who in America ever wants to stop reliving the glorious moment when we made the whole world safe for Taco Bell franchise distribution?) due to the way the aged Ceaucescu looks on in bewilderment as the agitated crowd begins to hiss with disapproval. It fit the western stereotype of the Communist leader to a tee – ancient, out of touch, and incapable of change.

I am reminded of this footage when Mubarak speaks because the two leaders share much in common – their tenure in power, their age, and their all-encompassing delusions. To hear them speak it seems as though everyone on the planet except them realizes that they are finished. Mubarak talking about how he is going to stay in power for 9 more months is like watching the scene in Goodfellas in which Tommy (Joe Pesci) gets "made." As he prepares for his big honor he is apparently the only person in the film (or audience) who does not understand that he is about to be taken to an empty building and shot in the head. Which is, coincidentally enough, exactly what happened to Ceaucescu and his wife Elena.

Mubarak will likely be fortunate enough to avoid that fate; no doubt he will live out his remaining years Idi Amin style as a guest of the Saudi royal family. Until that inevitability occurs to him we can continue to enjoy the fact that, unless he happens to be the world's greatest actor, he really does not understand that he's done. Nobody within or outside of Egypt is going to prop him up any longer and the domestic situation has gone far beyond the tipping point. Going quietly into his lavish retirement seems like an obvious choice at this point, but apparently 30 years of absolute power make it difficult to recognize when the jig is up.

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27 thoughts on “THANKS FOR PLAYING”

  • Just how popular were the Ceaucescus? From Wikipedia: "The Ceauşescus were executed by a firing squad consisting of elite paratroop regiment soldiers: Captain Ionel Boeru, Sergant-Major Georghin Octavian and Dorin-Marian Cirlan,[13] while reportedly hundreds of others also volunteered. The firing squad began shooting as soon as they were in position against a wall. The firing happened too soon for the film crew covering the events to record it."

    Their firing squad – hand-picked elite soldiers chosen from hundreds of volunteers – couldn't even wait for a "ready – aim – fire" command. They just started blasting away as soon as they were in front of them. Feel the love!

    As fun and cathartic as that was for everyone involved (except, uh, the Ceaucescus), it still remains that their death seems more like a coup by the security forces than the outcome of a popular revolution. Still, good riddance to bad rubbish.

  • I studied Causcescu as a part of my yugo (Tito/Milosevic) minors studies at Beloit. Spot on comparison. This time the orphans are 5 million unemployed young adult men.

  • The Romanian "Revolution" was indeed a coup carried out under cover of street protests. The decision to remove Ceaucescu was taken by top military leaders plus members of his cabinet. (Indeed, one member of Ceaucescu's inner circle was the judge who presided over his hour-long kangaroo "trial").

    For the next four years, Romania was /still Communist in everything but name/. A few — a very few — of Ceausescu's closest cronies were exiled, or did modest jail terms. A larger number of top brass and Communist Party leaders went into semi-retirement. But most of the top guys stayed firmly in power, and the middle and lower ranks of the Army and the bureaucracy stayed firmly unchanged — the same guys behind the same desks, just with the hammers and sickles hastily pried off.

    In fairness, it was liberal, Gorbachev-style Communism as opposed to Ceausescu's squalid halfway house between Stalin and Brezhnev. Moderate levels of dissent were allowed, elections weren't really free but they weren't complete mockeries either, people could open private businesses if they had powerful friends and/or were willing to jump through hoop after hoop of red tape, Romanians were free to travel to anywhere that would let a Romanian passport in. Religion suddenly became free as long as you were Romanian Orthodox. But it was still an authoritarian, highly nationalist, highly bureaucratic regime characterized by very low transperency and high levels of corruption.

    What made the long-term difference in Romania was the prospect of EU membership. This was the locomotive of reform for almost 15 years, and it's the reason Romania is a reasonably liberal sort-of democracy today.

    It's not just Romania, of course. To a first approximation, the difference between post-Communist countries that are still authoritarian, and those that are more or less functional democracies, is whether EU membership has ever been on the horizon. It's the difference between Poland, Slovenia and the Czech Republic on one hand, and Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and Belarus on the other.

    But anyway. If you want to push this analogy, then Egypt over the next few years would look a lot like early 1990s Romania under Ion Iliescu and his National Salvation Front: dictatorship lite, an authoritarian government that's way better than what came before, but still secretive, heavy-handed, and bureaucratic.

    Note that the most obnoxious aspects of that regime weren't about religion but rather hypertrophied nationalism. As a fake-revolutionary regime, Iliescu's government was obsessed with legitimizing itself, which it did by becoming hyper-Romanian. It wasn't a great time for religious or ethnic minorities — this was the period when most of Romania's Jews and ethnic Germans packed up and left, for instance, and it was also the time when Romania managed to screw over Moldova for the next 20+ years with a clumsy overture to annex that hapless new state. (It resulted in the secession of the Russian-dominated sliver of eastern Moldova, Transnistria, which is still a problem today.)

    So while I'd keep an eye on the Muslim brotherhood, I'd be more worried about a new Egyptian regime attempting to bolster itself with a politics of gesture based on "Egyptian greatness" and a constructed image of what are "real Egyptians".

    Doug M.

  • Arslan Amirkhanov says:

    It might also be good to consider what happened in Eastern Europe after the fall of Communism. Corruption, ethnic violence, religious fundamentalism, mafia cartels, con-men, plunging birth-rates, and human trafficking. The Egyptians are not out of the woods yet.

  • Holy shit Doug. No tl:dr here.

    I am not nearly as versed in Romanian politics as I feebly was, but I'm glad for you reminding me that the "regime" (it's still a pejorative, right?) that followed my memories of the Coat of Arms burned from the center of the flag and people crying with joy in the streets after Ceaucescu's justifiable homicide; wasn't that much better. After the EU carrot was dangled, I remember thinking that everything was "OK-enough". Again, thank you for reminding me about one of my pre-internet "bookmarks".

    Good for Romania.

  • I'm too young to have seen this when it happened (alive, but not paying attention) so I did a bit of "research" on wikipedia. What I find most ironic is that he and his wife were tried an executed on Christmas Day 1989. The (I assume) temporary government that came into place after than then makes capital punishment illegal two weeks later on January 7 1990.

  • Arslan Amirkhanov says:

    Apparently Mubarak vowed he would "die on Egyptian soil." Probably not the best choice of words.

  • A few months ago, I was on a cruise & one of the dancers was a Romanian. We chatted with him while he was on Library Duty. Aside from the fact that he was not happy that we did not see his shows, he said that Romanians miss Communism… My husband is a History Major & was able to have an educated chat on the subject with him. (Unlike others who were only able to say, "Communism is bad" without any reasoning behind the statement.)

    (He was all of 25 FWIW.)

  • Arslan Amirkhanov says:

    "A few months ago, I was on a cruise & one of the dancers was a Romanian. We chatted with him while he was on Library Duty. Aside from the fact that he was not happy that we did not see his shows, he said that Romanians miss Communism… "

    Ceaucescu was an extreme revisionist and a bumbling fool, but your Romanian dancer's sentiments are shared over much of Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union.

    Of course when people from these places speak this way, we are to treat it as quirky, if not pathological nostalgia. When people like Gordon Brown or Niall Ferguson praise the British empire and insist that Britons should not feel guilty about it, it's a valid point of view. Likewise when so-called left-wingers of America such as Michael Moore or Barbara Ehrenreich wax on lovingly about the Keynesian America of the 1950s or 60s.

    That being said, Ceaucescu deserved what he got, but then again most Eastern European politicians since then deserve the same.

  • The video of the trial and execution of Ceausescu (a version that is not quite a snuff movie is the first hit on Youtube, I still had a hard time watching it) is the other side of it. The hated dictator and his wife could be your grandparents, they are utterly oblivious to why they are hated, after decades of making their own heroic reality, but they really and truly are taken outside and shot and the crude videotaping attests to it.

    Maybe somebody should show Mubarak that tape. You can die an old geezer in some Saudi resort, or you can get shot to death in some back alley. That really happens. Get on the damn plane.

  • (The single most effective thing to come out of the whole Iraq War, in terms of influence on how other dictators give up power, may be the cellphone video of Saddam being hanged. In its pathetic humiliation and seediness it says: don't go out like that.)

  • Yes, and the Persian side of my family, who loathed the Shah, miss his era now, too. To paraphrase Jubal Harshaw, the choice between "bad" and "worse" is much more poignant than that between "good" and "better."

    This is something I try to keep in mind when I slightly despise all of our politicians and want to turn the rascals out.

  • A lot of Italians speak fondly of Musolini too, and yet they hung him upside down under a bridge. A lot of Brits speak fondly of Churchill, and yet they tossed him out of office and voted in a Labour Government before the last embers of WW II were cold. A lot of Iraqis surely speak fondly of Saddam. I happened to see that Ceaucescu arrest/execution film more or less live on my tv. The utter disbelief evidenced by the principals remains one of the most remarkable things I've ever seen. This stuff is not new. They ran "Richard III" on Turner a couple of nights ago.

  • Arslan Amirkhanov says:

    Typically the people who speak well of Mussolini in Italy have very different politics than the Communist partisans who hanged him. It doesn't surprise me at all if a sizable, or even a majority of Romanians look fondly on socialism these days- but this does not necessarily mean they have any fondness for Ceaucescu. In fact, Ceaucescu's overthrow is very relevant today because one of the main gripes against him(and he was actually charged with something along the lines of 'economic sabotage') was the austerity measures he imposted on Romania to pay back debts to Western countries. Would that the workers in Greece, among other countries, take this story into account. Then again, if workers overthrow a capitalist liberal-democratic government, it's terrorism and undemocratic. Nearly forgot my liberal democratic indoctrination there.

    @Burple- But democratically elected Lukashenko IS a dictator because he is not nice to the US. One rule for the rich countries, another for the poor.

  • "Democratically elected Lukashenko"? The stupid, it burns. Seriously, that's some profound willful ignorance there.

    — I've lived in Romania. The vast majority of Romanians do not miss Communism. That said, a majority of Romanians probably do miss individual and particular aspects of Communist rule, from the social safety net — medical care might be crap, but everyone had it — to the intense friendships, to the Pioneer camps for the kids.

    There are few regimes so awful they have no positive aspects at all, and everything looks better in retrospect.

    Doug M.

  • Arslan Amirkhanov says:

    ""Democratically elected Lukashenko"? The stupid, it burns. Seriously, that's some profound willful ignorance there.э

    Yeah, I'm ignorant about Belarus, living in Moscow and all for nearly five years and following events in Belarus for all that time. But by all means, provide some actual proof that Lukashenko was not fairly elected. Even if there were such allegations, that hardly legitimizes storming the parliament building.

    The fact is that Lukashenko's policies have been great for ordinary Belorussians, whereas they have not been beneficial for Western businesses who would like pieces of those SOE's. This is why they hate Lukashenko constantly, yet they backed a real dictator, Mubarak, for decades. Remember this when you read about the EU criticizing elections there.

    This was precisely what I was trying to say. Romanians experienced a version of "socialism" very different than other Warsaw Pact countries, Yugoslavia, the USSR, or Albania for that matter.

  • "provide some actual proof that Lukashenko was not fairly elected."

    Let's see. Amnesty International stated that the elections were "a travesty" and cited "massive violations of democratic norms". Human Rights Watch noted that they were "conducted in a climate where opposition candidates could not effectively express their views". The Secretary-General of the UN expressed "concern".

    Ah, but they're puppets of the neoliberal West. How about: two opposition candidates were physicall attacked on or just before election day, and four more were arrested and imprisoned afterwards. Lukashenka won more than three times as many votes as all other candidates combined; the highest-polling opposition candidate got a remarkable 2.7% of the vote.

    "that hardly legitimizes storming the parliament building"

    So you seriously think it was the anti-Luk protestors who attacked the Parliament building? That's adorable. Come Christmas Eve, don't forget to leave cookies out for Santa.

    "The fact is that Lukashenko's policies have been great for ordinary Belorussians"

    They've been okay. Belarus avoided most of the second "transition shock" of the late 1990s and almost all of the current financial crisis, which is pretty good. On the other hand, it's still one of the poorest countries in Europe (per capita GDP is about the same as Serbia, and lower than Gabon or Botswana. Life expectancy is about the same as in Guatemala, Iran or Fiji — the average Belarusan male lives to just 63, lower than Tajikistan or Bangladesh, and a full 13 years less than the EU average.

    So, "great for ordinary Belarusans", well. They're doing better than Uzbekistan, sure. Compared to, say, Poles or Czechs? Maybe not so great.

    That said, I suspect Luka would have been able to win a reasonably free election. Belarus has low unemployment and (for a post-Soviet state) low-ish inequality, and it's been pretty stable. Belarus' political and economic elites are lined up pretty solidly behind the boss. He's reasonably popular, and there's no really plausible alternative.

    He could have — but he didn't bother, because he didn't want free elections. (And why would he? Seriously. Why bother?) The Mubarak comparison is actually a reasonably good one: fake elections, no successor ever allowed to emerge, the President openly planning to stay in office until he drops dead.

    "Dictator that the US once liked" vs. "Dictator that Russia likes (sometimes)" is neither here nor there. Egypt has never had a democratic election, and neither has Belarus. You can say you approve of Luka's policies, and that's fine — you can make that argument. But calling him "democratically elected" is just nonsense.

    Doug M.

  • Arslan Amirkhanov says:

    "Let's see. Amnesty International stated that the elections were "a travesty" and cited "massive violations of democratic norms"."

    Oh so if Amnesty International says something, it becomes fact. Ok.

    " Human Rights Watch noted that they were "conducted in a climate where opposition candidates could not effectively express their views".

    OMG HITLER!!!! The same argument could be made in US elections. This is a far cry from the election being a farce.

    " The Secretary-General of the UN expressed "concern".

    OH NO!! HE'S CONCERNED!!!

    You have utterly failed to present any evidence that the election was fraudulent, but more importantly, that the protestors had a right to storm the parliament.

    "Ah, but they're puppets of the neoliberal West. How about: two opposition candidates were physicall attacked on or just before election day, and four more were arrested and imprisoned afterwards."

    They were arrested because they decided to storm the parliament building. In case you hadn't heard, this is called sedition. Also there are plenty of people in Belarus who lived through the early 90s and would gladly physically beat someone in favor of privatization. As would I.

    " Lukashenka won more than three times as many votes as all other candidates combined; the highest-polling opposition candidate got a remarkable 2.7% of the vote."

    Proof please.

    "So you seriously think it was the anti-Luk protestors who attacked the Parliament building? That's adorable. Come Christmas Eve, don't forget to leave cookies out for Santa."

    Oh, so it's a "false flag attack!!" So the government arrested their own agents and put them in jail. THE ELECTION WAS AN INSIDE JOB!!! Hilarious.

    "They've been okay. Belarus avoided most of the second "transition shock" of the late 1990s and almost all of the current financial crisis, which is pretty good. On the other hand, it's still one of the poorest countries in Europe (per capita GDP is about the same as Serbia, and lower than Gabon or Botswana. Life expectancy is about the same as in Guatemala, Iran or Fiji — the average Belarusan male lives to just 63, lower than Tajikistan or Bangladesh, and a full 13 years less than the EU average."

    Belarus is also considered one of the safest countries in Eastern Europe for women and children, and has one of the best wealth distributions in the region, if not the best.

    "That said, I suspect Luka would have been able to win a reasonably free election. Belarus has low unemployment and (for a post-Soviet state) low-ish inequality, and it's been pretty stable. Belarus' political and economic elites are lined up pretty solidly behind the boss. He's reasonably popular, and there's no really plausible alternative."

    Exactly- I'm not saying this election was clean, his percentage could have been inflated, but he would have won anyway, and the oppositions plans would and still will be disasterous for Belarus.

    "Dictator that the US once liked" vs. "Dictator that Russia likes (sometimes)" is neither here nor there. Egypt has never had a democratic election, and neither has Belarus. You can say you approve of Luka's policies, and that's fine — you can make that argument. But calling him "democratically elected" is just nonsense."

    He was indeed "democratically elected", perhaps moreso than US presidents.

    At the end of the day, Belarus is a "dictatorship" where the people get jobs, stability, and a social safety net. The EU is full of democracy and the people get austerity measures.

    Besides, this is irrelevant as both the US and EU are increasing their business in Russia, which definitely has never had a free election, where opposition candidates are openly murdered, not simply intimidated or assaulted by unknown people, and the government doesn't give a damn about the people.

    Doug M.

  • Safest for women and children: Belarus' infant mortality rate is 9.4 per 1,000, which is one of the highest in Europe. It's about triple that of the Czech Republic (3.8) and much higher than in Poland (6.7) or Hungary (6.8). I guess if when you say "safer", you mean "mother has a 50% to 100% higher chance of seeing each baby die", then yes, it's safer.

    At the other end of life, female life expectancy in Belarus is lower than in Hungary, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Slovakia or the Czech Republic. So if by "safer" you mean "women die much sooner" then, again, yes.

    As for the rest, you're obviously living on a planet where "democratically elected" means "I like this guy, and he won!". Shrug; whatevs.

    Doug M.

  • Arslan Amirkhanov says:

    Safest as in less likely to get trafficked into sex slavery than a woman in Ukraine, Russia, or Moldova for example.

    And you might consider that all the sanctions and other attacks on Belarus over the years, plus the damage of privatization, might have had something to do with the conditions in Belarus, which Lukashenko has been handling pretty well.

    You have still failed to provide any proof that the election was rigged(far less I might add, than the proof that the 2000 US election). Hence, democratically elected.

  • Actually, Belarus has a trafficking problem. It's smaller than Moldova's or Ukraine's, sure. Are those really the comparisons you want to make?

    Sanctions and other attacks: actually, Belarus got dealt a better hand than most post-Soviet states. They inherited a reasonably intact industrial base and didn't face separatist movements or have to fight a war. (Compare, say, Armenia or Takikistan, where the conflicts of the 1990s caused national incomes to drop by over 50% *in addition to* the crashes caused by transition shock.)

    Economic sanctions: I'm sorry, but what are you talking about? The visa bans on Luka and friends have had zero effect on Belarus' economy. The EU has consistently refused to impose significant economic sanctions. The US has, but since Belarus has pretty much no trade with the US, that's completely meaningless. About 60% of Belarus' trade is with Russia, and another 30% or so is with the EU, and neither of those have imposed any economic sanctions.

    Doug M.

  • "failed to generate any proof": dude, I'm not sure when the burden of proof shifted to me. And how would I prove that, anyway? You won't believe Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the OECD, the Council of Europe, the European Parliament or the EU, right? What does that leave?

    Wait, the guy from the CIS. I'm going to guess you find his analysis perfectly credible. IMS it's the same guy who approved the last elections in Armenia and Kazakhstan. (Welcome back, President Nazarbaev! Hey, the highest-polling opposition candidate got over 6% — twice as much as in Belarus. Go democratic Kazakhstan!)

    Well, let's see. I'll note that all nationwide TV stations in Belarus are state-owned and broadcast adoring coverage of Luka nonstop. (There are a handful of independent stations; they are all local, and combined reach less than a third of the population.) All newspaper and magazine kiosks are also state-owned, and will refuse to distribute periodicals that are critical of the President. So opposition papers are forced to sell directly from their newsrooms and use volunteers to deliver copies. Even then, they're regularly subject to harassment and arrest, since "insulting the President of Belarus" is a criminal offense, as is "publishing facts that do not correspond to reality" and "harming the interests of the state". Independent newspapers are regularly shut down for these reasons or others (i.e., being "unqualified" under Belarus' media law).

    All ISPs are subject to a media law that can shut them down if anyone uses them to transmit information that criticizes the President, is harmful to the state, etc. etc. Even internet cafes are required by law to keep track of the names and addresses of all users and which websites they visit, and to provide this information to the security services.

    So the runup to the election saw Luka pretty much monopolizing every form of news. Opposition candidates had almost no opportunity to appear on TV or radio. (Over the four months of the campaign, they got one hour each of free coverage. Nice! Batka gets that much in an average afternoon.) Insofar as their campaigns were acknowledged by state-owned media (and they generally weren't) they were heavily criticized or, more often, mocked. There was a single presidential "debate", which Luka didn't bother attending.

    Campaign finances in Belarus are completely opaque; however, it was clear to all observers — sorry, all observers except the guy from the CIS — that state resources were used for Luka's campaign, and state employees were mobilized to support him. The streets of Minsk in were filled with poster after poster of Batka, with a handful of pathetic fliers for opposition candidates almost invisible. Meanwhile, state employees, militia, and workers in state-owned enterprises were bused in groups, under supervision, to vote. (This, plus a week of "early voting", helps explain Belarus' awesome 90%+ turnout rate.)

    I note in passing that two months before the election, Batka promised to raise the pay of public sector employees by nearly a third and pensions by 10%, generating a storm of adoration from the state-owned media that continued for weeks. Then in December, just before the election, he actually did it: cue another two weeks of news stories on grateful workers and weeping grandmothers.

    Finally, note that votes are counted by Local Election Commissions, who are appointed by the State Election Commission, which is appointed by Parliament. That's the Belarusan Parliament, which has not one single opposition member. Going into the Parliamentary elections of 2008, supporters of Lukashenka held all 110 seats; coming out of the elections, _mirabile dictu_, it was exactly the same. (They'll have another Parliamentary election in 2012. Do you want to make a side bet on how many opposition candidates will get elected?)

    So, the election commissions at all levels consist entirely of people who have been hand-picked by Batka's devoted supporters. Complaints about irregularities in the voting are handled by these commissions. I note in passing that "slandering" the election commissions is also a crime.

    All of this is public information, easily found with a few seconds of googling.

    Shrug. Moving on now! Thanks for playing, indeed. The last word is yours.

    Doug M.

  • Aslan, I usually follow your posts with great interest but you are just completely off the rails here. Your argument is a carbon copy of the most common wingnut form of logic: the mountain of evidence that disproves your claims must all be fabricated (despite the fact that, in this instance, the evidence that he was not and has never been elected in a reasonably fair and transparent election comes from highly reliable sources – and a lot of them).

    You have to pick your fights. To know when to hold 'em vs. when to fold 'em. And digging yourself into a Glenn Beck-type conspiracy labyrinth to try to prove that continental Europe's last true dictator is actually a democratically elected leader (for the last 18 years) seems like something that A) you will not be able to prove on account of the fact that it's patently false and B) probably not worth the expenditure of energy to try.

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