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More on Egypt and the Global Legitimacy Crisis

Friday, Feb. 4, 2011

I don't want to belabor the point I made in a recent post about a global crisis of legitimacy, and I should clarify that I don't think the West and the world in general is dozing indolently on a bed of potential revolution. But a couple of seemingly unrelated news items here in France draw out the inchoate dynamic I was trying to put my finger on.

France's Foreign Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie already got into hot water during the initial round of protests in Tunisia when she suggested in testimony to a parliamentary committee that French gendarmes could help train Tunisian security forces in crowd-control techniques. In fairness, her remarks were taken out of context and their meaning distorted, as her intention was not to suppress the Tunisian protests, but rather to ensure that Tunisian security forces were able to respond to them without violence to the protesters.

But it gets worse. Just weeks later, she spent her Christmas vacation in Tunisia, where she flew in a private jet belonging to a businessman whose charter airline company was held in partnership with the brother-in-law of Tunisia's now-deposed President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. MAM, as she is known here, defended herself against the predictable opposition attacks by explaining that the man's business had been plundered by the ruling family, and that he had never been close to the regime. That may be the case, but clearly the optics are not in her favor.

Worse still, just a week after her initial controversial remarks, the very French gendarmerie she had proposed sending to Tunisia to offer its expertise in peaceful crowd control techniques was busy breaking up a peaceful protest in France with the kind of heavy-handed methods that would lead the casual observer to believe that they had received their training in Tunisia. The close-range tear-gassing begins at the 1:45 mark of the video, but it's worth watching the beginning to see the friendly atmosphere that preceded it. The men with the bleu-blanc-rouge sashes shaking the hands of the gendarmes are local city council members. The older woman wiping her eyes at the 1:30 mark says to the gendarme who had obviously already begun to tear-gas the crowd, "It's a disgrace what you're doing! It's a disgrace!"

Is France at the verge of revolution? No. But at a moment when uprisings that were unimaginable even weeks ago are shaking the foundations of our geopolitical assumptions, and just months after strikes shut down the country's gasoline supply network, you'd think the word would have gone out to the local gendarmeries to avoid the kind of unnecessary violence that gets people thinking. Thinking about what? Well, for starters, about the fact that the country's ruling class has maintained not just close working ties, but very comfortable personal contacts with the very regimes that are the targets of the popular rage being broadcast nightly on the evening news.

And while we're at it, we might as well add the fact that LVMH's net profits went up 73 percent in 2010, to a record $4.13 billion, based largely on the performance of Luis Vuitton luggage -- an ironic symbol of globalization as playground of the elites -- even as whatever global economic recovery we might talk about has not included much in the way of jobs, while the cost of basic food commodities has doubled.

The point here is that the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt are driven largely by the desire to have what we in the West already enjoy -- democracy and integration into the global economy. The same desire for both of these are what drove the West's victory in the Cold War. But unlike in 1991, the West is not now in a position to absorb those aspirations, and indeed finds itself in a situation where their value in terms of improving people's day-to-day conditions is no longer as patently obvious as to be beyond popular scrutiny. For now, the only alternative we seem to have come up with is based on the kind of good conscience and generosity demonstrated by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. That's better than nothing, but is it enough?

China has reacted to the events in the Middle East by limiting domestic coverage, in an attempt to keep people from considering the alternatives to their own brand of state capitalism. In not engaging in self-examination, the West risks committing the same error. When the dust clears in Tunis and Cairo, and wherever else the current unrest might spread, just what will we be offering to these countries and societies? If it's just a matter of changing whose private jet the minister's Luis Vuitton luggage gets loaded into, that's not much of an alternative.

And in an era where all contact serves as a connective node in the global network, contagion from the kind of complicity the West has with these regimes is harder to firewall. The questions the Tunisian and Egyptian people are asking today are likely to be on the lips of the French, British and American people tomorrow. We would do well to begin thinking about the answers.