I was undecided how to begin this article.
the inspiration? A suggestion given by an Italian journalist to politicians belonging to the opposition, and observing for a couple of weeks what happened in Tunisia and other countries.
most commentators reported the events in Tunisia and elsewhere, claiming yet another success for e-democracy.
at the same time, in Italy, we have our daily dose of requests from each side to resign, the opposition to the Prime Minister (formally: President del Consiglio dei Ministri) Mr. Berlusconi, the ruling coalition to the head of the lower chamber (Camera dei Deputati), Mr. Fini, until recently part of the ruling coalition.
of course- in both cases, with plenty of discussions in Facebook (usually, mirroring the communication style adopted by professional politicians).
a strange tunnel vision developed- as if, once the thread is started, it would be impossible to perceive and include any new information that is provided by… reality.
this article is about e-democracy: and why it is not, for the time being, what it seems to be.
I will get back to Tunisia and other countries on the seashore around European Union, but before a short digression on what could happen when means and ends are not perfectly overlapping: a page from Italy in the 1920s.
because while e-democracy is usually focused on the intended results- it should take care also of the unintended consequences.
few days ago, I was surprised to watch a TV segment on the Web showing the editor of a major Italian newspaper (usually a “flanker” of the current Government), suggesting to a leading politician from the centre-left coalition that, as the Prime Minister refuses resign and had enough votes to survive a no-confidence vote (last time, in December)… they could resign “en masse”- and repeated it few times.
he has the numbers to stay in, for various reasons- not the least that quite a few of the current members need to complete at least a full legislature to obtain their pension benefits, and not everybody is confident of being re-elected.
why “surprised”? because the opposition politician instead of laughing at the suggestion and moving on without picking up the obvious provocation (falling into the trap of comparing the Prime Minister with Mr. Mussolini), said that it was something worth considering.
why do I assume that she should have laughed at the suggestion?
because what he suggested should sound familiar to any student of ancient history, the Aventine Secession, but, more relevant and more significant, its occurrence in the 1920s.
in the 1920s, most of the members of the Italian Parliament belonging to the opposition parties (except the Communists, for fear of leaving the Fascists with no opposition at all) started meeting outside the usual venue, the Secessione aventiniana (but you can find a better explanation of the historical context here, or something easer to feed into GoogleTranslate here).
few years later… all the member of the Parliament who had been part of the Aventinian Secession were pushed out of office, while the Fascists had “de facto” control of the State.
of course- the intention was to provoke into comparing Mr. Berlusconi with Mr. Mussolini
but by not bringing back to memory that what was suggested wasn’t just a valid alternative, and something that historically had proved to be counter-productive, the audience was left with the impression that what the Centre-Left coalition cares about is keeping glued to the chair.
at least, in the following days cooler heads prevailed, and nobody invoked the “Aventinian” solution- maybe somebody, after all, remembered history.
back on track- the main issue.
e-democracy and its infrastructure
I was quite skeptical about all the articles extolling the virtues of Twitter, Facebook, and the like, and their role within the events that lead to the regime change in Tunisia.
and the same applies to other countries.
accessing to Twitter, Facebook etc requires a working telecom infrastructure, and a willing party enabling its use- it is democracy by concession.
therefore, whenever I hear about an uprising supported by social networks online, I read something different- a power struggle where part of the regime is supporting the change, but unwilling to do it internally, and “crowdsourcing” the struggle.
as I posted on Twitter when the new Tunisian government was announced, on January 18th, relaunching and interpreting a New York Times article:
“NYT: risks of a Kerensky-end to the new Unity government? http://tinyurl.com/688sgvv #tunisia “
I could believe that few volunteers, when the telecom infrastructure is switched off, would resort to point-to-point bluetooth messaging/object push or bridging through WiFi, up to a point where a connection is available via satellite, and then use other similar channels to build a virtual network- broadcasting on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube their view.
a live access to the Internet with instant messaging via GSM requires the support of at least part of the regime.
two days ago, between the various items that I heard on the web, there were few video segments with interviews with locals in Tunisia (in French), who said that when the falling regime unleashed some “militias” (described as “death squads”), they used Twitter to alert the Army about any encounter with the militias.
in Tunisia as in Egypt it seems that the military is the enabler to a smooth power transition, a power transition that seems related more to the willingness to part of the incumbent ruling groups to avoid being shut off the power network by a succession path that could potentially exclude them, than to the actual introduction of new actors within the political scene.
in each case, the infrastructure needed to support e-democracy was a communication channel under the control of the incumbent regime- and, as shown in Egypt, it could be switched off.
as I wrote above: it might well be that the unrest was initiated to help part of each regime avoid yet another North Korean approach to succession, while keeping the succession in close quarters, as none of the parties involved was strong enough to challenge the incumbent.
also in few other Islamic countries on the seashore of the Mediterranean there has been a similar approach to transition, in some cases still “in fieri”: unfortunately, in each case a less than peaceful transition.
what I heard and read from most non-local politicians in interviews and through newspapers is an indirect fear
fear that each one of the countries in the region will have a regime change- using democratic means to obtain power, and then follow the Fascists’ way to enforce a regime excluding all those who are non-aligned.
it does not matter, for the purpose of this article, if the non-democratic regime is an interpretation of Islam that denies the possibility of a real democracy, or another religious or non-religious political ideology.
also because most commentators would have a tough time calling “democratic” the regimes that are being replaced.
in Egypt, as in another country in the region few years ago, the succession seems to be passing through the former head of the security services- a source of continuity
but not really what you would expect in a classical, Western European democracy, where the military and security services are supposed to be “super partes”.
and today it was confirmed that actually the continuity within the ruling groups, represented by the Vice-President, is balanced by continuity on the opposition, represented by the former head of the IAEA, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mr. El Baradei.
both have another characteristic: they are familiar figures abroad, and therefore the continuity and stabilization is presented both for internal and foreign consumption.
it is still too early to say if the effort at disruption within continuity will be successful, or other forces will derail the transition, but nonetheless neither Egypt nor Tunisia are the only countries in the area getting through this “rite of passage” toward what is represented as an expanded democratization.
From democracy to e-democracy
probably, a real e-democracy would require that the infrastructure of communication be kept independent: as if its oversight were yet another part of the infrastructure of the State, whose operation is delegated to private or public entities, but outside the control of whoever is the incumbent.
frankly, an idealistic approach that has few followers between our current leading politicians and opinion-makers
each one of them is ready to accept this principle, and equally ready to contradict the same principle, if there is the slightest chance that this could enable some unpalatable alternatives to seize power.
it is a side-effect of our shared XX century history: Italy and Germany saw respectively in the 1920s and 1930s that a non-democratic regime can be built through democratic means: and e-democracy, with its speed and “viral” (as in epidemiology, not in marketing) spread, requires building some “antibodies” that will defend us from a repeat of our past mistakes.
we still lack those “antibodies” for the much slower traditional representative democracy, as shown by periodical surges in extremist and populist political parties built on the aim to remove from the political arena political opponents (call them neo-fascists, if you want- but the name is not relevant- what matters, is their intolerance).
pity that post-WWII propaganda tried to present the fascist regimes as if they had been landing from Mars, instead of seizing power through a tolerated abuse of the democratic system, powered by mass-media.
e-democracy is an interesting concept- but it requires an higher level of acceptance of the basic “rules of the game” than the usual democratic system: and, from my experience online, and studies on fringe social networks, it requires first and foremost an expanded education on developing critical skills.
Defending (e-)democracy from itself
traditional representative democracy had an embedded safeguard: the cost of entry in the game.
if you know my position on the financing of politics, this seems a contradiction: but traditional representative democracy requires a machinery in place that leads to “fair game rules”- eventually.
tech enthusiasts usually are extremely focuses on technological prowess.
a focus that leaves no time to spend on building those “antibodies” against manipulation that allows to be an active member of a democracy
or, even worse, a focus that makes them believe that anything not built on a simple, straightforward cause-and-effect principle is a waste of time.
but you need only few technological experts to build consensus within an online environment
e-democracy replaces the potential risk of “a dictatorship of the majority” always present within a democratic system, with a “dictatorship of the (technological-savvy) miinority”, a minority able to used what I could call “e-smoke and e-mirrors” to easily project itself as representing a non-existing “silent majority”.
frankly: way too often the development of “e-democracy” activities remind me more of “The Tailor of Panama” (the movie derived from Le Carre’s book), also if often their initiators are heralded as the latest reincarnations of Thomas Payne (“this is the time” etc: it is free on Gutenberg).
The spill-over effect of e-democracy
but e-democracy, as I said, can have real consequences: and it seems that all those who died in Tunisia and Egypt are easily converted into footnotes.
e-democracy agit-prop can easily sit on their couch and act as “links” or “relays” (and often as amplifiers).
nonetheless: all those kids who risked their lives to twitter the position of militias to the military in Tunisia (as reported in the interviews listed above: I do not know if it is true or not- if not, let me know on Facebook or Twitter)…
… will they be involved in the post-transition democracy?
or will have they been the e-”cannon fodder” for yet another promise of a better future?
and today’s newsletter from UNHCR (email@example.com) is a reminder of what happens when an international campaign is successful
everybody congratulates all those involved in building the international support… and moves on to the next crisis.
Managing the aftermath of e-democracy transitions
it does not change a lot from traditional transitions: but when a transition is based on a trauma, you have some side-effects.
today’s newsletter reminded me of a small detail: everybody is happy about the relatively free referendum in Sudan: but will the international pressure still be there when people will start moving from one side of the new border line to the other?
the question is: can we use e-democracy worldwide to ensure a smooth transition and, yes, manage the resulting refugees?
I was born in Italy, and I hold an European Union passport (as the Swiss one, linked to the citizenship of a Member State)
therefore, I wrote already in the past about the not-so-nice picture projected by the figures on asylum seekers: we Europeans, despite all our past, did not take our fair share of refugees.
specifically, with unrest now in Tunisia, Egypt, Albania, Algeria, we can expect that the first ones to seek asylum will be the well-healed linked to the past regime: the jet refugees, able to reach places where it is safer, maybe through agreements between the new governments in their home countries and foreign countries.
others, will try to reach existing communities abroad (maybe with those currently abroad partially returning, and those willing to run away replacing them), but, again, using “almost civilized” channels (airlines, scheduled travel, special charters, and so on).
considering our past experience (pick up any European newspaper during any summer), we can also brace for a new humanitarian crisis.
it is cold, in the Mediterranean. and maybe people will try to escape using the illegal immigrants’ route.
some will seek asylum because they are too irrelevant on the big scheme to receive the means and hospitality given to more important members of the past regime, but still too linked to them to be safe in their own country.
some will just be economic migrants that, instead of waiting for Summer 2011, will decide to take the risk now, to be able to pretend that they too are asylum seekers.
but both will risk dearly- and probably no e-democracy activists or propagandists abroad will care applying political pressure to make the issue manageable.
look at the map: Italy, Greece, France, Spain will probably be the main destinations- the first one, as part of its territory is just on the shores of Tunisia, the first two also due to the extent and porosity of their coastal lines (i.e. you can patrol them, but closing them? difficult), and the others because sizeable communities exist (Morocco is not considered at risk right now- but somebody invoked a potential domino effect, reminding the scenario represented within an old book, “Total War 2007”).
in any case: the southern border is a Schengen border- and, in my humble opinion, as I wrote time and again, should be managed as a shared burden.
a sudden influx of potential refugees would overload the system of the coastal countries- and it would make more sense to spread the issue, while keeping an eye on the humanitarian side (i.e. without splitting families, if any).
with the aim to let the true asylum seekers enter, and repatriate the economic migrants pretending to be asylum seekers, as this is what the current rules require (again- I wrote in the past what I think about immigration policy: but if these are the rules for non-EU immigration, do we have a choice?).
so, from tomorrow maybe all the supporters of e-democracy have something else to care about: the aftermath of transition- and the most humane way.
and, in this case, that vocal techno-minority can help achieve and maintain a huge visibility, without rockstars organizing concerts, but just individuals keeping on the front page the issue of managing the side-effects of e-democracy-based transitions.