The Sixty-Five Hundred Sixty-Nine

The famous video of the precise moment Nicolai Ceausescu’s iron grip on power was pried loose. The puzzle moments like these represent is that what worked so well for decades can, in an instant, unravel; Machiavelli pointed this out, saying leaders who rely too much on luck are destroyed the moment their luck changes; one of my favorite writers, the late Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski, imn his book on the fall of the Shah of Iran, said the moment when things change, in a sense, is pre-ordained: the same iron fist that could squash dissent inevitably assures dissent will turn into an unbeatable opposition. If Machiavelli believed that the antidote to a stroke of ill-fortune for a leader was the ability to change tack depending on how the wind was blowing, Kapuskinski believed that strongmen, by their very nature (and their dim view of the nature of Man), would, in such a situation, be incapable of donning a new persona to try to recover their lost fortune: for in the end, the only solution might be to simply “cut and cut cleanly,” as another strongman was advised a quarter century ago this coming February. Gary Wills, another great student of power, in turn believed that unless one has a healthy distrust of power, actively relishing possessing and wielding it carried the seeds of any leader’s destruction.

From Tunisia the attention of the world has shifted to Egypt, where the government of Hosni Mubarak is fighting for its life on a truly operatic scale. Since the monarchy was abolished in the 1950s, Egypt has had only three leaders: the secularist Nasser, his assassinated successor, Sadat, and the pharaonic Mubarak. The immense weight of history and of the dynastic expectations of Mubarak’s presidency inevitably lead to the current Egyptian crisis echoing Shelley’s meditation on the futility of ambition. I’ve pointed to this poem before; at 82 years old, Mubarak belongs to the category of elderly, ailing strongmen, and that carries with it comparisons to the curiously pathetic last days of other, fallen strongmen. Not to mention the public shuddering of strongmen who see their peers toppling one by one.

I’ve mentioned before being struck by the observation made by a veteran official who once remarked to me, “We are all students of power,” and in times like these, journalists, bloggers, historians, sociologists, political scientists, diplomats and officials all end up drawn to the flames of beleaguered governments like moths. All the more so because the crumbling of governments often happens quickly, unexpectedly, particularly when in the nature of a revolution: in which case the drama requires all the experts to come up with theories and explanations to camouflage their inability to predict what has begun to take place. Kapuskinsci has a marvelous passage on the surprising nature of revolutions.

Once these begin to unfold, there are, in turn, dilemmas that ensue, partoicularly if the revolution is in the nature of a peaceful and not violent one: See my reference to Timothy Garton Ash on Velvet Revolutions, and The Nutbox looking at the same article from the perspective of recent events in Tunisia (the shutting down of the Internet in that country is itself a historic milestone but brings to the fore the continuing debate over just how effective social networking is, in mobilizing the public).

Governments, of course, take a different look at events as they unfold: in the case of our government, its primary duty is to look after the welfare and safety of its citizens, as well as to be a voice for reason in times of crisis. This morning, Deputy Presidential Spokesperson Abigail Valte read the following Palace statament on radio:

The Philippine government expresses its concern over the events unfolding in Egypt, particularly for the safety of the more than 6,500 Filipinos living there. We hope for a peaceful and just resolution to the political unrest currently taking place and a swift return to stability. Here in Manila, we are monitoring the situation and our embassy in Cairo has contingencies in place and is prepared to relocate our citizens to safer areas if it becomes necessary to do so. As always, the safety of our citizens is the paramount concern and we are doing what we can to anticipate and attend to their needs.

In his Twitter account, Secretary Ramon Carandang gave updates last night: today, the Department of Foreign Affairs told the media it was prepared to evacuate 6,569 Filipinos in Egypt if the situation warranted it. In her Twitter account, Undersecretary Valte also provided updates on the President’s instructions to the Departments of Foreign Affairs, Labor and Employment, Defense and the Presidential Management Staff, and the Philippine Embassy in Egypt’s announcement that it has prepared four relocation sites should the need arise: three in Cairo and one in Alexandria.

You can keep track of unfolding events in Al-Jazeera’s Liveblog, and refer to What’s Happening in Egypt Explained.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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