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Posts Tagged ‘Arab Spring

What Black Swan Theory has to do with Arab Spring uprising?

Posted on June 13, 2012

I have posted several articles on the Black Swan Theory and this link is in response to its application to Lebanon political/social structure https://adonis49.wordpress.com/2011/06/03/is-lebanon-political-system-immune-to-radical-non-violent-revolts-think-again/

Zaher Yahya posted on Huffington Post an article (with slight editing) that is a general “refresher” post on the topic:

“The Arab Spring has been described and associated with a variety of symbolic designations.

At times, the term describes the series of protests that have swept across the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region. It may also indicate a person’s political position on the wide and highly polarized spectrum.

The term ‘Arab Spring’ has even been criticized by some who support the pro-democracy (or anti-regime) protests, citing this description as being Orientalist and therefore inappropriate.

The ‘Arab Spring’  (protests and upheaval), which started on December 2010, has become a brand for the region, and has motivated and catalyzed many popular protest movements around the world.

International media generally refers to the term as a unified concept, largely citing its contagious aspects as well as the key links between the countries involved.

We now know that the Arab Spring will not be an easy ride for the countries that it has affected, though it cannot be denied that the region has been marked by a political paradigm shift.

People in the MENA region have:

1. Denounced the long-accepted principle that unelected officials and family dynasties can cling to power for decades without consequence.

2. People have broken the long-standing barriers of fear regarding corruption and intimidation,

3. People are adjusting to the ideological diversity of their societies (though many still have much to learn on this front).

For these reasons, I tend to be optimistic about the Arab Spring despite much rhetoric about it becoming an Arab “Winter.”

Having lived through the global financial crisis that has affected people of all walks of life, I view the Arab Spring as being related to these events that shook the world economy in 2007.

Are you surprised that I find a relation may exist between these two events, both vast and far-reaching, but seemingly distinct? It may appear a tad philosophical, but the answer lies with Nassim Taleb.

Nassim Taleb (see note 2) lays the foundations  in his two books Randomness (2001) and Black Swan (2007) for his theories about uncertainty, randomness and Black Swan events.

Black Swan theory describes unpredicted major-impact events that effectively appear sensible in hindsight.

Taleb theory is framed in a financial context, (many experts contend that Taleb forecasted the financial meltdown of 2007), and describes the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s as one of these Black Swan moments.

Black Swan moments are characterized as being rare, high-impact and paradoxically unpredictable occurrences at the time of their occurrence. Most of us would assume black swans don’t exist, simply because we were only accustomed to seeing white swans in pictures and videos…

In the terms of the financial crisis, speculators assumed there is only one way for the markets to go; asset values would rise indefinitely with no limit to the amount of debt people could incur.

It has become clear afterward that the reality on the ground was different of what was written on their balance sheets and portfolios bottom lines.

The impact of the debt crisis was colossal and wide-spread that no expert envisaged at the time, with many talking about the failure of capitalism as a result. This global crash has really shattered the image and ultimate authority of the dictators of the finance sector (i.e. investment banks and hedge funds).

The Arab spring proved as difficult to predict as the financial meltdown showing economists, intelligence agencies, policy makers and analysts clueless about their own business, simply because they have never considered a Black Swan moment for the MENA region.

The Arab Spring was triggered by what could initially have been interpreted as an isolated event, spread surprisingly fast over a vast region, and led to major and unexpected developments.

In the same way, norms of the banking system that was held for generations collapsed with stunning speed and magnitude, the image and privilege of Arab dictators were shattered by popular revolts in a movement that took the world by surprise.

A Black Swan moment was never considered in the experts’ minds to apply to the Arab States: many Arab dictators held a seemingly unshakable iron grip on power and ruled undeterred for up to four decades, all while preparing their sons to someday take the reins after them, unshaken by popular and economic conditions in their country.

So the public witnessed only their moukhabarat (secret service agents) running the show, as well as the brutal backstage of the regime if you were unlucky enough to pay them a visit.

Years of tradition made this construction of power a social norm, a backbone of society so persevering it was often assumed (and reasonable at the time) to be unshakable.

And this is exactly what Nassim Taleb focuses on, exactly on the things we don’t know rather than the things we think we do.

A small exception to a rule (events in the tails of the normal graph) in the future can have the ability to trigger large-scale change and dismantle norms, theories and paradigms that have been accepted for years.

The colossal impact of the Arab Spring across the region was beyond anyone’s realm of expectations – either idealistic or highly calculated.

In the world of risk management, this event appeared highly unlikely: The probability of such events spreading across such a vast region were not on the minds of political forecasters, in the same way so many bankers did not fathom their long-standing stability could be shattered so suddenly.

In hindsight, the Arab Spring may now appear to have been predictable.

How could we have assumed that despite torture, censorship, abuse, brutality, corruption, unemployment and poverty, regimes would remain sustainable?

Whatever your opinion of the Arab Spring, and whatever term you choose to designate it, what started in December 2010 has proven itself a Black Swan moment of the Middle East and North Africa, one that is far from over, and whose impact will perhaps take years to fully assess.

Note 1Michelle Ghoussoub, Blogger at Lebanon Spring, edited Yahya article.  Follow Zaher Yahya on Twitter: www.twitter.com/TheZako

Note 2: Nassim Taleb is a renowned Lebanese-American statistician, best-selling author and former Wall Street trader. His books Fooled by Randomness (2001) and Black Swan (2007) brought him to fame, with the latter described by The Sunday Times as “one of the twelve most influential books since World War II”.

Note 3: Opinion experts would like us to believe that the uprising were not expected by the US. Evidences are pointing that what was unexpected is the development, steadfastness and far-reaching movement of the Arab people to get away with their long established indignities and humiliation by usurping oligarchies.

Note 4: What is of most importance is to study how the colonial powers and Saudi Kingdom, and monarchic regimes went about taming this mass upheaval and re-instituting dictators power in the MENA region. Only the fomenting of the extremist religious movements were the major barriers in resuming these mass upheaval.

Is Lebanon political system immune to radical non-violent revolts?

Posted on June 24, 2011

Has anyone seen a swan (baja3) physically? In the flesh, or even flying or walking? 

If you are asked “what is the color of a swan?”  I bet your answer is “White, obviously”. 

Actually, a black swan was identified a few years ago.  Is it possible to eventually identify a multicolored swan?

You might say that finding a black swan, or even a tribe of black swans, or a mixture of black and white swans stand to reason, but is it feasible to have a green, blue… swan?  You might respond that genetic engineering can produce whatever colored swan you desire as a pet…

Why do you think all of us believed that a swan must be white, and nothing but white?  Most of us have not seen a swan, except in pictures, movies or documentaries; we might not even be able to identify a swan from a duck if the bird is not named…

Even nature, which changes slowly and its trends can be mostly predicted, has the potential of surprising us with rare events, a few of them catastrophic.  

We got in the habit of expecting frequent disasters from man-designed and man-made systems, within a few years of their applications and usage by people…

The variability in living creatures and the behaviors of users are a thousand folds more numerous than variability in nature.  Wouldn’t you be appalled in total disbelief to hear any designer of systems claiming that the product is definitely designed and manufactured to be entirely controlled and managed according to users’ satisfaction, safety, and health?

The teams of designers of many professions such as scientists, engineers, psychologist, legal professionals… are aware of two things:

First, there will be frequent minor malfunctions to the system in terms of financial loss, safety and health causalities, but these malfunctions can be controlled and fixed.

Second, any system contains rare catastrophic malfunctions that will eventually occur (doud al khal minho wa fih) and predicting these rare events is very challenging and out of control and management. 

When you hear of economic-safety analysis trade-off of a system, bear in mind that the study concerns the number of casualties and the financial cost that owners (more frequently the State or the tax payers) will have to set aside for these calamitous eventualities.

The funny part is that:

First, no money is ever set aside by the private shareholders for these catastrophes and the States or tax-payers will eventually cover up the expenses.

Second, transparency and full disclosure to the general public is never disseminated widely, if ever published.

Third, the public and communities in most countries have No Say in the design and decision-making processes of vast man-made systems.

Fourth, no man-made system has instituted an independent specialized and dedicated team responsible of gathering data and analysing statistics of the various malfunctions.  Most malfunctions are barely reported and serious hazardous events are dusted-off under the carpet:  No read, never happened!

Do you know that the UN agency for health is forbidden to collect and report statistics on nuclear disaster consequences?  That the atomic UN agency is not to share statistics with other UN agencies concerned with health and safety of world population?

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a mathematician by formation wrote  “The Black Swan:  The power of the unpredictable” and “Savage hazard”. 

Taleb was initially trying to explain the financial crisis since he is in the financial business.  The theory is fine and explains many fluctuations in man-made designs, for example the international financial system.

The problem emerges when Taleb ventures to extend his theory to the current “Arab” revolts and Arab political systems.  The is no doubt that political structures are essentially man-made designs and that the current acceptable varieties as within the realm of “How a democratic political system satisfies the criteria of the Western system democratic types.”

Taleb contends that since governments in Lebanon take turn, for example representing “opposition alliances”, as in Italy, the inherent and natural fluctuations in the system instability are resolved naturally.

Basically and literally, Taleb claimed that Lebanon political structure is immune to drastic revolts , on the ground that dictator regimes fall badly because the system try hard to control minor legitimate discontents, and consequently, the system is fragile when any major revolt strikes unexpectedly.

Either Taleb (Lebanese of origine)  is using selective memory, or he is faking not to be that familiar with the history of Lebanon’s political structure.

I suspect that Taleb confused catalysts with causes in the case of Lebanon, a confusion he frequently warned against, in analyzing the cases of the “Arab Spring” revolts and the financial crisis.

First, since independence in 1943, Lebanon officially recognized two failed internal coup d’etats, one in 1949 and another in 1961 (both done by the Lebanese-based Syria National Social party).  Lately, Lebanon witnessed a minor failed coup d’etat at the ministry of communication, because a private interest wanted to conserve its mobile communication business.

Second, Lebanon witnessed two officially recognized civil wars, one in 1958 and another one in 1975 that lasted 17 years.

Since the end of the civil war in 1991, Lebanon experienced a major military coup d’etat in 2008 that started in the Palestinian camp of Nahr el Bared around Tripoli:  The army needed 11 months to overcome the uprising of the Islamist salafists Jund al Sham, and hundreds of fallen martyrs and handicapped soldiers.

Beirut experienced a quick military coup in 2007 by Hezbollah, as the government attempted to control land communication lines.

The war of 2006 against Israel was actually a military coup perpetrated by the Lebanese government to control Hezbollah’s military might.

Third, Italy has true political parties with programs and policies.  The election laws in Italy are among the fairest and most equitable in the western States.  Frequent changes in governments didn’t prevent Italy to continue being among the leading economic powers in the world.

Italy is very generous in investing in the poorer nations and its grants are relied upon in most States around the Mediterranean Sea basin.  Italy has many contingents in the various UN peace-keeping forces…

Where as, for example, Lebanon is practically a Non-State country or a pseudo-State since its independence.  The 18 religious sects represent the main de-facto powers and also by law to exercising political influence.  Civil status of every “citizen” is run and administered by the officially recognized religious sects that own more than 50% of the land.  Every religious sect is backed by over three confessional “political parties”.

The two historically secular political parties, the Communist and the Syrian National Social parties, were denied participation in the Parliament via biased and tailored-made election laws and procedures.

The Syrian National Social party was recently permitted to enter the parliament, carried on the shoulders of other main confessional parties. 

The multi-theocratic system, backed by the financial institutions that lend Lebanon governments to cover budget deficit, have vested interests in prohibiting the constitution of any viable and sustainable modern State governing system.

Fourth, Lebanon lacks sustainable public institutions and any long-term programs and policies.  The only benefit the citizen enjoys is a mere passport.  There exist no serious governance for the people to march against and demand reforms.

Was Taleb aware of the actual conditions and situation in Lebanon for him to categorize Lebanon as falling in line within the “stable” political systems and immune to radical revolts as Italy?

The hot season has started in the northern hemisphere, and the Spring Revolt might cool off a bit.  In Lebanon, we missed the spring upheavals that swept the “Arab” world, but we planted the seed of a fresh drastic non-violent revolt for the next spring season.

The youth in Lebanon organized five marches in various cities in Lebanon demanding change in the confessional political structure.

Next Spring, the revolt will still be non-violent, but the target and purpose of the revolt will not be a matter of a reform here and another there.  The traditional “leaders” have demonstrated that they refuse to establish a functioning State for all “citizens”:  Lebanon has been run by Non-State governments, or care-taker governments.

The Youth Movement for Change must be ready for the dawn of the next spring season: It must start doing serious due diligence. For example,

1.  Specialized teams have to dig-up and dust-off the policies and programs stored in the basements of ministries.  The goal of reviewing and revising already studied programs is: “A political system from the people to the people”.

2. The Lebanese have to feel they are true citizens with equal rights under the law.

3. The Lebanese have to enjoy fair and equitable election laws that allow common people to accede to decision-making positions.

4. Laws have to be revised for citizens, regardless of genders, race, or religious affiliation, to have fair opportunities to all political positions and job opportunities in the public and private institutions and enterprises.

5. The Constitution has to be re-written to separate religion from civil power and responsibility…

Radical changes are possible: There are no other alternatives to patching up a rotten political and social structure.

It is not feasible to move on with small incremental reforms under the power of the ferocious religious and financial oligarchies that have been dominating our lives and subjugating us to constant instability and indignities.

We have grown up to be mature and responsible adult “citizens”.  Lebanon is Not immune to drastic revolts, and the next revolution will be successful!

Note 1: Nassim Taleb, a mathematician, was a trader and worked for 20 years as consultant to large investment banks in New York and London. He created Empirica LLC for trading.  He is engineering professor at the polytechnic institute at the University of New York.

Note 2: This article was posted 9 years ago. Currently, Lebanon is under a total bankruptcy at all levels: State, banks, Central Bank, financial and economy. Lebanon is going through drastic calamities: the electric-magnetic atomic pulse devastation of the Port of Beirut, and a lingering Covid-19 pandemics. 75% of the Lebanese are poor and no government is to be agreed upon.

Understanding the Middle East with better clichés

Some people feel that western media coverage of the Middle East is dominated by too many clichés and stereotypes.

An emerging view now believes that there are actually too few rather than too many clichés, thereby making reporting less accurate.

This radical critique of what is really wrong with Western media coverage has already produced enlightening pieces that allow us to understand what exactly is happening in the Middle East, far better than we have managed in the past.

Below is a sample of this revolutionary trend.

Karl reMarks: Understanding the Middle East with better clichés. Feb. 27, 2015 karlremarks.com

In order to understand the Middle East and North Africa/the Arab World/The Near East Muslim, one must begin with its centre of gravity and most populous nation, Egypt.

Following the general tumult that ensued from the Arab Spring/Arab Uprisings, Egypt is now ruled by the military strongman and former army leader Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi.

Sisi is presumed to be a bald Sunni Muslim secular leader who came to power after overthrowing democratically-elected moderate Islamist Sunni (not-bald) Mohammed Morsi .

Sisi’s secular takeover was supported by hardcore Wahhabi Sunni Saudi Kingdom and other moderate conservative Sunni Arab States.

However it was opposed by the only other Wahhabi state, Qatar, a “moderate” conservative small country that employs conservative Islamist journalists in Arabic and left-wing, socially-aware journalists in English. (The western media insist all these dictator Emirs/Sultans/Kings are moderates…)

This is not a surprise because the charm of the Middle East stems from its contradictions.

Now both Qatar and Saudi Arabia oppose the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, a secular Alawi leader from the minority offshoot Shia sect, but they disagree on which of the moderate Sunni Muslim rebels against him they should support in public and which of the extreme Sunni factions they should support in secret.

Assad is in turn supported by conservative Shia Iran and the Lebanese Shia (not offshoot) militant group Hezbollah.

Conservative Shia Iran and uber-Conservative Sunni Saudi Arabia are locked in a fierce geopolitical struggle that some argue is the continuation of ancient sectarian divisions, while others believe is more of a struggle over influence embellished with sectarian rivalries.

Despite their many disagreements, Saudi Arabia and Iran agree on conducting their rivalry through proxy regional wars instead of an all-out war, probably because it’s more fun this way.

Besides Syria, there are several other mutually-acceptable venues in which Saudi Arabia and Iran conduct their proxy wars, such as Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen.

Recently in Yemen, the Houthis who are members of yet another Shia offshoot group, took over the country, once again as a consequence of the general tumult that ensued from the Arab Spring.

Some say Iran was behind the Houthis’ move, partially to punish Saudi Arabia for allowing oil prices to drop.

In traditional Persian culture it’s considered an insult to allow the prices of commodities to drop below production cost, which explains Iran’s anger.

But it’s in Iraq where the struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia gets really complicated.

The sudden rise of the Islamic State under the leadership of self-declared Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has taken everyone who wasn’t paying attention by surprise. (It was No surprise, just impotence from Iraq government)

Baghdadi, a very Sunni Muslim extremist, although I wouldn’t say it to his face, has led his forces to occupy large parts of Iraq including the second-largest city, Mosul.

The rise of the Islamic State threatened Iran’s influence in Iraq, which should have pleased Saudi Arabia, save for the fact that the new Caliphate is ideologically indisposed towards Saudi Arabia, which it sees as the epitome of liberal values.

Everything is relative, as they say.

So Saudi Arabia is in the tricky position of having to balance its competing aims of weakening Iran but containing the existential threat posed by the Islamic State. There are No non-existential threats in the Middle East.

For its part, Iran has thrown its weight behind the Shia forces fighting the Islamic State in Iraq, although this has aligned it momentarily with its old foe, the United States.

But Iran is also full of contradictions as, despite being a theologically-governed Islamic State, it seems to be capable of taking pragmatic decisions in its regional policies.

Recent photographic evidence obtained by Western media outlets even suggests that Iranian women, who must wear Islamic clothes in public, actually wear bras under their clothes.

They also watch television and laugh with their friends, much like people in the West sometimes do.

Western media clearly thought this was important to point out, so it must be so.

Another major Sunni player is Turkey, which is allied with Qatar against the Saudi-Egyptian axis.

Turkey is led by relatively moderate Sunni Muslim Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a suited non-bearded Islamist with latent Ottoman impulses.

Turkey opposed the removal of president Morsi in Egypt, not least because he was also a suited Islamist.

Turkey’s position has been close to that of Qatar in Syria and Libya, where everyone has been competing for influence since Gaddafi’s fall.

(Regional Middle Eastern powers are like the nightclub circle, they all want to be seen in the new place. Lately, Qatar revealed that their activities in Syria in funding the extremist organizations was dictated by USA)

The situation in Libya was complicated by the fact that there are no sectarian divisions in the country, which made things difficult for a while until Libyans decided to create random divisions.

(You can get a sense of this by reading any article on Libya and trying to understand who is against whom and why).

This greatly facilitated the involvement of external powers and made proxy wars much easier to wage.

Although it is a bit unfair to Iran, which being Shia can’t find any allies in an exclusively Sunni Muslim country.

Oh look, this is almost one thousand words already and we don’t have time to wrap up all the loose strands neatly, so it’s best to end on a timeless-sounding platitude about the Middle East and how it will always be the same.

Perhaps even a quote from Khalil Gibran or Omar Khayyam, hinting at our sorrow about lost potential and showing how learned we are.


adonis49

adonis49

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