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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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January 28, 2011

And a Quick Political Note

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Posted by Derek

One of the authors (Mostafa Fekry) of the paper mentioned in my last post is at Cairo University. Which means that things must be rather uncertain for him right now, as it is for everyone in Egypt.

Readers will recall the mentions here of the 2009 unrest in Iran (behind-the-scenes note: my wife is Iranian), and this seems to have moved rapidly to an even more extreme stage. I have to say, I don't mind seeing autocrats and dictators (and their security forces) chased through the streets. I do wonder, though, what might replace them (which speculation seems to be helping tank the stock market today). Let's hope for the best.

I advised readers during the most recent Iran unrest (there will be more, I'm sure) to pitch in by helping to run Tor relays. This time, though, since the Egyptian government seems to have pulled the internet plug completely out of the wall, in what must (economically and socially) be a shower of plaster fragments, that may not do as much good. But events are young.

Comments (26) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Current Events


1. MoMo on January 28, 2011 2:12 PM writes...

Lets hope the best for the people of Egypt!

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2. Hasufin on January 28, 2011 2:26 PM writes...

Although the Egyptian government has blocked most internet access, some continues to operate - certain satellite providers remain viable, international dial-up access, and even using shortwave radio.

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3. emjeff on January 28, 2011 2:45 PM writes...

Muslim nations seem particularly bad at replacing their despots, which is why I actually hope that this effort fails. As detestable as Mubarak is, the Egyptian people would undoubtedly choose a replacement government hostile to both the US and to Israel; much like the Iraninas choose the bearded monsters they have now over the Shah.

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4. jasonp on January 28, 2011 3:19 PM writes...

Viva la revolucion!!

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5. startup on January 28, 2011 3:32 PM writes...

My (Middle Eastern) labmate says he has no doubts Muslim Brothers are behind it and that leaves very little room for speculation about what kind of a regime might emerge there if this one falls.

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6. Nick K on January 28, 2011 5:21 PM writes...

#3 and 5: Completely concur with your views. The very last thing the world needs right now is another Islamist regime, especially in the biggest and most important Arab nation.

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7. Pamplemousse on January 28, 2011 6:06 PM writes...

Umm... those worries seem kinda simplistic. A resulting democratic government might have dislike the US (considering the US is giving around $1.4bn/year to support Egypt's current government), but that's no reason to condemn the Egyptians to live under a despot.

Besides, the one most likely lead Egypt after this mess isn't the brotherhood, it's this guy:

2005 Nobel peace prize winner.

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8. anon on January 28, 2011 7:46 PM writes...

Be careful of what you wish for; the result could be much, much worse.

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9. Nile on January 29, 2011 8:01 AM writes...

If it was the Muslim Brotherhood, Mubarak would've dealt with the problem in the same old way: test the demonstrators' resolve with forceful policing, shading into outright brutality and mass arrests and murder; if this doesn't work, identify the instigators and make an offer of concessions... Including a place in Government, jobs for key supporters, bribery and - last of all - public money and government contracts to the geographic or social heartland of the protests.

The 'opposition leader' then calls off his supporters, all sides claim victory, and business as usual resumes.

But what do you do if a spontaneous protest emerges, gains widespread support, and doesn't acquire heroes and 'ringleaders' or get hijacked by the usual suspects - the Moslem Brotherhood included - who hope to claim some kind of leadership and divide the spoils of the 'business as usual' concessions from the government?

Effective mobile communications mean that hierarchical political structures are slower to emerge, because the ability to communicate widely and coordinate effectively on a peer-to-peer basis eliminates the need for a top-down flow of orders; that may sound like a very abstract idea, but people at the 'grass roots' level feel it in a visceral way - there's no longer a sense that 'we must have leadership' - especially if the entire political class is mistrusted as a bunch of corrupt and self-seeking mediocrities whose highest aspiration is a shot at being the next dictator.

The danger with this absence of a clear hierarchy and the lack of identifiable leaders is that there's no-one to negotiate with, and no reliable way of calling off the protests. So increasing repression and the use of military hardware on the demonstrators is almost inevitable...

...As is the risk that someone will claim the mantle of leadership, 'speak for the people' and become the next dictator. The risk, and the hope: an educated and informed population is the best insurance that a reasonable man of honest aspirations steps forward and takes power - with the consent of the people - and the ability to communicate freely and obtain news from a healthy variety of independent and uncontaminated news sources is vital to a well-informed population.

An ill-informed and ignorant population is vulnerable to demagoguery, and to both religious and secular dictatorship... Which makes Mubarak's shutdown of the internet and mobile telephones a dangerous and desperate folly. If Egypt ends up as an even worse dictatorship, especially a theocratic state, then his communications lockdown will be viewed as a contributory factor - and as something that we, in 'The West' could've worked harder to prevent.

Which websites are you mirroring? Are you doing anything practical to assist the handful of overseas dialup ISP's that are keeping the Egyptian people connected? Could the spiness tax evaders among Western telecomms providers be persuaded - or railroaded - by their American and European shareholders into switching the mobile networks on again?

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10. luysii on January 29, 2011 1:16 PM writes...

Does anyone know what the most brilliant Egyptian chemist and chemical physicist in the world (Ahmed Zewail) has to say about these events (if anything?).

I've had huge arguments with one of my kids about Iraq. He said the USA was trying to 'impose democracy' there. The Arabs and muslims in the country have no problem with it (well most of them). The argument that these people are incapable of democracy is racist and condescending in the extreme. Go for it Egyptians !

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11. Anonymous BMS Researcher on January 29, 2011 6:33 PM writes...

I recall when the Shah was barely hanging onto power in Iran, a NY Times reporter asked some US government official, "what are your plans in case the Shah falls?" The reply was "there is no acceptable alternative to the Shah?" The reporter rephrased the question in various ways, but it became clear he was not going to get anything beyond "there is no acceptable alternative to the Shah." Not too long after this conversation, the Shah fled Iran and never returned.

We need to stop basing our foreign policy on "he's an SOB, but he's our SOB." Over the long term, such policies backfire because they convince locals we don't really care about them.

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12. emjeff on January 29, 2011 7:10 PM writes...

#11 Anonymous BMS Researcher

Thanks for proving my point. The Iranians got rid of the Shah, and installed --the ayatollah. Do you think the Iranian people are better off? Of course not; before they were under the thumb of a despot, but one that could be reasoned with Now, they are under the thumb of a theocratic bearded monster who denies the Holocaust and is racing to start a nuclear arms war. Under the Shah, Western businesses flourished - in present day Iran, not so much, and the people really have no future.

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13. Anonymous on January 30, 2011 12:38 AM writes...

#7, #9

A resulting democratic government? Led by El-baradei?

A power vacuum could result if a spontaneous opposition movement lacking a real leadership hierarchy results in the actual collapse of the regime. The betting would then be on the most organized, goal-oriented, and powerful group... the Muslim Brotherhood.... to prevail.

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14. Joe T. on January 30, 2011 3:29 AM writes...

emjeff, the Iranian people preferred the Ayatollah to the Shah because the Ayatollah was their dictator, while the Shah was ours. It's no different than what we'd do -- suppose we found out a candidate for President was picked, groomed and supported by some other country. You think America wouldn't vote in a landslide for his opponent, no matter how wretched that opponent was?

The lesson of history is that propping up dictators never works out well. They either go from lapdog to junkyard dog (Hussein, Noriega...) or become the reason for a popular uprising that installs a leadership hostile to us (Batista, Pahlavi, Somoza...)

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15. John Waddell on January 30, 2011 9:18 PM writes...

I'm with MoMo #1 - Lets hope the best for the people of Egypt!

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16. emjeff on January 31, 2011 8:15 AM writes...

#14 Joe T

Fair point - but it was still a very poor choice. Rather than cutting off your nose to spite the U.S., why not choose democracy?

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17. HappyDog on January 31, 2011 10:28 AM writes...

#12 emjeff,

You are obviously an intolerant and hard-core beardist! There is no reason to lump people who, through no fault of their own, are plagued with facial hair in with monsters and theocrats!

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18. Hap on January 31, 2011 11:19 AM writes...

Choosing to keep Mubarak doesn't get them democracy, though. I don't think things would have gotten so bad if there had been a less damaging way to get to a democracy, but there hasn't been, and that is in a small part a self-inflicted wound (we didn't do anything to push Mubarak towards democracy).

If you don't give the kids choices as they grow up and treat them badly, why would expect them to 1) make good decisions when they escape your grasp and 2) not make decisions in opposition to you? Egypt's not made of kids, but it seems unreasonable to expect them to behave differently than other people in similar circumstances.

Supporting leaders because they help us while hurting their own people is not going to work out well for anyone. Self-determination isn't a right if it only applies when other people choose what's good for us.

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19. Hiding in a Trash Can on January 31, 2011 11:38 AM writes...

I'm with #17 Happydog. #3 emjeff is clearly a beardist, or perhaps a monsterist.

Although it is hard to tell, Cookie Monster has something of a beard, albeit blue. It is hard to imagine Cookie Monster taking over Iran.

In fact, most of the monsters that I saw on tv as a child had beards, and yet were not fanatical muslim radicals who hungered for dictatorial power. It is hard to imagine the Ayatollah Elmo.

Now, there is always Oscar the Grouch...

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20. Anonymous on January 31, 2011 2:16 PM writes...

17, 19 - Let me assure you I have nothing against beards, in fact I have one myself ;^)

I understand your point, but I am afraid that I remain unconvinced, mostly out of genuine fear of what would happen if Egypt were to fall into the same hands that Iran finds itself in. It is a real fear, and one that can not be minimized.

I also think that in some respct, you are giving the Egyptian people (and Muslim people in general) a pass. Here in the U.S., some 230-odd years ago, we did not have democracy, and we were far from a well-educated society. And yet , we chose secular self-determination over a monarchy, or a theocracy. Why is it, except for Turkey (and they are heading rapidly away from the ideals of democracy) that all Muslim countries are run by dictators? What is it about Islam that breeds tolernace for such brutal regimes? These are questions which need to be answered, and yet are not likely to be, because they make people uncomfortable.

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21. Anonymous on January 31, 2011 7:05 PM writes...


Well, where do the ruling powers of these countries come from? How about Wikipedia first, then we start insulting religions?


"Coordinated by German intelligence and nurtured by exposure to Liberalism and Nationalism and renewed Jihadism, these groups coalesced into the Moslem Brotherhood, the Baath Party, and other reformist and revolutionary groups during the inter-war years before gaining substantial ideological, political, psychological, and logistical support from the Axis powers. After World War Two these associated elements received moral and sometimes logistical support from the United States and the Soviet Union who were both opposed to continuing the European Colonial Empires."


As prime minister, Mossadegh became enormously popular in Iran after he nationalized Iran's petroleum industry and oil reserves. In response, the British government, headed by Winston Churchill, embargoed Iranian oil and successfully enlisted the United States to join in a plot to depose the democratically elected government of Mossadegh. In 1953 US President Dwight D. Eisenhower authorized Operation Ajax. The operation was successful, and Mossadegh was arrested on 19 August 1953. The coup was the first time the US had openly overthrown an elected, civilian government.[105]
Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and Empress Farah in official uniform

After Operation Ajax, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi's rule became increasingly autocratic. With American support, the Shah was able to rapidly modernize Iranian infrastructure, but he simultaneously crushed all forms of political opposition with his intelligence agency, SAVAK. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini became an active critic of the Shah's White Revolution and publicly denounced the government.
-Note: Khomeini ruled Iran after the Shah was overthrown.

Jordan (currently a monarchy):

The country was under British supervision until after World War II. In 1946, the British requested that the United Nations approve an end to British Mandate rule in Transjordan. Following the British request, the Transjordanian Parliament proclaimed King Abdullah as the first ruler of the Hashemite Kingdom of Transjordan.

Most of the UAE/Qatar/Bahrain countries have been monarchies for the past several hundred years. Oil in the UAE probably makes things pretty stable.

Indonesia looks currently pretty democratic, after about 50 years post-colonial dictatorship.

So the total:

Foreign meddling (US/Germany/USSR/Britain): Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Syria

Oil: UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, etc.

Actually democratic: Indonesia

Islam: None

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22. luysii on January 31, 2011 7:12 PM writes...

Consider Japan at the end of WWII. Devastated. No experience of democracy at any time in their history. Or Korea, Or Taiwan. I'm sure Asian culture back then was considered incompatible with democracy.

The early years of any democracy aren't pretty -- even ours. Consider the Alien and Sedition Laws, or even the Civil War. Iraq is another work in progress.

The current problem with Iran is not democracy but the stealing of a democratic election. So cut the Arabs and Islam some slack (FYI -- I am neither).

Anyway time to get back to the science.

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23. Anonymous BMS Researcher on February 1, 2011 6:27 AM writes...

The historical record on successful transitions to democracy is mixed to say the least. And we in the US don't really know much about it because our revolution started with a number of advantages not widely available for such transitions in other times and places.

First, the US started with a British-derived political culture. The leaders in the 13 colonies that became the USA did not at first think of themselves as starting a new country, they first saw themselves as British citizens asserting their rights as such. Only gradually did they reach the view that in getting what they saw as their rights would require a complete break from Britain. Canada of course had a different history.

Second, the USA did not have any threatening neighbors while building their nation, since the European great powers were busy fighting each other (France even sold the US a lot of land very cheaply because they were too busy fighting the British to defend that land; the US negotiators in that deal had gone to Paris to ask "how much for New Orleans?" and were stunned at the reply "wouldn't you rather have a third of the continent?").

Third, what took place here in the 1770s was not so much a social revolution as it was a rebellion. There were a few rabble-rousers, but for the most part the rebellion was led by the local elite. Most of those who had been landed gentry in 1770 still were landed gentry in 1800.

Fourth, those who remained loyal to the Crown had a viable option: move to what is now Canada.

Fifth, once the locals had been removed (by giving them smallpox-infested blankets, shooting them, or sending them to reservations on land the whites didn't want) there was plenty of land available for settlement, so energetic young people could direct their energies towards building homesteads rather than rioting.

Of course, some of the biggest internal divisions among the colonies that became the USA were NOT settled in the late 1800s; those issues led to a very bloody Civil War, and even today these issues are not fully resolved.

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24. Worst of times on February 1, 2011 8:47 AM writes...

Who would want to be told what to do, what to think, what to eat, what to wear, how to act, what can and cannot be drawn as a cartoon...

Yet there are those who give up these freedoms... to what end? Is the desire for order in some of us so great that we would relinquish that which makes us human?

I will never understand authoritarian rule.

Living in these times makes me realize exactly what Patrick Henry meant when he said "Give me liberty or give me death."

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25. Hap on February 1, 2011 11:00 AM writes...

I don't think Islam has the market cornered on brutal religions - regimes like Iran seem to have an oppressive mind-control streak that is bad, but the biggest despots seem to have had lots of other religious backgrounds or none at all [starting with Stalin, Hitler, and Mao, continuing through Hussein, most of Central America, Chile (not quite as bad, but...), Argentina, and lots of Africa (Zimbabwe, Uganda - I don't know who to count in Sierra Leone)].

I don't know if Islam breeds intolerance so much - Christianity has a similar authoritative streak in some sects. What makes us different, I think, is that we were able to choose a system that allowed people alternatives, so that there are freer alternatives that people could choose without fear. Lots of countries played power games with the Middle East, and in general democratic leaders wouldn't have let those countries do what they wished, so the Middle East countries got authoritarians. The lack of democratic alternatives left people who had nothing to lose (who figured their rewards were in heaven) and who were willing to risk everything for their choices to be the main alternatives. That is a slightly informed guess, though.

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26. Hasufin on February 1, 2011 11:43 AM writes...

There's been an awful lot of comparison between the current events in Egypt and the 1978-79 revolution in Iran. Let's look at this a bit...

First of all, I'd advise people to bear in mind that the Shia-controlled regime in Iran was by no means a foregone conclusion with the deposition of the Shah; a number of complex factors were involved in this - notably that the US failed to provide any significant backing to the interim government while still very visibly supporting and providing refuge to the Shah, that there were significant embarrassments to that relatively secular government, and that there was, in Ruhollah Khomeini, an immediately available and highly popular leader for the theocratic movement.

Now, for starters, it's essentially impossible that Egypt will become a Shia theocracy; unlike Iran, Egypt is primarily Sunni rather than Shia. Sunni Islam does not have the developed hierarchy of Shia Islam, and so could not as readily assume similar political power. Even if Egypt were to become theocratic, it would still be built on compromises and representation; the Egyptian religious makeup does not have anyone who could be made Supreme Leader.

Consider, too, the prevailing political climate of the time. In 1978, there was a dichotomy - a country was either aligned with the US or with the USSR. Iran was in uncharted waters, wanting to avoid domination by either power. Today, while many countries in the region are US-aligned, many others are simply not, and this has been shown to be a viable option - in other words, even if the eventual Egyptian government is not WITH the US, it doesn't have to be AGAINST the US (unless we force it to be).

However, there are some valid comparisons - and not to the credit of the US. Egypt has spent the last three decades under a US-backed dictator. This has resulted in a considerable amount of ll will toward the US. If we want a more favorable outcome, then I think it is up to the US to learn from our mistakes, and seek to improve ourselves in the eyes of the Egyptian people.

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