You know I verge on the ridiculous with some of the comparisons I make in these posts, but bear with this one – it is of gigantically ridiculous proportions, even for me.  But there is, hopefully, a point somewhere here, which I think is worth exploring.

As you’ll know if you read this blog regularly, I’ve had a bit of an obsession with democracy recently, based mostly on the research I’ve been doing.  That obsession is likely to change to relate more to political theory (I’m teaching it this semester) but the two dovetail quite appropriately when considering the uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East at the moment.

What we’ve seen, in each case there thus far, is protesters gathering in opposition to their governments, demonstrating that opposition by employing both peaceful and not-so-peaceful methods, gathering momentum against the regime and, in some cases already, bringing down their government.  In turn, what we have seen from governments in these places has been varying levels of reaction to the protests, from policing them through to turning their armies and air forces against the public.

At the outset here, I want to point out I’m not condoning either violence against governments or violence against citizens.  And neither do I want to risk further irritating  some folks on twitter who already think I’m not taking the Libyan case seriously enough because I happened to concentrate on the political communication aspect of it.  And, thirdly, I don’t want to compare the aspects of democracy that we enjoy (and perhaps not cherish, though we should) here with the Gaddafi regime in Libya… but there are similarities, not with the regimes, but with the protests and reactions to them.

Think of the UK situation – remember the havoc caused in London by the protests against the government’s decision to increase the charge for students in England to go to university.  Remember the anger felt by people, the level of rage in the demonstrations, (fire extinguishers thrown off buildings at policemen) the damage to property and, of course, the violence involved – in protest at the actions of our governing regime.

Think of Egypt and of Libya.  Okay, the reasons for the protests there are different – they want rid of dictatorial tyrants and in their place – democracy (the irony in which I’ve dealt with in a previous post) whereas we’re demonstrating because we have a democratic government who said one thing to get elected and did something else when they got into power (okay, I’m paraphrasing – but it helps make my point!).  But they’ve taken to the streets, employed peaceful demonstrations, rioted and even moved into open rebellion (in the latter case more than the former) in order to get their way.

And both here in the UK, and in Egypt and Libya, the governments have moved to secure their position, in our case employing riot police to control the protests, in Egypt both police and army in unison (though in a mostly peacekeeping manner) and in Libya, the army, using live ammunition, as the situation has descended into open conflict.

The point I’m making is that governments – both democratic and totalitarian – take measures in order to secure themselves against their people.  In our case, this is a bit of a paradox – democracy, in Lincoln’s famous phrase, is “government of the people, by the people, for the people” – so the government shouldn’t be afraid of the people it represents.

But what it boils down to really is your perception of the state and who has legitimacy over the state structure – in business terms, I guess, who owns the brand?  Here, we accept representative government – but we like to remind them now and again that we have the power to overthrow them, if we can be bothered putting down our pints to go out and actually do it.  So I suppose, the state is the state – and this means that they, to cite Max Weber, have a monopoly over the legitimate use of force, so we accept the role of the police in managing protests against them.

In Libya, (and again, to a lesser extent in Egypt) we in the West seem to have decided that the state leaders – Gaddafi’s regime – has lost legitimacy, and therefore the right to claim the legitimate use of force.  Which means that their use of the armed forces against the people – to secure their position – is unacceptable.

Look, I know the comparisons are off (not least because in North Africa we are talking about significant loss of life whereas in London folk suffered minor inconvenience in travel for one day) and we’re talking about the use of a civilian police force to effectively do crowd control against an army told to fire against crowds of people – but isn’t there something of an inconsistency here?

This thought isn’t quite clear in my head, so I do appreciate people’s thoughts on it.  But if we accept that one of the factors that constitutes the legitimacy of a state is monopoly over the use of violence (Max Weber’s definition) then we have to accept that the state CAN use violence (or the threat of violence) to secure its position (this is consistent with the police in London for example, taking “violence” in loose terms to include “incarceration against your will”).   If that follows, Gaddafi is within his rights to use the army to protect the state.  But we’ve decided his regime is not legitimate… or at the very least, his use of force to preserve the regime is not legitimate.  But does that then mean that we don’t think force should be used to protect governments?  Or is it simply the level of force he was/is employing?

Answers on a postcard to UN Security Council…