Category: strategy

Some Snowden consequences

Sir Humphrey says among much else, all worth reading:

An outsider looking in may well conclude that the sort of military assets needed to build and effect long term change, stability and security are those which have effects such as training teams, defence attaches, limited professional training and so on with the nuclear deterrent as the ultimate guarantor of security, and not so much on very heavy army assets like armoured divisions which are much harder to deploy. Looking more broadly, things like focusing heavily on cyber security defence is arguably more important than some other tasks – this is perhaps the problem facing the military today. The sort of interaction many nations want is quite localised, involving maybe a training team or specialist advisors or access to training courses.

I don’t think anyone can disagree that all sorts of countries, flooded with new electronics and computing capacity, well aware of the vast advantages it gave Western militaries in the last 30 or so years, are probably both deeply worried and also only vaguely informed about their information security problems.

Similarly, deploying four people from CESG or JANET CSIRT to do an assessment is the sort of thing that might gain friends and influence people, at remarkably low cost. We sent the Red Arrows on tour around the Gulf and did a half a dozen squadron-sized Typhoon deployments trying to sell Eurofighters with vast amounts of extremely expensive taxpayer-funded whoosh. “Cyberengagement” or better “information security cooperation” sounds like a great idea.

Until you remember that we hugely overdid the intelligence half of the whole thing, our fibres are radioactive, GCHQ pulls in the Queen’s selfies to the pool boy, if you ever sent a vCard on a UK-owned GSM network they kept it, and literally nobody will ever trust us on this issue ever again.

This goes double, triple, or quadruple with the news – try ioerror’s CCC talk if you haven’t already – that we’ve been involved in trying to compromise security tools, forums, and infrastructure everybody uses. I find this more shocking than pretty much anything else in this story.

A bit of Clausewitz

So, speaking of Clausewitz, here are some reflections from reading him. (If you think the blogs are a bit eclectic today, yes, I’m working through a queue of things I drafted in a notebook..)

Zweck vs. Ziel – one of the things everyone sort-of knows about him is “the maintenance of the aim”, but I think the distinction between these two concepts is more important. They translate into English as “purpose” and “aim”. Zweck is why you’re doing this to begin with; it is fundamentally political in nature. Ziel is what you’re trying to achieve in order to arrive at the purpose.

Although the aim is military and the purpose political, the relationship between them is bidirectional – the requirements of the purpose affect the selection of the aim, but the practical considerations (the friction) that also affect the choice of the aim have an impact on the purpose, because not all aims that would lead to the purpose are possible.

An example: the Americans in Iraq. They had clear aims – defeat the Iraqi military, destroy anything to do with WMD they found, occupy Baghdad, and remove Saddam. They never did work out the purpose, or rather, different actors in the US establishment had different and conflicting purposes, and as a result, the aims beyond that were entirely incoherent and led nowhere.

The distinction between limited and total war – for Clausewitz, this is perhaps the most important strategic question. Are we involved in a limited conflict, in which many different secondary aims may be important and allowable, or a total one, in which only the absolute and utter concentration of strength on absolute victory is acceptable?

Napoleon changes everything – Clausewitz got invaded by the French twice, as a Prussian and as a Prussian rebel in Russian service, and unsurprisingly the experience changed him. He thought that the way European armies fought before Napoleon was a permanent state of limited war, really only an extension of diplomacy, and the repeated disasters that befell them against the French were down to a failure to grasp the extreme nature of the challenge.

The warlike element – “At war, everything is simple but nothing is easy”. Everything is more difficult and more uncertain. The denser the warlike element, the greater the advantage to the defending side, and the greater the impact of time. As a result, all wars are limited to some extent, subject to friction, and therefore to political considerations. Also, as soon as violence is used, rationality is weakened, and irrational, emotional responses are stronger.

The landscape is an act of imagination – a related point is the concept of the coup d’oeil, the ability of an effective commander to assess the possibilities of the landscape, and therefore of the warlike element, intuitively and visually. Clausewitz argues that this is a faculty of the imagination.

The culminating point – all offensive action eventually ends in defence, at the latest, at the point where the warlike element has become thick enough that no further progress is possible. It is vital to achieve aims, which ideally will deliver the purpose, before this point.

An example: the Argentines on the Falklands. The culminating point, beyond which they had to go over to the defensive, was immediately after landing successfully. They had done their worst, which was not sufficient to achieve their political purpose in itself, and the problem was now how to hold onto their gains. The British, in trying to recapture the islands, had their own culminating point, quite independent of enemy action, in that they had to finish the campaign before the weather and the wear and tear on ships’ machinery forced them to stop.

Another example: the Americans in Iraq, again. Once that statue bit the tarmac, they had achieved their aims and had nowhere further to go but onto the defensive.

Rate and flow – Clausewitz spends a lot of effort dispelling the idea that some geometric disposition of troops or other will win. Instead, it’s all about time and speed and mass, something he borrows from the French, and hence, logistics.

Against geniuses – he really doesn’t like the notion that great men transcend the rules that bind the average. “Rules that only apply to stupid people must be stupid rules.”

Reading Gambetta and Clausewitz in an emerging low-trust society

So, I’ve been having a war with my exciting privatised energy vendor. Again. We had a chat about this in this post on think-of-a-number prices, but another opportunity came around. The day before the monthly direct debit payment went out, a letter lands saying that they’ve just doubled, yes doubled, the amount. Thanks.

Anyway, of course, I phone them up, hack through the call-centre thickets, hating life and probably humanity. They immediately say that the bill has gone up to £140, not £126 as on the paper bill. I challenge this and it goes away. Just like that. This is a tell – evidently, they’re simply trying it on. The £14/mo is just a return on being an arsehole.

Think-of-a-number pricing is exactly what you’d expect from a low trust society. If you read Diego Gambetta’s Codes of the Underworld: How Criminals Communicate, you’ll also recognise an important phenomenon here. In a low-trust society, like the Polish jail he uses as a case study, there are three significant groups, predators, victims, and everyone else. There’s nothing particularly great about being a predator, in fact it comes with an increased chance of getting knifed, and the people in this group are basically self-selected for enjoying violence for its own sake.

You really, really want to be in group three, because the predators preferentially prey on group two. The criteria of membership were not having been a cop, cadre, or informer, not being a nonce, and being willing to get in a fight with another member of group three. That wasn’t as bad as it sounds, as there was also a strong social norm against fights within group three escalating to the point of anyone being seriously hurt. Gambetta’s collaborator, whose fieldwork began while he was himself doing time as a dissident, reasoned that they served the social function of identifying group membership. (If this reminds you of school, don’t be surprised.)

So, Npower (for it is they) wanted to treat me like a member of group two, but I cut up rough early, and they backed down. Eventually, with much persistence, and careful recording of everything said during the calls, it emerged that there was a bad reading, and they agreed to escalate the issue to complaints, and they finally accepted that I was right. However, they did manage to stall long enough that they got at least one increased payment. You can only expect so much justice in a low-trust society.

A question, then. Gambetta or Clausewitz? Well, Clausewitz would have identified that we were in a state of limited conflict, rather than unlimited conflict. Neither party actually wants to overthrow and subjugate the other. Oh. Actually I kind of did, but I didn’t have the means to implement it, so this is beside the point. I had a clear politically-determined purpose (Zweck), to recover the money, and an aim (Ziel) which led to the purpose – to get the bill reissued. And I had to navigate the warlike element, whose friction would condition the relationship between the two, in this case, a call-centre PBX system. But this isn’t actually that interesting. Also, Clausewitz would have expected that the two parties would probably make a minimal effort at conflict in support of negotiating a solution, and not only did I put much more into it than that, Npower stuck to it far longer than was at all sensible.

I found Gambetta’s insights much more useful. That said, Gambetta’s Polish convicts also had a secret organisation that served to mediate conflicts within group three, to provide a degree of deterrence towards group one, and sometimes to represent prisoners towards the screws. What I really needed, it struck me, was the mafia.

it began in the time of our grandfathers, but no-one now knows why

Here’s a photo from a MoD-BAE Systems study into future armoured vehicles for the British Army*.

OK, so we’ve got some heavy-to-medium, wheeled armoured vehicles, that are clearly battery-electric drive. They’re recharging from either wind power (on the right) or from some kind of deployable, containerised nuclear reactor (on the left – note the radhaz logo), in a roughly European environment, while two aircraft that might have escaped from this BAE Kingston study scream overhead.

Here’s another.

We appear to be in southern Iraq. Why? We’ve electrified land mobility. Oil is no longer so important.

Back in 1911, Winston Churchill and Jacky Fisher started to move the Navy from coal to oil, invented British Petroleum, and caused both Iran and Iraq. The historical icons are the Queen Elizabeth-class battleships, but by then the flotilla of destroyers, light cruisers, and submarines dedicated to fighting for the torpedo battlespace (Erik Lund’s awesome blog explains!) ahead and to one flank of the fleet was huge and was growing fast. The dissuasion du faible au fort provided by torpedos required speed and submersibility, which required getting rid of coal.

So, you can blame chippy northern techies from the Mechanics’ Institute for the Middle East (and also The Sound of Music), as well as their patrons for the first world war.

Surely, electrifying the army on land would be a technical change of a similar scale, which could be expected to bring about unexpected strategic and political consequences? Would we care as much about the GCC? Although the UK withdrawal from east-of-Suez was finally completed in 1977, the Navy was back in the Gulf in 1980 on the Armilla patrol, and, well, you know the rest. What if it suddenly didn’t matter so much? The presence of 160,000 UK nationals, a town bigger than Oxford or the size of Wigan, has a lot to do with this, but then, it’s the oil that draws them there.

(*Yeah – having spent £192 million on “concept work” without procuring a single vehicle while there were two wars on, and then bought a 40 tonne monster never used in battle as an agile reconnaissance platform, that’s meant to be air portable in the spec but only fits into 5 of the RAF’s transport aircraft, they’ve started another future design study. It’s only money.)

Doomed Britain is doomed

This PRISM piece has been doing the rounds. I think it’s interesting more for the patterns it reveals, which are those of the early 1970s. The argument is that the British armed forces are unlikely to deploy anywhere in future, for various reasons that aren’t really unpacked, but which are basically “because Iraq was a disaster and the public is aware of the fact”.

Further, the peasants are revolting…sorry…under the influence of the new Left, student militancy is becoming a major issue of concern…sorry…looking at the conjunction of stagflation, the new social movements, and radical leaders in the unions, we have to ask whether Britain can be governed at all in the 1980s, and just look at Northern Ireland…sorry…the Islamic rioters are empowered to launch fourth-generation swarming attacks by their mobile phones. And no, they didn’t “bring London to a standstill”, really.

Keen and agile minds will have noticed that a lot of defence planning happened in the late 60s and early 70s on the basis that nothing would happen away from NATO and the Cold War would go on for ever, and most of it needed binning in 1982. At the same time, there was a fascinating unspoken consensus between the hard right of the defence establishment and the Left’s conspiracies department that they were planning against each other.

It’s progress, I suppose, that the answer isn’t a Walter Walker style lurch into paramilitarism but instead a “gendarmerie”, a bigger nastier police force, which for some reason needs to be deployable outside the UK although this isn’t ever meant to happen again.

To be honest I really can’t find anything good to say about this. Its core assumptions are horribly authoritarian, hugely underestimate the public’s intelligence (we, the majority, were right about Iraq, and being right should count in one’s favour), and leave a lot of hostages to fortune. I can’t see the gendarmes helping protect the 5 million UK nationals abroad, a figure they quote but don’t do anything with. Similarly, their assumptions include the Americans ignoring us, which doesn’t really suggest that all we will need will be a gendarmerie. (In fact, an advanced reader might suggest that what is really being advocated is more of the same.)

And, as always, Europe is doomed to decline. Obviously it’s not looking too clever at the moment, but then, there’s a recession on. Then again, Europe has been obsessed by decline for the last two thousand years…

Recommended

Think Defence has been having a very good discussion (practically a CT-style blog seminar) about the Falklands. Which reminds me…I note that Bob Howard has yet to visit, despite the eldritch conjunction of an implausibly massive geostrategic commitment, the deep links between right-wing political Catholicism and the sinister occult, the Antarctic (and you know what happens down there – giant mountains embedded in ancient ice, eccentric British scientists with hovercraft, Russians drilling into lakes sealed off from the world for millions of years), and, eh, a fast-growing economy based entirely on squid.

RQ-170 upshot, part 2: the bubble

Is there a drone bubble? It’s not clear whether this is more like the .com bubble, when a lot of useful stuff was built but a couple of years too early, or more like the housing bubble, when a lot of stuff was built in the wrong places to the wrong standards at the wrong prices and will probably never be worth much. It’s the nature of a bubble, of course, that it’s precisely at the top of the bubble that the commitment to it is greatest.

One of the things the RQ-170 incident tells us about is some of the operational limitations of the drones. Typically, they are piloted in the cruise from locations that may be a long way off, using satellite communication links, but when they land, they do so under local control via line-of-sight radio link from their base. This allows us to set some bounds on how much of a problem link latency really is, which will take us circling back to John Robb’s South Korean gamers.

Gamers are famous for being obsessed with ping-times – the measurement of round-trip latency on the Internet – because it’s really, really annoying to see the other guy on your screen, go to zap’em, and get zapped yourself because it took longer for your zap to cross the Internet than theirs. Typically you can expect 40 or so milliseconds nationally, 60-80 inter-continentally…or several hundred if a satellite or an old-school cellular operator with a hierarchical network architecture is involved. A sat hop is always clearly identifiable in traceroute output because latency goes to several hundred ms, and there’s a great RIPE NCC paper on using the variations in latency over a year to identify the satellite’s geosynchronous (rather than geostationary) orbit as the slant-range changes.

On the other hand, roundtrip latency across an airfield circuit a couple of miles wide will be negligible. So we can conclude that tolerable latency for manoeuvring, as opposed to cruising, is very little. Now, check out this post on David Cenciotti’s blog from January 2010. Some of the Israeli air force’s F-15s have received a new communications radio suite specifically for controlling UAVs.

You might now be able to guess why even drone pilots are going through basic flight training. Also, this post of Cenciotti’s describes the causes of six recent hull losses, all of which are classic airmanship accidents – the sort of thing pilot training is designed to teach you to avoid.

That said, why did all those drones get built? The original, 1980s UAV concepts were usually about the fact that there was no pilot and therefore the craft could be treated as expendable, usually in order to gain intelligence on the (presumably) Soviet enemy’s air defences by acting as a ferret aircraft, forcing them to switch on the radars so the drone could identify them. But that’s not what they’ve been doing all these years.

The main reason for using them has been that they are lightweight and have long endurance. This is obviously important from an intelligence gathering perspective, whether you’re thinking of over-watching road convoys or of assassinating suspected terrorists (and there are strong arguments against that, as Joshua Foust points out). In fact, long endurance and good sensors are so important that there are even so-called manned drones – diesel-engined, piloted light aircraft stuffed with sensors, with the special feature that they fly with intelligence specialists aboard and provide a much faster turn-around of information for the army.

Their limitations – restricted manoeuvre, limited speed and payload, and high dependence on communications infrastructure – haven’t really been important because they have been operating in places and against enemies who don’t have an air force or ground-based air defences and don’t have an electronic warfare capability either. Where the enemy have had man-portable SAMs available, as sometimes in Iraq, they have chosen to save them for transport aircraft and the chance of killing Americans, which makes sense if anti-aircraft weapons are scarce (and surely, the fact of their scarcity has to be one of the major unreported news stories of the decade).

But then, the war in Iraq is meant to be over even if the drones are still landing in Kurdistan, and the US may be on its way to a “pre-1990″ military posture in the Gulf. This week’s strategic fashion is “Air-Sea Battle” and the Pacific, and nobody expects anything but the most hostile possible environment in the air and in the electromagnetic spectrum. And the RQ-170 incident is surely a straw in the wind. Also, the Bush wars were fought in an environment of huge airfields in the desert, and the ASB planners expect that the capacity of US bases in Japan and Guam and the decks of aircraft carriers will be their key logistical constraint. (The Russians aren’t betting everything on them either.)

I think, therefore, it’s fair to suggest that a lot of big drones are going to end up in the AMARC stockpile. After the Americans’ last major counter-insurgency, of course, that’s what happened. The low-tech ones are likely to keep proliferating, though, whether as part of the Royal Engineers’ route clearance system or annoying the hell out of Japanese whalers or even playing with lego.

the 1980s considered as a battle in the air war over Germany

Thinking about my last post brought one of the ideas in this one to mind, especially given today’s front page. That is, was the miners’ strike a strategic bombing campaign?

You what? But consider the strategy the NUM adopted. The basic idea was to concentrate on the supply of coal to the steel industry – hence the battle of Orgreave. The point of this was to force British Steel, as it then was, to idle production. That would, they hoped, cause the steel managers and the downstream industries that consumed steel to put pressure on the government to settle. It might even bring out the steelworkers on strike.

The other option was to concentrate on the other big coal consumer, the electricity industry. Power cuts would hit the economy generally, and would hit consumers directly, unlike cuts in supply to the steelworks.

An important difference between the two was that much of the steel industry’s coal was delivered as coke, whereas the power stations received coal directly from the mines. (Other differences included the fact that the power sector had more options and that power cuts might have unfavourable political consequences because they affected the public directly.) This created a number of critical network nodes between the coal and steel industries. The NUM hoped to target these and therefore send the crisis cascading through the downstream industries until the adversary cracked and gave in or the population rioted and got rid of them.

This really is very close to the whole package of airpower theory, or for that matter John Robb’s global guerrillas concept. As readers will be aware, I’m sceptical of both. Anyway, why didn’t it work?

Arguably, the big problem with this as a strategy was that the government didn’t actually care about what happened to the downstream industries. For the government, even the maximum degree of trouble the miners could inflict on the steelmaking and metalworking economy was a price they were willing to pay.

A question to the reader: What is it that the Tories value most?

Errr

Following up this post, here’s a really interesting piece in Dawn on the Indian-Pakistani nuclear balance and the implications of the COLD START doctrine. It’s an especially good point that if India really wanted to punish Pakistan after a “Mumbai II” terrorist attack, they could do so very effectively and much less dangerously through economic sanctions, given how much fuel Pakistan imports and that most of it passes through one port.

In the light of this, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the Indian military preparations are simply unwise – in a classic post at Arms Control Wonk, Michael Krepon discusses why Pakistan is continuing to build more nuclear weapons and concludes that the factors at work are as follows. First of all, Indian leaders’ public statements are threatening – to use cold-war terminology, although their military planning is moving towards “flexible response”, their declaratory policy contains a lot of “massive retaliation”. The combination is toxic. Trying to make the conventional forces more usable is potentially provocative. Statements about nuclear strategy like this one, combined with faster response times, begin to look a lot like an offensive doctrine:

The Indian Chief of Army Staff, S. Padmanabhan, sang the same tune – that if Pakistan resorted to first use, “the perpetrator of that particular outrage shall be punished so severely that their continuation thereafter in any form will be doubtful.”

Secondly, although nuclear weapons cost a lot to acquire in the first place, they get much cheaper once the programme has been capitalised and the process industrialised. This was a major theme in the high cold war – the original Manhattan Project was designed to scale up to five bombs a month, achieved that ahead of schedule, and in fact scaled even further. Also, they are often considered cheap in terms of their strategic value. Nukes scare people; Pakistan will never be an industrial power like India, but now it has the production line going, it certainly can add more bombs and more target packages faster than the Indian economy can grow. Krepon makes the interesting point that the limiting factor isn’t the nukes so much as the delivery systems – a country like North Korea can build a nuclear device of sorts, and Pakistan can run a bomb factory, but only a fully diversified industrial economy can make the aeroplane or the missile to carry them.

This has certain consequences for the Pakistani strategic targeting plan. In comments at ACW, someone asks whether they might be thinking of making use of man- or at least vehicle-portable weapons, the famous suitcase nukes. Another, slightly less terror-licious point about this is how the Pakistan Air Force is operating. If they have plenty of bombs but relatively few aircraft, they have to preserve the strike-force (the P-Force, perhaps, by analogy with the 1960s RAF V-Force) at all costs. This implies putting as many planes as possible on quick-reaction alert, dispersing them early in a crisis with the weapons, and keeping open the option of dispersing them in Afghanistan. (We may now begin to see why they care so much.) It also suggests that it would be very difficult to target anything in the Pakistan Air Force without threatening the nuclear assets, and that they might be keen to use tactical nuclear weapons – it’s a relatively cheap substitute for a much bigger army, and (as NATO found out in the high cold war) if you have more and more atom bombs hanging about, pure bureaucratic logic tends to get them assigned to targets.

This is a special case of the principle that mayhem is easy and order is difficult, of course.

The good news, such as there is, is contained in this wikileak, a 2008 cable from the US Ambassador to India. Interestingly, he points out, there are good reasons to think that COLD START is likely to be well named. It takes longer than you think, and when you turn the key there’s a lot of grinding and coughing and fuss before anything happens. So you might be tempted to go for a nice cup of tea and come back later, or perhaps have some biscuits and another cup of tea and turn to page 3, or just do something else.

Although the doctrine is explicitly designed to avoid threatening the existence of Pakistan as a state, and therefore to permit Indian military retaliation without triggering anything nuclear, it is seen as threatening both because it is intended to permit military action – to sneak under the wires of deterrence – and also because it is intended to reduce the relevance of Pakistani nuclear forces. The Indians, if the ambassador’s analysis is sound, are aware of this and are actually quite unlikely to implement it. One way of looking at the complex administrative machinery and politics he outlines is as a deliberate brake on doing anything hasty. Alternatively, it may not have been created deliberately as a check on the military, but if that is the case, it is interesting that it is tolerated. A state that really did intend to carry out a partial mobilisation and a 72-hour blitz from a standing start would have made sure that the code-word would be given. To some extent, the Indians may be experiencing self-deterrence.

The cable also points out that the terrain has changed since 1971 and that some of the ground is now much more urban and more defensible, and also that there are logistical problems that have yet to be solved. Taking an interpretative view, you might say that the real purpose of COLD START is to reject the idea that the international community has any veto on Indian action and to signal non-deterrence to the Pakistanis, while not actually doing anything dangerous. However, the problem is that the signalling succeeds all too well. In fact, the point that all arguments based on “credibility” are crap strongly applies. Either they are taken at face value, in which case they are dangerous, or they are seen through, in which case they are useless.

So, the D-word. What should anyone do about it? This is traditionally the moment at which it becomes obvious why the abbreviation for the discipline of international relations is pronounced “Errr”. But I think the answer is that Kashmir is still the issue. Only real concessions affect perception. Further, it would be very good news if the Indians disavowed COLD START and looked at an alternative reaction plan, perhaps concentrating on the economic side as mentioned in the Dawn link. But you try getting them to do that. Finally, and again spinning off that Dawn piece, the real role of the Pakistani nukes is to secure the special place of the military. Errr, indeed.

From the noisy phase to the quiet phase

Is it meaningful to say that the Egyptian revolution is calming down, or petering out? I ask because a common flaw of the reporting on it has been to treat the basic dynamics of mobilisation as if they were signs of huge political shifts behind the curtain. It’s obviously true that both revolutionaries and reactionaries need to sleep and eat. When the revolutionaries want to, they have no great difficulty in putting over a million people on the streets in Cairo and probably a bit more again elsewhere in Egypt. These are peak efforts. Idiot management-speakers like to talk about maintaining peak performance, but they are idiots: the word peak implies a supreme effort that cannot be maintained continuously. People have to eat and sleep, they have families, they have jobs, although many millions of Egyptians have been taking part in the revolution silently by essentially going on strike. Even revolutionaries have to maintain their barricades, update their blogs, and hold meetings to decide what to do next.

The result of this is that there’s been a sort of media cycle – one day the papers are full of pictures from the latest day of rage, the next it’s all about people grandly speculating on what happens next, and the regime’s spokesmen explaining how they intend to preserve the substance of the regime. Perhaps they talk about that on the other days, but nobody is listening. Or perhaps they believe it, when they wake up and hear that there are only tens of thousands of rebels in Tahrir Square rather than hundreds of thousands. Then, the next callout of the demonstrators resets the clock again.

Today, we seem to be in one of the ebb-tide phases. So it’s a good moment for a bit of speculating. What is important, in these terms, is that the government doesn’t seem to be regaining much ground in between waves of protest. Instead, there seems to be a ratchet in operation – each wave extracts a new concession. Mubarak sacked his government. And appointed a vice president. Then he promised not to stand again. Then talks were opened with the opposition. Then the military accepted to talk directly with the opposition, independently. Then the NDP hierarchy was purged. Then Suleiman renounced becoming president himself. And the regime’s own peak effort – Wednesday’s thug raid – was dramatic and violent at the time, but with hindsight was nowhere near enough in terms of numbers to change anything. Arguably, it wrecked the government’s remaining legitimacy and only demonstrated its lack of mass support.

The fear is that this is no ratchet, but a sort of retreat into the Russian hinterland, a trap. On the other hand, it’s a common pattern in the end of dictatorship, a sort of political Cheyne-Stokes breathing. You may think you are saving the structural realities of power and giving away the forms, but how will those realities stand up without the Emergency Law and the special constitutional amendments and the practice of having political prisoners and the ban on opposition parties and the censorship of the press? After all, there must be a reason, rooted in the structural realities of power, why you wanted them in the first place. If owning hotels was enough to sustain a tyranny, there’d be no need for Central Security or private thugs on camels or sententious TV broadcasts or bulk SMS messages with faked originating numbers.

Revolutions come with years, like New Order remixes used to. Prague ’89. Paris ’68. Probably the most relevant ones now are the Polish ones – Solidarity feat. Jaruzelski ’81 and ’89. The first one was a lot like what everyone fears for Egypt and also quite a lot like the official preferences of our governments. There was violence, but not as much as there could have been, and a safe military dictator won. He, in turn, turned to a religious and conservative pseudo-opposition to give his rule some foundation. The second was more optimistic but less spectacular. In 1989, the end of communism in Poland involved far more negotiating than it did street-fighting, and it involved putting up with Jaruzelski sticking around for the rest of his term as a sop to the powers that be, or rather the powers that were.

Egypt is already some way beyond 1981 – there is something like a round table, and the officially designated military strongman is getting very close to the exit, having disclaimed supreme power for himself. Probably the communists of 1989 thought they were cunningly playing for time. Suleiman has a far more ruthless reputation, though; the big issue is whether he can be trusted or better, constrained from trying to either crush the opposition between here and whenever the election date is set or else to start a civil war like the Algerian generals of 1991.

One argument has been that there would be a fake revolution, leaving the security state in charge, as Jamie Kenny put it. I think this is now out of date. Similarly, although they are now talking to the Muslim Brotherhood, I think my own prediction is also out of date. We’re past the point where a few Brothers in the government would convince anyone. In fact, Jamie and I saw our predictions first validated and then rendered irrelevant within a week.

Looking ahead, it’s worth remembering that 1989 took time to deliver. After the original moment of success, there was a long and uncertain haul of getting rid of specific individual bastards, changing laws, moving editors around the State TV and inspectors around the police force. I think we’re now into this phase. Some people seem to agree, from very different points on the spectrum. Changing the union confederation and the university professors’ club is very much to the point, whether you’re thinking 1989 and maintaining enough forward momentum to protect the revolution or 1917 and the second wave.

Take it easy ya Ahmad. Every revolution in history always has this carnival-like side. The insurrection will come later. #Jan25

I think I’d rather have that man on my side.