15 -21 April 2010
Issue No. 994
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

People's power

In the Arab world popular protests have not yet reached a critical mass. But if 
the status quo remains, writes Ayman El-Amir*, they inevitably will 


In Kyrgyzstan, a mass street revolt overthrew President Kurmanbek Bakiyev and 
sent him fleeing to the southern tribal refuge of Jalalabad. Opposition leader 
Roza Otunbayeva, a former foreign minister, announced the dissolution of 
parliament and government and set up an interim "people's government" for six 
months to prepare for new elections. In Thailand, violent unrest by Red Shirt 
protesters entered its sixth week. They are demanding the removal of Prime 
Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva in favour of his predecessor, ousted by a bloodless 
army coup in 2006. China had violent street unrest and deadly clashes last 
summer in the predominantly Muslim regional city of Urumqi, Xinjang province, 
followed by a government crackdown. In Nepal, the Maoist-oriented communist 
party of Nepal fought a "People's War" against the monarchy for 14 years until 
it came to power in 2008, following a negotiated settlement and constitutional 
change that limited the powers of the monarchy. In Myanmar, the 48-year-old 
military regime has brutally crushed a peaceful march of tens of thousands of 
Buddhist monks and civilians asking for democratic rule, national 
reconciliation and the release of opposition leaders. 

Street protests, often violent, sometimes leading to protracted guerrilla 
warfare, seem to be the hallmark of Asian countries when political institutions 
fail people's aspirations and autocratic regimes persist. The 1979 revolution 
in Iran, and the overthrow of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines in 1986, are 
prime examples of regimes being changed by people power.

In Africa military coups are almost a way of life, a text- book tactic for 
changing governments. The most recent took place in Niger in February. Regimes 
that came to power by military coup are often ousted by newer coups. This, 
combined with ethnic and tribal rivalries and low rates of development, 
accounts for the level of instability and civil wars on the continent. The lack 
of any tradition that could curb the temptation to change regime at gunpoint 
has set back the possibility of any peaceful transition to democracy. The 
African Union's decision to withhold recognition from governments that come to 
power by military coups that oust democratically elected administrations has 
done little to reverse the phenomenon. In the absence of a vigorous civil 
society, labour unions or political activism, military coups seem to be the 
easiest way to rotate power. And it is all done in the name of the people.

Africa has learned little from the transition of many South American countries 
from oppressive military dictatorships to neo-nationalist democracies. They 
passed through the purgatory of US-supported military regimes, mass persecution 
and liquidation of the opposition, civil war and genocide, extreme poverty and 
political disaffection to popular consensus that led to change. Venezuela, 
Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Brazil and Argentina are stitching together a 
loosely-knit coalition of socialist economies and collaboration to help poorer 
South American countries rid themselves of debt. They are averse to the 
economic paradigm set by international financial institutions such as the World 
Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Chile, Argentina, Paraguay, Brazil, 
Bolivia and Uruguay, whose military juntas collaborated in hunting down, 
torturing and secretly executing leftist opponents have brought many human 
rights abusers to justice as they reconciled themselves with their dark era of 
military rule in the 1970s. They also share a tendency to distance themselves 
from the controlling influence of the US and have opposed its wars in Iraq and 

Compared to Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and South America, the Arab Middle East 
has been stagnant for 50 years. Post-independence military regimes and 
traditional tribal dynasties have done little to advance institution-building 
and democratic governance in their countries. Republican regimes developed into 
military dictatorships before turning into police states that suppressed and 
persecuted opponents. Maintaining a monopoly on power, these pseudo-republican 
regimes have fared badly in terms of economic development. They have presided 
over increased poverty, deprivation, corruption and political alienation. In 
the absence of any concept of the rotation of power by peaceful and democratic 
means, populations grow more restive, particularly as economic pressures take 
their toll. In oil-rich countries the impact of socio-political retardation is 
cushioned by oil wealth, even when it is not equally distributed. Oligarchy- 
rule policies in Arab countries are increasingly proving counter-productive, as 
the case of Yemen has demonstrated. Strikes and political demonstrations in 
Egypt reflect increasing disenchantment with the economic and political 
situation. Mass protests against election fraud in several Arab countries 
hardly assure the ruling elite of stability.

Access to a diversity of media is shaping a new awareness among the masses, 
building comparative knowledge of the rest of the world and improving 
communication among grass-root movements and members of a besieged civil 
society. Civil and political rights groups are putting mounting pressure on 
authoritarian regimes that are becoming increasingly isolated, cornered into a 
garrison-state mentality. Charades of reform are losing their appeal and 
credibility. The situation is escalating into an intractable political crisis. 
On the one hand, should the ruling autocracies implement genuine democratic 
change, they will certainly see themselves voted out of office and probably 
held to account. If they persist, tensions will keep rising until the situation 
boils over with incalculable results. It is no longer if, but when.

The Arab phenomenon of protest is different from the Asian one in that it has 
not accumulated the critical mass that could overwhelm the garrison state. As a 
result, the paramilitary security shield has not been fully tested. In the case 
of Yemen, the army was fully mobilised to battle secessionists in the south and 
the Houthis in the north. However, the war has not been conclusive. From 
another perspective, there is no consensus on challenging the sitting 
government in a full scale confrontation that could lead to uncontrollable 
bloodshed. People are wary of the daily carnage in Iraq. Although millions of 
people in a number of Arab countries are suffering abject poverty, hunger, 
destitution and political exclusion, a political and moral reverence for the 
power of government remains.

The global terrorism that has had a destabilising effect on many countries is 
inseparable from state terrorism of the opposition or regional aspirations for 
self-determination. Al-Qaeda has become the scapegoat for homegrown violence. 
While Al-Qaeda has set a terrifying example of the violent expression of 
grievances, linking every violent act to it is the oppressive regimes' way of 
tightening their grip on opposition movements. This is a misleading 
justification for the enforcement of emergency laws that provide sitting 
regimes with a wide range of measures to curb the opposition.

People's power has not matured in the Arab region. There is a cause but no 
trigger. Street protests are scanty, overpowered by massive state security 
force, and usually have a narrow perspective that misses the wider picture. 
Circumvention of fundamental freedoms, human rights and the choice of rotating 
the decades-long oligarchies by free and fair elections have created a state of 
malaise. Oppressive regimes are walking a blind alley where, at one dark 
corner, people's power is watching and waiting for a chance to pounce. 

* The writer is former Al-Ahram correspondent in Washington DC. He also served 
as director of United Nations Radio and Television in New York. 

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