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Sunday, January 30, 2011

Natasha Shivji & Michael Jana on Egypt Protests

Natasha Shivji on Egypt Protests

People have been demonstrating in a wave of anger and frustration bringing thousands of protesters to the streets of Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Jordan, Lebanon, and Algeria demanding an end to oppressive, corrupt, and undemocratic regimes. With them supporters have risen up around the world in demonstrations, rallies, petition signings. What began in Tunisia has had a domino effect. Egypt is now witnessing the largest protests it has ever seen and the unfolding of events we have been seeing in the last few days is incredible. We have witnessed 100, 000 people on the streets, defying curfews, defying the police and moving on with their demands with no fear.

Their main demand is to end Mubarak's regime. Mubarak has responded by appointing a vice president and prime minister who are simply part of the very system he represents and the protesters reject. He himself refuses to go. The international community is responding in a passive way with fear seething beneath. Egypt represents the most important point for the US in North Africa and the Middle East. Despite the delayed and terribly inadequate responses from the Mubarak regime and the international community, the people have not given up. In fact the protests are growing bigger and supporters worldwide are out on the streets.

What is really encouraging about this protest in Egypt is that it does not represent a particular faction of society, it is a mass popular movement. For instance the Egyptian Christians said they would protect their Muslim brothers from police attacks while they were in Friday prayers. One protester asserted, "We will not be silenced, whether you're a Christian, whether you're a Muslim, whether you're an atheist, you will demand your rights, we will have our rights, one way or the other! We will never be silenced!" The images of unity have been inspiring. While the police were shooting at protesters the protesters moved on and in the event of injury the aid would come from within. In one part of Cairo the police even joined the protesters.

Currently we have seen some chaos in the protests as lootings are now taking place. This can not be used to delegitimize the movement as it is the majority of the protesters themselves who created chains around the museums, and neighborhood patrols to protect their history and their people from the looters. The very same police who were out on the streets shooting on the first day are now nowhere to be seen to protect the people and the country against the looters.

Let us be clear what we are witnessing is indeed a moment of history. This movement was spontaneous, leaderless and a mass movement that is having a domino effect through out the world. The people are tired and they are angry and harbor no fear anymore.

Michael Jana on Egypt Protests

On 28 January 2011, Jonathan Schanzer wrote an opinion article on AOL news website (an American global internet and media company) titled, “Democracy Is Calling in Egypt: Can Obama Hear It?” (http://www.aolnews.com/2011/01/28/opinion-democracy-is-calling-in-egypt-can-barack-obama-hear-it/). This was in reference to recent public protests in Egypt, Tunisia, Lebanon and other Arab countries. Jonathan’s main point is that Barack Obama is effectively removing himself from the Arab uprising debate thereby condoning dictators in the Arab world. Without delving in Jonathan’s main point, his opinion that Arabs are demanding (liberal) democracy exemplifies the dominant discourse that has characterized the recent Arab protests. My opinion is that, this is a misrepresentation, if not a distortion, of the Arabs aspirations.

The Arab people’s grievances during the protests have been very clear and these have included lack of job opportunities, food, corruption, economic inequality and poverty in general. The Arabs are primarily demanding concrete socio-economic rights in terms of decent livelihoods. Therefore, to over-shadow these demands with neo-liberal assertions that the people want liberal democracy as primarily defined by entrenchment of such abstract political rights as freedom of expression and association, without meaningful strategies to achieve people’s concrete demands will not solve the instability. It would be a mockery of the Arabs’ protests and demands if Hosni Mubarak, Ben Ali and other Arab leaders are deposed, new elected governments are put in place, there is free media, but people still don’t have food on their tables, unemployment rates are still high and poverty is still rampant.

It is a fact that liberal democracy does not necessarily guarantee socio-economic development. Just to take a crude example, Tunisia, where people are protesting due to dissatisfaction with their socio-economic status, has effectively been under oppressive dictatorship since independence in 1956, yet it is above Malawi on many economic indicators despite the fact that Malawi has been a democratic country for close to 17 years now. Tunisia’s Human Development Index for instance stands at 0.68 while that of Malawi is 0.49.

The confusion between democracy and development has its roots in the dominant Western neo-liberal ideological discourse that has been entrenched by the academia, the media and the NGO sector. This discourse has recklessly equated democracy to development without meaningful nuanced analysis that can lead to concrete improvement in people’s lives. The neo-liberal discourse has effectively brainwashed many developing countries to the extent that many people simplistically believe that a road to democracy is a road to socio-economic development. This has led to frustration of many people in developing countries when they realize that adoption of democratic institutions has not necessarily resulted in improvement of people’s livelihoods – if anything, human living conditions have worsened in many instances. The recent riots in democratic Mozambique over increase in prices of food; and in democratic Malawi, limited access to education, lack of job opportunities, energy crisis (fuel and electricity shortage), just to mention a few ills, testify to the fact that democracy does not necessarily guarantee socio-economic development.
It is a known fact that the now developed countries such as Britain and United

States of America (the acclaimed paragons of democracy and development) embarked on a meaningful journey to socio-economic development when they had very little of what we would call today democratic governance. For instance, United Kingdom and United States of America only achieved universal suffrage in 1928 and 1965 respectively when on many development indicators they were already above many developing countries today. It can logically be claimed that Tanzania today has better democratic governance institutions than what the now developed countries had when they were at the same level of development as Tanzania. And if we throw the Chinese model in the mix, the theory that democracy is a prerequisite to development crumbles miserably. The point is that democracy does not necessarily lead to development, if anything, development is known to be a necessary prerequisite to sustainable democracy.

Socio-economic development that has a positive impact on people’s livelihoods, which the Arab people (and indeed people all over developing countries) are demanding, need well-defined deliberate development policies. These policies should aim at, among other things, creating and investing in a country’s comparative advantage in production and (international) trade, ensuring food security, investing in modern technology, and pro-poor distribution policies; and not merely building “democratic institutions” such as periodic elections. If such development policies are assumed to automatically flow from a democratic government, people’s frustration as evidenced by the Arab protests will continue whether or not they are governed by a democratic government. The point is that this developmental perspective should be included at the heart of the debate regarding solution to the public unrest as it directly relates to people’s grievances.

This is not to say that democracy is “bad”. Democracy as an ideal that promotes people’s will, rights and dignity is necessary. But democracy as practice needs to adopt a form and substance that is in tandem to a specific society’s level of development, otherwise it will be empty and unsustainable.

The above discussion is far from being exhaustive. It has however shown that it is reckless ideological rhetoric to primarily argue using political meta-concepts that the Arab protests signify people’s demand for democracy, or for that matter that the protests signify the rise of the proletariat (the poor) against the bourgeoisie (the rich) and hence the road to true communism. This extravagant political meta-analysis that ignores the relevant developmental perspective has a potential for political reforms that treat people’s concrete demands as secondary thereby failing to meaningfully address the people’s grievances.

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