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Are Protesters Overthrowing a Brutal Despot, or Merely Bad Losers at the Polls?

Egyptians protesting in June against President Mohamed Morsi, who was voted in the year before. (Photo: Press Association)In the spring of 2011 I was in Benghazi, standing in a crowd of anti-Gaddafi demonstrators protesting outside the hotel of a visiting delegation. Most of the protesters were waving banners with slogans written in English in front of the cameras of foreign television companies, but, when I talked to them, many spoke only Arabic. The slogans were politically sophisticated and left the impression that the rebels in eastern Libya were liberally minded secular democrats rising up to overthrow a demonic dictator.

I was a little uneasy about reporting this because the demonstration gave a misleading idea of the people, in reality Islamic fundamentalists of different types, who were the driving force behind the Libyan uprising. But at the same time I thought it quite right that the revolutionaries should use every PR trick available. There was no doubt the uprising had massive support in Benghazi and who was Gaddafi to complain when he had denied Libyans freedom of expression for 42 years? So what if the protesters had concocted a version of reality shaped for television and western viewers. Didn't the Republican and Democratic Parties in the United States invariably do the same?

At this time, revolutionaries in the Arab world believed they had hit on a winning formula in confronting a repressive state. Peaceful protesters would take over a square or central space in a capital city, such as Tahrir Square in Cairo or the Pearl Roundabout, Bahrain, which became the symbol of resistance and the rallying point for demonstrators. It was also the stage where every charge by the police and counter-charge by protesters would be played out before the cameras. A simple narrative of peaceful people resisting a brutal despotic regime could be established.

It turned out that life was not so simple. Revolutionaries must have some idea of what they are going to do once they have displaced the powers-that-be. It is not enough to say that anything is better than the status quo, particularly, as happened in Egypt and Syria, when people find their lives are getting worse. What happens when foreign powers, once so eager to support the risen people, want a share of the political cake? The success of those first uprisings meant that the revolutionaries, always better on tactics than strategy, had lethally few ideas about what to do next.

But the formula that brought them to power still works. In the past eight months, governments in Turkey, Thailand and Ukraine have been destabilised by prolonged mass protests. In the case of Egypt a giant demonstration on 30 June led directly to – and was portrayed as giving legitimacy to – a military coup on 3 July. In Istanbul it was Taksim Square and in Kiev it was Independence Square that were the stages on which revolutionary dramas were played.

But what is at issue now is very different from 2011. This is not obvious, because television reporters often produce the same simple-minded story as before. Downplayed and even unstated in reports from Kiev, Cairo, Bangkok and Istanbul was that this time the protesters were confronting democratically elected leaders. Viewers watching demonstrations in Independence Square, Kiev in recent weeks might easily have concluded that President Viktor Yanukovych was a despot installed by Russian tanks or a coup d'état. Despotic he may be, but in 2010 he won the closely fought presidential election with 12.5 million votes or 48.9 per cent of the poll against 11.6 million votes or 45.5 per cent for Julia Tymoshenko.

The protests which began in Gezi Park, Istanbul in June last year at one level resembled the Arab Spring demonstrations. Outraged, courageous Turks battled the forces of an increasingly authoritarian and hubristic government. But seldom mentioned in foreign television coverage was that the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan won three landslide elections in a row and the Turkish economy has trebled in size since his ruling AKP Party took power in 2002. He ended the long era when Turkey was dominated by a self-serving security and judicial establishment that periodically reinforced its power with military coups of great brutality. Some in the opposition were trying to win on the streets what they had failed to win at the ballot box.

This was certainly so in Thailand where three-month long anti-government protests in their final spasm have been openly anti-democratic, seeking physically to prevent people voting in the general election on 2 February. The protesters' own solution to the crisis is the appointment of an unelected council of "good men" to run the country. The protests are trying to get rid of the government of Yingluck Shinawatra acting on behalf of her exiled elder brother and former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose party has repeatedly won elections. Backing the protests is a Thai establishment connected to the royal court, judiciary, civil service and the opposition Democratic Party. The opposition's aim has been to destabilise the government by paralysing Bangkok through street protests and provoke a crisis in which the judiciary or other state agencies could get rid of the Shinawatra government.

A difference in the struggle between protesters and government in Ukraine compared to those in Turkey and Thailand is that in Kiev they can expect backing from the United States and European Union as can the government from Russia. The opposition has received an overwhelmingly good press from western television and newspapers portraying the struggle as one between ordinary Ukrainians and a repressive government. The television-friendly version of the protests has little time for complicated stuff about the role of outside powers or the competition between oligarchs and the ruling family. Understandably, it is the phrase "Fuck the EU" in the leaked phone call between Victoria Nuland, the top US diplomat for Europe, and Geoffrey Pyatt, US ambassador to Ukraine, that has attracted the attention. But it is worth listening to the rest of their talk on YouTube to appreciate the extent to which these senior US officials saw themselves as determining who should form a future Ukrainian government.

Is the Tahrir Square model of protests becoming discredited? Probably not entirely, because it bonds so well with the needs of television, but it is now at the service of both people who demand an elected government and those who refuse to accept losing at the polls. Of course those who lose elections in Egypt, Turkey, Thailand and Ukraine have their rights, but so do those who win them.

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