Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

People power doesn't always work

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The last straw was the government's arbitrary decision to cancel a grand banquet in Paris to celebrate liberal reform. On the night of Feb. 21, 1848, Republicans and radicals opposed to the increasingly authoritarian 18-year monarchy of Louis Philippe, erected barricades throughout the city. Violent clashes with the National Guard followed.


Yet in this early display of people power, the protesters appeared to gain the upper hand: Within three days, King Louis Philippe abdicated and fled with his wife to England, where he remained for the rest of his life.

The February Revolution in Paris marked the beginning of more than a year of similar people-power revolutions throughout Europe.

Hope for real change was dashed, however, when liberals, radicals and socialists, each with varying views of a democratic future, wound up fighting with each other as well as reactionary forces intent on halting the movement for liberal constitutions, universal suffrage and economic freedom.

From Paris to Prague, the military ultimately stepped in and order and authoritarianism were re-established.

In France, for example, all the people power of 1848 had produced in the short term was the repressive rule of Emperor Napoleon III (he was the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte).

In the longer term, the democratic ideals of 1848 did not disappear. But in most European countries, it required decades of further political protest and the upheaval caused by the First World War to effect real liberal change, and even that was only partially successful.

The current outbreak of people power in Egypt and Tunisia are thus nothing new. And a dozen different factors will determine whether or not true democracies with equality before the law and respect for human rights will materialize in the Middle East. Despite the sensational television images of resolute demonstrators in Cairo and across Egypt, the odds, as they were in 1848, are, frankly, not good.

The fact is people power has probably failed at least as many times as it has succeeded. Yet as westerners with our utmost faith in the sublime supremacy of liberal democracy -- advocating the original and inspiring ideals of the French Revolution proclaiming liberty, equality and fraternity -- we continue to believe democracy must in the end vanquish dictatorship.

Perhaps this is so, but it might take a while.

In the past 50 years, two of the greatest apparent successes of people power were the people-power revolution in the Philippines in 1986, which ended the long, corrupt dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, and the tearing down of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the subsequent downfall of the Soviet Union.

Following election irregularities, it took four days of non-violent protest in February 1986 to force Marcos to leave the country. His departure confirmed the rightful victor of the democratic election, Corazon Aquino, the wife of opposition leader Benigno Aquino, who was assassinated in 1983, almost certainly on the orders of Marcos. Under Cory Aquino and her successors, democracy and economic stability, albeit with increased poverty among large segments of the population, has been achieved.

Even decades later, the disappearance of the brutal Soviet regime and the speed at which it happened still seems rather unbelievable.

Some westerners like to think people power, given voice by U.S. President Ronald Reagan with his cry to the Soviet leader, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall," did the trick. That's too simplistic an explanation. It was more a confluence of several factors, including severe economic problems, a sympathetic military and police, and astute political leaders, none more so than Mikhail Gorbachev, who, rather than being pressured by Reagan, understood the Communist Soviet regime could not sustain itself. All of these permitted people power at first to win the day.

Since then, the democratic movement in Eastern Europe has had mixed results. Poland is probably best off, despite complaints about unemployment and other capitalism-related problems.


In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has passed legislation censoring and restricting the media. And in Russia, Vladimir Putin, the country's former president and current prime minister, continues to clamp down on economic, legal and political rights, frequently no differently than the autocratic czars of the 19th century.

The history of the outright failure of people power is even more dismal. In numerous examples, early optimism and idealism have been trumped by repression, tyranny of the majority, or more often, the rise of authoritarian regimes worse than the ones the popular movements or revolutions demanded be replaced.

Crowds in Cuba embraced Fidel Castro in the late 1950s and watched helplessly as he instituted a brutal dictatorship, which continues to the present day.

In Iran in 1979, it has been estimated 98 per cent of the people supported the ousting of the shah, only to see his monarchy replaced by harsh Islamic rule. Iranians wanted freedom and human rights; instead they got Ayatollah Khomeini and eventually Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Two years ago, after Ahmadinejad retained the presidency, despite losing the vote, hundreds of thousands of pro-democracy protestors were met by police violence and repression.

The most infamous case of people power being ruthlessly suppressed was in China in 1989. Inspired by the pro-democracy events in Eastern Europe, students, academics and workers took to the streets, congregating in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Their demonstrations went on for nearly two months, before Chinese officials ordered the army to stop them. Thousands of unarmed protesters may have been killed; others were summarily tried and executed. Today, the Tiananmen Square Massacre, as it is known in the West, is not spoken of in China.

The latest proliferation of people power in the streets of Cairo and across Egypt seems to have its collective heart in the right place: Getting rid of President Hosni Mubarak, who has tightly gripped power in Egypt for 30 years and prevented true democracy from developing.

This is a noble goal, but a dangerous one, especially in the Middle East where there is no history of democracy. As has been evident in Iran, Lebanon, Gaza and elsewhere, elections do not make for a democracy (remember, too, that Adolf Hitler was elected in Germany in the early 1930s). Rather, they can permit Islamic fundamentalists like Hezbollah and Hamas to legally gain power and then quickly subvert the will of the people, or certainly prevent the rule of law and respect for minority rights.

There is presently an argument in the media and among political pundits and academics about the strength and popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood, severely restricted by Mubarak, yet represented in the Egyptian parliament. So far its members have been unusually quiet during the protests.

Have they really changed, as their leader Mohammed Badie says, or are they merely biding their time to take advantage of a potential power vacuum, should Mubarak be pushed from office before September when he says he will step down as president?

Author and Middle East expert Barry Rubin believes the Egyptian branch of the Brotherhood is not to be trusted. He has studied their recent public speeches and concluded they "want an Islamist radical state, ruled by Sharia and a war with Israel and the United States." They look to al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden for inspiration, not U.S. President Barack Obama.

It is hard to believe the hundreds of thousands of largely secular Egyptian protesters currently calling for Mubarak's resignation are fighting for such a fundamentalist Islamic regime. They should proceed cautiously, for it is the aftermath of people power that truly makes history, not the idealistic and emotional demonstrations in the streets we see on the news each night.


Allan Levine is a Winnipeg writer and historian.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 5, 2011 H11

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