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Democracy rising: Tunisia and Egypt, when idealists got it right. The college graduate fruit seller, Mohammed Bouzizi, face slapped by a female police officer, his wares confiscated for a minor infraction, set himself aflame and died on January 2, having written he sought only his dignity, a message that resonated throughout a country fed up with a corrupt and authoritarian clan that, for its amusement, kept tigers in cages and, for its enrichment, a whole population in subordination.
The events that cascaded through Tunisia and then Egypt are global game-changers. It is too early to tell how well democracy will take in either country and whether it will now blossom elsewhere in the Middle East, but a different trend line has been set for human political aspiration and in Western public opinion. Prior to the Tunisian breakout, public interest in established democracies had sunk to a new low. In the US, when pollsters the Pew Research Center asked citizens to indicate their chosen priorities in foreign policy, democracy promotion was noted by only 10 percent, a drop in 10 years from 44 percent, the biggest drop for any category recorded since the Second World War.
The explanations are no mystery. Americans pushed back at the notion it is their business to worry about how other people were governed. The quagmire of Afghanistan sealed the point. When I was going through US Border Protection at Seattle Airport in to take up direction of an international democracy support project for the Community of Democracies I was conducting out of Princeton University, the tough African-American officer bridled when she heard the reason for my visit.
So they had. For the fourth year in a row, retreats from democracy outscored gains, the longest period that had happened in 40 years.
Would-be democrats suffered under the growing confidence of authoritarian regimes. Some, like Russia, were withdrawing rights only recently gained because of the growing popular notion that democracy had undermined order and security. The Tunisian and Egyptian democratic uprisings turned the negative trend lines on their heads.
A new Zeitgeist has spread across the Arab world from Tunisia, that authoritarian pretensions to legitimacy could be challenged. Information technology connections lifted Arab youth from their humiliating isolation from the wider world. Across that wider world, authoritarians are rattled. A conservative-liberal political argument roils the op-ed pages in Canada. Obama probably has it about right.
It always does. There have been over 60 democratic uprisings since Portugal in revolutions since and we are always surprised. We over-invest in the status quo, which we equate with security and stability.
That the undemocratic Middle East is inherently unstable has been obscured by our deference to oil, counter-terrorism, business deals, and a line out of Israel that is scornful of Arabs and their aspirations. These focal points override our values and also our judgment. So we accept false choices, such as belief that the choice in Egypt was between a dictator and rule by hostile Islamists.
On the consumer side, Saudi Arabian youth is given the false compensation of material comfort in return for a dearth of human rights. Some European countries disgraced themselves. Authoritarian leaders who had in the past counted on CIA winking and nodding in inconsistency were, and are, rattled.
It has to emerge from the people in question. So, how did it happen? As democracy advocate and theorist Thomas Carothers has explained, democracy breakout and transition have two initial chapters. Chapter one involves throwing off a dictator. Chapter two is the sometimes more daunting job of building the new democratic form of governance and making it deliver what people need in the way of livelihood and security in addition to rights and justice.
Popular uprisings are created over time. It is not that Tunisia was in a state of grinding poverty, but rather that education resulted in lack of professional fulfilment. Much has been written about the role of information technologies and especially social networks in chapter one uprisings. No doubt they provide a powerful instrument for mobilizing and convening protest.
They knew what norms of governance are elsewhere, what they were being deprived of. Moreover, young activists were connected to protest predecessors elsewhere, youth movements like Otpor in Belgrade who turned out Milosevic, and Pora! These democrats and some interesting international NGOs mentored Tunisians — and Egyptians — in techniques of nonviolent civil resistance. This sort of communications work over time forms what Shirky calls the environmental context of social networking, when civil society builds its capacities and beliefs.
Egyptian engineers and other professionals roamed the Gulf and North Africa as itinerants because there was no work at home. Egypt has grinding poverty but also a professional middle class, and pillars of civil society, including, of course, the Muslim Brotherhood Mubarak tried to demonize, but which Egyptians know is actually pretty mainstream.
Five million Egyptians are on Facebook. Psychologically, it contributed to a tipping point where people, ordinary people, who were not especially political at all, felt they had to be there even at the risk to their lives. The world watched, mesmerized, and largely inspired. Its spread to Libya has been a less fortunate story. Libya had no civil society to speak of. Canada is participating with six CF fighter jets and support staff based in the Mediterranean.
Chapter one conflicts between democratic protestors and authoritarian control are inherently asymmetrical. The regime has all the tools of force. Western democracies have a dilemma. The Libyan revolution can only claim authenticity if Libyans bring it off without foreign, especially Western, boots on Libyan soil. Ghaddafi and his odious sons, courted once by Canadian businesses, scholars and even Prime Minister Paul Martin, all eager for deals, are going to be pariahs internationally.
Democracy will come to Libya, if not in the near term, then before long. Other authoritarians are clamping down. The Saudis, under the banner of the Gulf Cooperation Council, have moved troops into Bahrain to help defend the Khalifa family from democracy. Of course, the Saudis claim it is a step to counter Iranian influence. He sought replenishment in Saudi Arabia. A Somali, an Egyptian and a Saudi are asked their opinion on the eating of meat. Yemen is another locale of protest. Unemployment is officially 37 percent.
Everyone has at least a gun or two. Al-Qaeda is there. Across the narrow Bab el Mandeb Strait of the Red Sea sits Somalia, where al-Qaeda, gangs and pirates inhabit a state deemed to be failed almost 20 years ago. Oil from the Gulf goes through that narrow passage to Europe and America. What is Obama to do? The US is trying, pragmatically, country by country to manage without glaring inconsistency the collision between principles and interests.
Are global trend lines really changed? Will it help aspiring democrats elsewhere to turn out authoritarian rulers and enable them to have a say in decisions taken over their lives, which is really the most basic of human political rights? To answer, we need to study why some democratic protest uprisings succeed and others fail.
Here are six common features of success:. Income levels. There are qualifiers. Authoritarian oil-wealthy states may not turn out so happily for democrats, even when the revenues are distributed inadequately, as was the case in Libya. Occasionally, a very poor country, such as Mali, does come up with its form of democracy.
The point is not really about income, of course, but about infrastructure and social capital. Civil society. The existence of civil society is fundamental, not just for democratic transition but for development on all levels.
Political effect emerges from apolitical activity on a private, nongovernmental level. ANC militants against apartheid in South Africa cut their organizational teeth in football clubs white rulers seemed to leave alone.
In Prague, in the s, the music scene helped the Velvet Revolution prepare. In Cuba recently, I saw daycare centres for single working mothers set up by the Catholic Church where women were taking decisions about something they were running for the first time in their lives.
Empowerment happens in many ways. What is clear is that without a functioning civil society, people who have banded together in unions, professional organizations, environmental movements and day-to-day activities like running libraries or coops, a chapter one uprising will have much greater difficulty transiting through chapter two, building the new democracy. The army.
The role of the army is often decisive. In Prague, Belgrade, Kiev and Jakarta, the army refused to fire on the people. Their own people. On February 2, the army intervened against them and Mubarak fell.
Why did the army refuse orders to shoot and then intervene decisively? Did they see that Mubarak was by that time a loser and just change sides? After all, the Egyptian military is a big economic stakeholder in the country, accounting for up to 30 percent of GDP. There is something professionally more noble to be factored in. The army is a very respected national institution. For 15 years the officers had been going through NATO partnership programs.
Conscripts saw themselves reflected in the youthful demonstrators on the Maidan. Contrary examples, sadly, abound.
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Democracy rising: Tunisia and Egypt, when idealists got it right
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