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Are Protesters Overthrowing a Brutal Despot, or Merely Bad Losers at the Polls?
The Arab Spring model of protest, symbolised by Tahrir Square, is now destabilising democratically elected leaders
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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.

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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.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Arab Spring 
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  1. Anonymous • Disclaimer says: • Website

    It is increasingly clear to me that with the exception of perhaps Tunisia, The Arab Spring [and particularly in Libya] was manufactured. Even in Syria, it continues to be manufactured and concocted. The Blowback Risk of the Ne’er-Do-Wells is entirely underestimated as it always has been. Given that the Manufacturers have enjoyed singular success, one might argue the Arab Spring has now become a very effective Template and is being rolled out globally. If I were China, I would be paying supremely close attention because at some point Xinjiang will surely blow. Aly-Khan Satchu Nairobi

  2. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    {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,..}

    Don’t trust this person. He supported the CIA/Mossad/MI6 regime change in Libya, Iraq, and now Syria. He is part of the propaganda campaign. We are not stupidddddddddddddddddddddddddddddd

  3. The question for the Nuland-Kagan neo-con cabal is, who will best serve their own politicized financial interests in a Ukrainian satrapy?

  4. antonio says:

    Why don´t you include Venezuela among the democracies being treated by the loosers of elections?. I think this is the most striking example.

  5. michael says: • Website

    much like judo @the time of the Arab Spring Wikileaks was all the rage, but instead of the leaks being LEAKED they were selectively Sprinkled about, the US took the leaks momentum and perhaps using a page out of SAMANTHA POWERS’ husbands(CASS SUSTEIN) playbook”cognitive infiltration for beneficial Cognitive Diversity”, thus flipping the Islamic world into a bleneder that only the US can rescue. Turkey had been sorting itself out under Erdogan, Davutoglu understood Strategic Depth, if i could speak to them i”d suggest withdrawl of the EU membership application and immediately Renegotiate the BTC pipeline deal- Nothing crimps Empire’s knickers worse than when you play w/ black liquid crack(ask Russia about Sakhalin IIIand the DOUBLED production sharing agreement(PSA).Is the KAGAN clan related to Kaganovich of HOLODOMOR fame, speaking of Ukraine:)

  6. ltlee says:

    Democracy means people rule. But the people should be understood as one people. If the people are to “rule” in any sense of the world, they must rule as one. Peoples cannot rule within the same space. They would fight with each other. More important, voting or protesting, to the extent that these activities are not making peoples into one (e pluribus unum), they are not democratic.

    Hence the relevant question is not “Are protesters overthrowing a brutal despot, or merely bad losers at the polls.” But are they forging a people?

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