Saturday, April 2, 2011

Learning Lessons from Middle East Protests

The popular protests in the Middle East that have pitted multitudes of democracy-loving citizens against the bastions of dictatorships that have defined their nations’ political landscape, took most of us by surprise. Well-deserving of their reputations as corrupt and repressive regimes, these Middle Eastern dictatorships looked as invulnerable and as permanent as any despotic government could possibly get. Anyone who claims that they clearly foresaw the immediate fall of powerful tyrants like Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Tunisia’s Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali are lying their heads off.

By the time these two autocrats had capitulated, another long-time Arab strongman in Muammar al-Qaddafi found himself on the wrong end of a bloody conflict. For years, Qaddafi ruled Libya with an iron hand as he brought his country an impressive amount of oil wealth. But the erratic Libyan leader was used to dispensing violence on his opponents. He was not accustomed to having to take it. He was even less accustomed to having masses of his people calling for his removal.

If anyone would have publicly declared, even during the midst of the Egyptian uprising, that Qaddafi was the next Arab domino to begin toppling, anyone with any knowledge of the region would have said that you must have been taking the same hallucinogenic drugs that the dictator claims the Libyan demonstrators are taking.

But as the demise of his 40-year rule hopefully draws near—I say “hopefully” with a large grain of salt considering the destructive civil conflict that is currently ongoing in Libya—we must heap praise on and give moral and military support to the brave Libyan people who have shown, along with their Egyptian and Tunisian counterparts, that what was once believed impossible is very possible if citizens are ready to act on change.

Remember too, that there was a time a quarter of a century ago that Filipinos themselves were well-versed in bringing about change. Today in the Philippines, there may be a way to bring about change, but there doesn’t seem to be the will.

Angry and disillusioned populations, as Filipinos were during EDSA I, are much taken in by the passions that circulate in every province of the heart and mind. That is why it is wise to step back from the heated moment of revolutionary change and briefly—again, I said “briefly”—waive the right to call for the heads of those who have affronted the country. To do so would avoid marring the social and affecting beauty of overthrowing a dictatorship. It would also allow the democratic masses and their leaders to couple practical reason with revolutionary ardor and ensure that the best possible short- and long-term outcomes are achieved. Let us hope that the democracy protestors in the Middle East understand this.

Did Filipinos do this in the aftermath of the 1986 EDSA people power revolt? Did they come to grips back then with the price that would have to be paid for real and honest democracy to sprout its wings? Or did they fall into the trap of euphoric exaltation that usually accompanies the jettisoning of a hated ruler and the rebirth of democracy? With the benefit of the hindsight of history, it pains me to say that Filipinos in the post-EDSA I years did too much celebrating and not enough calibrating. It pains me even more that this is how things still stand in 2011.

The difficulty in enacting the hope and promise of EDSA I captures the ambivalence that large segments of Filipino society have about engaging in meaningful reforms. The Filipino people want real reforms, but they retreat into their shells once they fall victim to various forms of distraction or to the obstructionist machinations of their politicians and of the economic elite. Until Filipinos realize that democratic change has to be struggled and fought for, they will forever be outside the democratic pale looking in.

At some point Filipinos will be dragged in once again into the treacherous currents of socio-political and economic upheaval. They won’t be able to avoid it. They will then have to decide between asserting their rights as a free people through various modes of resistance as the people of the Middle East are doing, or allow themselves to be timorously bypassed by history yet again.


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