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The meaning of Tahrir

It is now a reference for a flawed,dangerous but ever popular inclination.

Written by Mini Kapoor |
August 17, 2013 1:21:25 am

It is now a reference for a flawed,dangerous but ever popular inclination.

The Arab Spring,such as it has been,began with the self-immolation of a Tunisian street vendor,but its epicentre has been nowhere else but Cairo. Ever since early 2011,to utter the word “Tahrir” was to reference not just a square in Egypt’s capital,but the resolve of a people anywhere in the world to force their government to bend to the voice from the street — even with the Occupy movements in mature democracies,including New Delhi’s own Jantar Mantar sit-ins. The reference almost became trite. But that was then. Because one fine June day this year,Tahrir Square filled up with Egyptians seeking to put Mohammed Morsi,their first democratically elected president,on notice,paving the way for his dismissal in what they still refuse to call a military coup — and arguably foretelling these past hours of a dreadful bloodbath.

Is this,the outright assumption of power by Egypt’s anyway deeply entrenched military,only a blip in the longer arc of democratic change in the country,or is it a firm end to the promise of representative government that followed from Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow? Who can say yet? It does,nonetheless,fall into a pattern tracked in a recent study of democracy worldwide. The title of Joshua Kurlantzick’s book sums up his thesis: Democracy in Retreat: The Revolt of the Middle Class and the Worldwide Decline of Representative Government. It brims with phrases like “democratic meltdowns”,“freedom recession”,“democratic recession”,“highly deficient democracies”,sourcing diverse studies to make the point. One of them is especially relevant to the Arab Spring after this week’s events: “One of the key factors in determining whether a country will democratise is the international and regional climate… when powerful countries fail to democratise,this diffusion works in reverse,hindering the cause of democratic change in the entire region.” The prospect of destabilising polarisation in Egypt is obvious,but given the country’s centrality in Arab politics,the effect for the opening up of its neighbours is,too — no wonder the dominant monarchies in the region seem so relieved.

The middle class is a variegated category,and it is dangerous to make comparisons across societies. But may we make the argument that,after the “mandate” the mid-July gathering gave General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi for his post-Morsi manoeuvring,Tahrir,post-June,is now a reference for a flawed,dangerous but ever popular inclination? That it caps a rising tendency to use the headcount from the street to try to undermine the representative mandate of democratically elected governments? It happened in Brazil this year,it is a sporadic affliction in Thailand (once the poster case for the democratisation of Southeast Asia),and of course el-Sisi uses this false equivalence for the military’s power grab in Egypt.

Taken together,the three reflect the importance of institutions — of viable checks and balances — in mediating in a legitimate way a resolution and keeping every stakeholder accountable. They also ask the depressing question whether those polities that are behind the curve on working out an institutional balance can actually even hope to catch up — whether,indeed,the current wave of “Arab Spring” democratisation is doomed,at least for now.

To say that Brazil’s leaders were caught unawares at the speed with which the protest on public transport spread to encompass attempts to rewrite the social contract would be an understatement. But President Dilma Rousseff,staggering as it must have been for her to see constituencies that had been hers in open revolt,dug deep and offered to open the possibility of political reform to include the concerns voiced on corruption and public spending. Her approval rating is rising once again,and it would not be a risky wager to say the system may emerge stronger yet.

In Thailand,the battle of the so-called Red and Yellow Shirts still simmers. As Kurlantzick shows,the country is the most fascinating site for anybody even remotely interested in the mechanics of determining representativeness in a democracy. The colour-coded battle denotes the struggle between the numerically greater Red Shirts (supporters of Thaksin Shinawatra,long in exile while his sister Yingluck is currently prime minister) and the Yellow Shirts (basically the Bangkok- centric middle and upper classes,with deep connection to the ever-powerful palace and military). Thaksin and his proxies have the confidence of winning any election outright,coasting on a populist programme but also harnessing the anxieties in the countryside of political exclusion by Bangkok; the Yellow Shirts,in turn,seek a reduction in the number of elected seats in the parliament,so that the presumably wise counsel from the palace/ army can restrain populist impulses besides keeping the elite’s interests unharmed.

Each side has the staple tactic of occupying Bangkok’s already clogged streets to make its point. The sad fallout is not just that Thai society is divided horizontally,but that the polarisation obstructs an inclusive conversation that would address the rightful legitimacy of electoral majorities,as well as the need for institutional checks on the overreach and creeping authoritarianism of those who rule in their name. Both camps are still in the game,and its progress will be illuminating.

But Egypt. Has the blunt instrument of military coup and then police action ended the country’s chance at representative rule? Morsi may have a lot to answer for on his missteps,but right now,the interrogative spotlight must be on the military.

The writer is a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’

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