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Egypt

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Protests Everywhere

Journalists don’t just travel in packs; they write in packs too. And what they’re writing this week is endless pipe-sucking ruminations about what’s driving the seemingly synchronised outbreak of protests in a large number of very different countries around the world. They can’t see the forest for the trees.

You will doubtless have seen a few examples of this fashion recently. If you lived in the belly of the media beast, like I do, you’d be seeing dozens a day, as journos try to explain the phenomenon with varying degrees of success. Varying from zero to about 1.5 out of ten, in my opinion, but there is clearly something trans-national going on.

A group of young Catalan nationalists, walking out the highway to occupy Barcelona airport two weeks ago, were chanting “We’re going to do a Hong Kong” as if they shared the same cause.

They don’t, actually. You could even say that the protesters in Hong Kong are anti-nationalists, in the sense that they are defending their freedoms against a regime in Beijing that wants to smother them under a blanket of conformist Chinese nationalism. But the tactics are the same in Catalonia and Hong Kong, and the emotions are too.

A striking thing about the tactics, by the way, is that they have moved on from the strict non-violence that characterised would-be democratic revolutions from the mid-1980s until the early days of the Arab Spring nine years ago.

From the ‘gilets jaunes’ (yellow-jackets) in France who began their protests almost exactly a year ago, down to the protesters in the streets of Chile, Lebanon and Hong Kong today, the majority are still non-violent. However, they cannot control (or maybe just don’t want to control) the minority who throw bricks and flaming bottles at the police.

The police, of course, use violence too: tear gas, rubber bullets, and sometimes guns. People have been killed – in small numbers in most places, but in the hundreds in Iraq and in Sudan. Even bigger blood-baths are possible in Hong Kong (if the regime in Beijing loses its nerve) and in Egypt (if September’s protesters return to the streets).

Another common denominator is that the trigger that sets the protests off is usually something small. The bread price went up in Sudan; metro tickets got more expensive in Chile; a new tax was put on What’s App calls in Lebanon; the price of gasoline rose not very dramatically in France a year ago and in Ecuador last month – and the next thing you know, masses of people are out on the street.

Moreover, when the government backs down and cancels the offending law or charge, as has generally been the case after a few days or weeks, the protesters don’t quit and go home. By then their demands have expanded to include things like full democratic rights (Hong Kong, Algeria and Egypt) or an end to a corrupt system (Iraq and Lebanon) or action on huge and growing inequalities between rich and poor (Chile, France, and Ecuador).

But all this is just taxonomy, not really analysis. It doesn’t explain why this phenomenon is happening at the same time in such different countries. It doesn’t explain why it’s happening now, not last year or in 2022. And it certainly doesn’t tell us where it’s going next.

Nor do I have answers to these questions, and I can’t bring myself to make the usual trite remarks about global media and imitation, or the lingering and unresolved legacy of the 2008 crash, or the fact that 41% of the world’s population is under 25. However, these events are showing us one important thing: we really do have a global society now

You could see it taking shape even three decades ago, in the way non-violent revolutions flashed between countries, bringing some form of democracy to the Philippines, then South Korea, Thailand and Bangladesh, and on to Poland, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the end of the Soviet Union, all in the five years 1986-1991. But the target then was just crude dictatorships; now it’s much broader.

It’s about economic and social inequality as well as political oppression, and increasingly it’s also about generational inequality. Obviously the injustices are more blatant and extreme in Egypt than they are in France, but they are not really very different and the young know it.

Never mind the nationalists and the populists, who are just playing the same divisive old tunes as always. What we have here, despite the multiplicity of languages, religions and histories, is an emerging global society with shared values and ambitions, especially among the young.

There are millions of angry dissenters from this evolving consensus, but for the first time ever we really are becoming one people. That is a comforting thought as we head into the millennial storm of climate change. It couldn’t have come at a better time.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 5. (“You…on”; and “A striking…ago”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Morsi: A Death Foretold

Egypt’s first and last democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, died on Monday, lying on the floor of the courtroom where they were trying him on yet more charges. (He was already serving several life sentences.) It was probably a heart attack, but according to witnesses they left him lying there for twenty minutes before medical help arrived.

He was only 67, but he was not in good health: he had both diabetes and liver disease. But he was not getting proper treatment for those illnesses: a British parliamentary group that investigated his situation at his family’s request last year concluded that without urgent medical assistance the damage to his health could be “permanent and possibly terminal.” Well, it was.

Morsi was held in solitary confinement for six years, and saw his family just three times. His living conditions were such that the United Nations Human rights office has called for a “prompt, impartial, thorough and transparent investigation” into his death. Fair enough, but he is only one of thousands of Egyptians who have been murdered or tortured by the military regime that overthrew him in 2013.

Morsi was not a very good president: he was a narrow, stubborn man who governed solely in the interests of his own Muslim Brotherhood party and its Islamic priorities. He behaved like this even though he had barely scraped into the presidency with the votes of many who, though secular in their views and values, feared that otherwise the candidate of the old regime would win.

They fully shared his desire to uproot the secular ‘deep state’ that had ruled Egypt through three military dictators and six decades, but they had not signed up for an Islamist constitution instead. So they started demonstrating against Morsi, and only a year after he was elected they cheered when the military stepped in and overthrew him, like so many turkeys voting for Christmas.

Morsi and his party behaved badly, the secular pro-democracy activists were no wiser, and they have both paid a high price in blood and misery for their mistakes. So is there any particular reason to highlight the fact and manner of Morsi’s passing?

Yes, because it creates an opportunity to consider what might have happened if he had not been overthrown.

He would probably still be alive, because he would have been getting good medical care, but he would no longer be in power. His four-year presidential term would have expired in 2016, and he would not have won a second term.

Whoever won the first election after long-ruling dictator Hosni Mubarak was overthrown in 2011 was winning a poisoned chalice, for the Egyptian economy was already on the rocks when the protests began. In fact, that’s why they started, and the long period of protesting and politicking that followed meant that nobody even started thinking about the economy again until early 2013.

The whole of Morsi’s first presidential term, had he served it out, would have been spent struggling to pull the economy out of the ditch. In the course of that, he would have had to impose all sorts of austerity measures that would have hurt exactly the people who were his core voters: the pious poor. And half of them wouldn’t have voted for him next time.

The whole tragedy of 2013, which ended up with General al-Sisi’s snipers killing more than a thousand unarmed protesters in Rabaa and Nahda Squares in Cairo and wounding at least 4,000 others – a massacre perhaps as bad as Tienanmen Square – was completely unnecessary. People more experienced with democracy would have known that Morsi and Muslim Brotherhood rule would both be rejected in the 2016 elections.

All they had to do was wait it out, and let the voters sort it out next time. That’s what Americans who deplore Donald Trump are doing right now, but they have more than two centuries of democratic government under their belt.

The voters may choose to make the same ‘mistake’ again, of course, being only human, but mostly they don’t. And even if they do, there will be another chance to fix things the next time around. As long as the decisions are not completely irrevocable, they can eventually be reversed – and you get to keep your democracy.

If Morsi had not been overthrown, the biggest Arab country, with one-third of the world’s Arabic-speaking people, would still be a democracy. Other Arab countries like Algeria and Sudan, where they are trying to make democracy happen today, would have a powerful supporter in Egypt, not a sworn enemy.

Syria would probably still have suffered a civil war, and so might Yemen, but the ultra-conservative monarchies of the Gulf would no longer dominate the Arab world with their money. Nobody can question the courage of the young men and women who overthrew the Egyptian dictatorship in 2011, but they were too ready to dispense with democracy at the first sign of trouble.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 9. (“Morsi…2013″; and “Whoever…2013″)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Sudan’s Revolution

It’s moving fast now. For three months the protesters in Khartoum got nowhere with their demand that “the people want the fall of the regime,” but last week they moved their protest to the real centre of power in Sudan, army headquarters. Last Thursday the army responded by arresting Omar al-Bashir, the brutal dictator who had ruled the country for the past 30 years.

The generals were only trying to save their own skins, of course. Defence Minister Ahmed Awad ibn Auf, who was being groomed to step into the 75-year-old dictator’s shoes, just arrested Bashir and declared that he would lead an interim military council that would hold elections in…oh, let’s say two years.

It was so stupid it was almost funny. Auf didn’t even bother to talk to the protesters outside his headquarters before making his announcement, so they just ignored him and went on protesting.

The other generals clearly felt that Auf hadn’t quite grasped the seriousness of the situation. The crowds were not going away, and some of the army’s own soldiers had fired on the regime’s hired thugs when they tried to harass the protesters. Time to change horses again.

So on Friday night they persuaded Auf to ‘resign’, and made another general, Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan, head of the interim military council instead. Burhan had two advantages: he had gone out and talked to the protesters, and he didn’t actually face International Criminal Court charges or international sanctions for genocide (as Bashir and Auf do).

To sweeten the pot, the military also forced Salah Gosh, head of the murderous and universally hated National Intelligence and Security Service, to resign. Surely the protesters would now see sense. All the generals really wanted was two years to destroy the evidence and top up their pension pots with stolen government funds before they went into exile.

No deal. When the crowds chanted “we want the fall of the regime,” they really meant all of the regime. And then on Tuesday the African Union (AU) chimed in with a threat to suspend Sudan from the pan-African organisation if the military did not hand power over to the civilians within fifteen days.

The AU is a different outfit from its corrupt and useless predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU). Despite a few stumbles, the AU has managed to establish a genuine moral authority in African politics, and enjoys a higher reputation than any other regional grouping except the European Union. When it tells African soldiers to stop meddling in politics, they sometimes do stop.

So it is reasonable to believe that we may soon see an all-civilian transitional government in Khartoum. No two-year transition, either. Three months to prepare a free election, six months tops. But then the real problems start.

It’s axiomatic that non-violent democratic revolutions like this one inherit huge economic problems. If there weren’t such problems, most people would not be out in the streets protesting.

Sudan lost three-quarters of its oil income when South Sudan broke away and took most of the oil-fields with it eight years ago, and there’s really not much else to sustain Sudan’s 43 million people. Agriculture could help if there were not massive corruption, but this is a country with millions of hectares of unexploited potential farmland where the price of bread tripled in the past three months.

The soaring cost of food is what finally set off the revolution in Sudan, just as it set off most of those other attempted revolutions in the ‘Arab spring’ eight years ago. Only one of the six Arab countries that started down that road in 2011 is both democratic and at peace today, and it certainly feels as if the odds are also stacked against Sudan.

The generals will probably make a deal now that the AU has come out against them. If they are wise, they will throw a few more of their senior colleagues to the wolves (including Burhan, who has worked closely with another of the regime’s murderous paramilitary groups, the Rapid Support Forces, once known as the Janjaweed). Then they will withdraw and wait.

The Sudanese Professionals Association that leads the protests is clever and disciplined, but once in power it will have to take deeply unpopular decisions to rescue the economy from its current paralysis. The Islamists, betrayed and sidelined by their former ally Bashir, will start coming out of the woodwork again.

And a year or two from now, when everybody is throughly disillusioned by continuing economic hardship and political chaos, the military will try to take back control, just as they did in Egypt. Their success is not guaranteed, but they will have the full backing of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. It is, alas, a likely outcome.

To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 8. (“It was…protesting”; and “The AU…stop”)

Turkey’s Attempted Coup

Turkey’s democracy is dead. It was dying anyway, as President Recep Tayyib Erdogan took over media outlets, arrested political opponents and journalists, and even re-started a war with the Kurds last autumn in order to win an election. But once part of the army launched a coup attempt on Friday night, it was dead no matter which way the crisis ended.

It wasn’t a very competent coup attempt. The first rule of coup-making is: arrest or kill the person you are trying to overthrow. The coup leaders should have been able to grab Erdogan, who was on holiday at the seaside resort of Marmaris, but they didn’t.

They didn’t shut down the internet and social media either, so Erdogan was able to use his cellphone to get a message out on FaceTime, calling on his supporters to defy the soldiers on the streets of Istanbul and Ankara. They didn’t even shut down the broadcast media that sent Erdogan’s call out to the public.

It was three hours before they occupied the offices of TRT, the state broadcaster, and they were chased out again by Erdogan less than an hour later. They didn’t ever try to shut down the private television networks, which have a much bigger audience.

The second rule of coup-making is: act as if you mean it. This usually means that you have to be willing to kill people – but the colonels behind the coup (the generals were all vetted by Erdogan’s people) were reluctant to use large amounts of lethal force.

This is laudable, in human terms, but if you are trying to overthrow the rule of a ruthless man who aspires to absolute control, it is a very bad mistake. They took control of Istanbul airport, but they were chased out again by Erdogan’s supporters because they were not willing to shoot them – and Erdogan flew back into the city.

Maybe the coup-makers were just too short of troops to grab control of everything they needed to make the coup work. Maybe, also, they were afraid to order their troops to carry out a massacre because Turkey’s is a conscript army, and many of its young soldiers – basically civilians in uniform for one year – might simply refuse to kill their fellow citizens in large numbers.

At any rate, they didn’t use massive violence in Istanbul, and so they were soon in retreat. But there can be no happy ending to this episode.

Democracy would obviously have been dead if the rebels had won. Almost exactly half of Turkey’s voters backed Erdogan in the last election, so a military regime would have had to stay in power for a long time. It would not have dared to hold a free election and risk Erdogan returning to power.

It would have been equally dead if the coup had partially succeeded and the army had really split, for that would have meant civil war. Mercifully that possibility has now disappeared, but democracy is dead in Turkey even though the coup has been defeated.

A triumphant Erdogan will seize this opportunity to complete his take-over of all the major state organisations and the media, and become (as his followers often call him) the “Sultan” of Turkey. That is a tragedy, because five or ten years ago Turkey seemed well on the way to being the kind of democracy, with free media and the rule of law, where a coup like this was simply inconceivable.

When Erdogan won his first election in 2002, promising to remove all the restricions
that pious Muslims suffered under the rigidly secular constitution, it seemed a reasonable step foward in the democratisation process. He kept his promises about that, but gradually he went further, trying to Islamise the country against the strong opposition of the half of the population that favours a secular state.

Luckily for Erdogan the Turkish economy was booming, so he went on winning elections – and he worked steadily to concentrate all power in his own office. He removed any officials who were not his avid supporters, attacked the freedom of the media, and committed Turkey to unconditional support for the Islamist rebels in neighbouring Syria.

The rebel army officers may have been trying to stop all that, but it was a terrible mistake for which they will suffer severe punishment. So will anybody who is even suspected of having sypathised with them, and Erdogan will emerge as the all-powerful “Sultan” of a post-democratic Turkey.

The coup leaders made the same mistake as the Egyptian liberals made when they asked the army to overthrow the elected president there in 2013. Egypt had a president whom they feared and hated, but they also had a democracy which provided a peaceful means of ousting him.

Erdogan’s popularity would have dwindled with time. The Turkish economy is stagnant, his Syrian policy is a disaster, and the flagrant corruption of the people around him is getting hard to ignore. Sooner or later he would have lost an election. But like the Egyptian liberals, the officers who led the Turkish coup didn’t trust democracy enough to wait.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 15 and 16. (“It was…audience”; and “The coup…wait”)