By Tisaranee Gunasekara
“People want their freedom. People want their bread. People want to stop their lousy dictators from looting their countries”. — A Jordanian Dissident (New York Times – 30.1.2011)
Tunisia and Egypt, in revolt, are at the end of a journey Sri Lanka has just commenced.
In a desperate attempt to postpone his political-demise, President Mubarak assured Egyptians that he will not re-contest the September presidential election and emphasised the need for presidential term-limits. Mubarak has been in power for 30 years, winning election after stage-managed election; he intends to install younger son Gamal as his successor. During the 23 year rule of President Ben Ali, his family treated Tunisia as a private-fiefdom. Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh, another wizard at ‘winning’ elections, has ruled for 32 years and nursed a dynastic project; faced with growing dissent, he has vowed to retire in 2013.
Just one month ago, the Arab World was a haven for despots, a breeding-ground of dynasties. The Arab Street was deemed apathetic and anti-democratic.
Then, after long years of being trodden-on, the worm turned.
The past trajectories of Egypt and Tunisia indicate the future trajectory of Sri Lanka: long-term rulers with dynastic ambitions tyrannising over nominal democracies; electoral parodies with predetermined results; economic ‘development’ which under-develops the populace; a vampiric ruler-caste fattening on the life-blood of the country. The democracy myth was kept alive by allowing some latitude to opposition parties and non-state media. A combination of legal and extra-legal methods (including murder and incarceration) was used to keep these anti-regime spaces within ‘safe-levels’. After the 2005 presidential election, Egyptian opposition candidate Aymon Nour was jailed for fraud.
Presidents Mubarak and Ben Ali were initially popular. It took years for this popularity to wane, for hope to evaporate and despair to set in. Despite the absence of democracy, their long moments of hegemony would have lasted longer, had the economic conditions of the masses improved even marginally. Both countries were success stories in neo-liberal terms; their economies grew, per-capita incomes increased and tourism boomed. Egypt’s growth-strategy is based on physical infrastructure development (as is the Rajapaksas’; a third airport will be built in Sigiriya or Hingurakgoda and more land sold to finance the budget-deficit). Egypt was praised by the IMF in 2008 as ‘one of Middle East’s fastest growing economies’ while Tunisia was lauded in September for weathering the global economic crisis ‘relatively well’!
A ‘good business climate’, economic neo-liberalism’s panacea for most ills, is not necessarily good for the people; often it results in (as the UNDP terms) jobless, iniquitous or rootless growth, growth which worsens unemployment, income disparities and environmental degradation. That was the growth Tunisia and Egypt enjoyed. Perhaps the rulers sincerely believed in the fallacy of ‘trickle-down’; the masses certainly did, and waited for long years in the hope of ‘Jam tomorrow’ — in vain.
Economic injustice becomes bearable when it is accompanied by political freedom, because the possibility of change via ballot-box dampens popular anger; political unfreedom becomes bearable when it is accompanied by economic justice (or the strong and credible hope of it) because a populace will forgive a regime much, if it ensures them decent living conditions. There must be bread/rice or freedom; one or the other would suffice for very long periods, but if both are absent no amount of military might can prevent trouble. (Egypt has the 10th largest army in the world and receives assistance from the US and China).
So consent is paramount, even for well-entrenched dictators. Consent can be enthusiastic or grudging, active or passive, willing or unwilling. It can be consent born of genuine support and sustained by the hope of a better tomorrow or it can be consent born of apathy and nurtured by fear. But consent is an ephemeral quality in a country deprived of both political freedom and economic justice.
For the Rajapaksas it is early days yet. History moves at different velocities and our Ruling Family’s dénouement may happen faster than in Egypt or Tunisia. After all, unlike Egyptians/Tunisians we have enjoyed political freedom and experienced some measure of economic justice and may recognise and react to their absence, a tad faster. Last Monday’s arson-attack on the office of the fiercely anti-government Lanka eNews website is a reminder that democracy is under siege in Rajapaksa Sri Lanka.
Currently, selective acts of state-mandated terrorism are deemed adequate: in 2009 Lasantha Wickrematunge was killed and Sirasa attacked; in 2010, Prageeth Ekneligoda – who worked for Lanka eNews – disappeared and Siyatha TV attacked. The incarceration of Sarath Fonseka is a potent warning to oppositional politicians. But repression will become generalised as and when necessary, for instance if the worsening economic conditions cause strikes and demonstrations.
The democracy contagion in the Arab World is giving despotic rulers across the globe an intimation of their own mortality, a prescience of their ultimate fate. Beijing is hoping assiduously (more than even Washington) for the Mubarak regime’s survival. The Rajapaksas obviously recognise the affinity between themselves and the Arab Political Dynasties; the state-media is acting as if Tunisia is in some barely-known universe, Egypt’s volcanic upheaval a mere bagatelle and Yemen non-existent.
Despots never leave gracefully; and they will rend their countries apart to buy just one day more in power. Mubarak is talking of ‘conspiracies’ and trying to engineer a civil war to save his rule and his dynastic project; according to HRW his minions looted the Cairo museum, to discredit the protestors. The Rajapaksas would know that as economic conditions of the masses deteriorate and un-freedom increases, their support would wane, even among the Sinhala majority. Astute and ruthless when it comes to issues of political power, they would not hesitate to divert public anger away from themselves, and towards some convenient scapegoat, as for example the Jayewardene administration did.
In 1977 opening the economy was a dire necessity but it could have been done while avoiding neo-liberal excesses.
Prime Minister Premadasa understood the danger of iniquitous growth and used his enormously successful housing programme to fill some of the gaps. But the real safety-valve of the regime was Minister Cyril Mathew’s anti-Tamil campaign which helped conflate Sinhala racism and anti-capitalism/authoritarianism in the collective psyche of the Sinhala South. That road led to Black July. (A similar confluence of Buddhist militancy and anti-colonialism, against the backdrop of economic stagnation, enabled the 1915 Anti-Muslim riots).
Post-Italian reunification, writer/artist, Massimo D’Azeglio said, “We have created Italy. Now we must create the Italians” (Memoirs). The Rajapaksas do not want Sri Lankans; they need Sinhalese as their support base; and Tamils, Muslims and Christians as the ‘Other’, which inspires paranoia and keeps the Sinhalese yoked to the Rajapaksa-chariot for protection (thus the ‘Sinhala Only’ national anthem and the project to build nine Buddhist-stupas as war-memorials).
The Arab Street is teaching us that the Cimmerian darkness of tyranny can be challenged, even sans a strong opposition. But there is work to be done, of the Gramscian-sort. If the South is not weaned away from the perverted-patriotism of the Rajapaksas, the Ruling Family may succeed in turning our Tunisia-Egypt moment, when it comes, into another Black July against some convenient minority.