by Tisaranee Gunasekara
"When heads of state do not pay attention to the needs of their nation, the people take over”. Turkish Presiden Abdullah Gul (During the February 2011 visit to Iran)
“As he launched a series of murderous attacks against the protesting Libyan people, in a desperate bid prolong his 42 year-rule, Libya’s self styled ‘Brother Leader of the Revolution’ Muammar Gaddafi had a telephone conversation with Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa. According to Libya’s official Al-Jamahiriyah TV.
Mr. Gaddafi informed Mr. Rajapaksa “about the extent of the conspiracy which targets the security, stability and national unity of the Libyan people”. In return President Rajapaksa “expressed his and Sri Lankan people's full solidarity with the Libyan people in the face of this conspiracy,” (quoted by the BBC – 4.3.2011).
The raging Revolutionary Tsunami in the Arab World has caused a tectonic shift in world politics. Until Tunisia awakened from its decade-old slumber and threw out its dictator of 23 years, the war against terror was the defining issue on the global political stage. But democratic revolutions against long-term despotic rulers in Tunisia and Egypt gave birth to a new political conjuncture, characterised by popular struggles against tyranny. The new polarisation is between despotic rulers and their own subjugated people. These struggles can be peaceful, as in Tunisia or Egypt, but turn violent, when rulers respond with overwhelming force, leaving the protesting people little choice but to arm themselves as best as they can, as in Libya.
Peaceful or not, the Third World-wide struggles by ordinary citizens against their despotic rulers, for representative democracy and fundamental human rights, will be the defining issue of the 21st Century (or at least its first phase).
Friday’s call from Mr. Gaddafi to President Rajapaksa, and the latter’s response, indicate clearly where Rajapaksa Sri Lanka will be positioned in this epic struggle between Third World despots and Third World people. Rajapaksa Sri Lanka will be on the side of the despots; on the wrong side of history.
After the transformative 18th Amendment, which, by scrapping the term-limit clause, removed the last remaining barrier to long-term tyranny, no other fate is possible for Rajapaksa Sri Lanka.
Post-Mubarak Egypt’s constitutional proposals are out. Aimed at creating a constitutional and legal framework for the transformation of Egypt from despotism to democracy, these proposals demonstrate how, where and when Sri Lanka got it wrong. The amendments also help us achieve a clearer understanding of the very nature of the current political conjuncture. Its main battle cry is democracy; and the main enemy is none other than those Third World rulers who seek disempower their citizens, gather all power into their hands, to rule for life and to set in place political dynasties.
The Egyptian constitutional proposals have a clear purpose: to facilitate the country’s democratic transformation and prevent any future lapses into despotism. To achieve this aim, the new constitution will introduce a strict two-term presidency of four years each (a maximum of 8 years). As the reform-minded judge who heads Egypt’s new constitutional committee, Tarek El-Beshri, states, “This is the best way to ensure that future rulers do not have sufficient time to establish a power base strong enough to bring the old Pharaonic style back to the political system” (Al Ahram – 3-10.3.2011). This amendment will not only prevent the creation of life time presidents; according to Gamal Abdel-Gawad, head of Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, it will also “help inject new blood and allow younger generations a chance of running the country” (ibid).
Other proposed amendments to the Egyptian constitution seek to reduce presidential powers. For instance, “As well as limiting the length and number of terms, the proposed amendments place restrictions on the power of the president to declare or renew a state of emergency. The declaration of a state of emergency will henceforth require approval in a public referendum, and will have a lifespan of just six months. Proposals to amend Article 189 to allow a 100-member commission drawn from parliament to draft a new constitution rather than leaving this in the hands of the president and a third of sitting MPs mark a further erosion of presidential prerogative. Full judicial supervision of elections is to be restored….” (ibid)
The main pillars of the new democratic Egyptian constitution are thus the antithesis of Sri Lanka’s 18th Amendment. This is no accident. The two constitutional changes have completely antithetical aims. The Egyptian amendments aim at preventing the creation of another life-time despot; the Lankan amendment aims at paving the way for a life-time despot.
Little wonder, then, that Rajapaksa Sri Lanka finds herself in the insalubrious company of despotic rulers across Asia and Africa, from Myanmar to Libya, from Zimbabwe to Saudi Arabia.
Little wonder, then, that ‘Brother Leader’ Gaddafi called President Rajapaksa in his hour of need and received sympathy and solidarity in abundance. Birds of a feather tend to flock together.
The Arab uprisings are not conspiracies. They are not directed nor managed by any outside force or entity. They are as indigenous as can be, and stem from the age-old human desire to be free. These upsurges are about democracy; the protestors in each country want their particular tyrant out and a system consisting of representative democracy, fundamental rights and the rule of law instituted in his stead. Some of the tyrants were/are key US allies, such as Egypt’s Mubarak, Yemen’s Ali Saleh and Bahrain’s Royal Family; some are former enemies turned politico-business partners, such as Libya’s Gaddafi; others are enemies, such as Syria’s Assad. What all of these disparate countries (some rich, some poor, some with oil, others without, some monarchies, others republics) have in common is long-term rule by a single leader/family and total absence of democracy and freedom. These societies are also extremely unequal and proverbially corrupt.
Take Libya for instance. Perhaps nothing reveals the anti-people nature of the Gaddafi regime, under its progressive veneer, than the enormous amounts of money the various members of the ruling family paid to obtain the services of internationally famous entertainers for their private parties, held in exotic locations faraway from Libya’s struggling masses. The amount of money spent on each entertainer is said to vary around US$1million and 2 million. News is also coming out about the huge sums of money paid by the Libyan regime to Western public relations firms to help it win influential friends in American and Europe (as a result a large number of public figures, from American conservatives to British liberals, undertook highly paid-visits to Libya and made positive remarks about the Gaddafi regime in public). At least this expenditure can be explained away as politically necessary for Mr. Gaddafi. Not so the huge sums of money paid to mainly American entertainers while one third of the Libyan populace lived in poverty. After all, the money paid by the Junior Gaddafis could not have been their money, but oil revenues which belong to the people of Libya and should have been spent on their upliftment.
It is these internal flaws, from tyranny and injustice to corruption, the protestors are focusing on, rather than the foreign policies of the various regimes. As Alain Gresh pointed out, “‘Neither with the West nor against it’ could be the slogan now across the Arab world… They will judge the West by its ability to defend the principles of justice and international law everywhere, particularly in Palestine. But they will no longer allow their governments to use the struggle against the West to justify tyranny” (Le Monde Diplomatique – March 2011; emphasis mine).
No ruler can admit that these are bona fide indigenous popular uprisings, by citizens whose tedium with long-term tyranny has boiled over into a burning anger and a fierce determination to be free at any cost. Making such an admission will be tantamount to self-de-legitimisation. So the tyrants need to come up with cover stories (which sound plausible to their distorted ears), to justify their continued rule and the brutal crackdowns needed to ensure that rule.
So across the Arab World, embattled rulers are trying to displace the blame for the turmoil engulfing their countries. Mr. Mubarak, an American lackey for 30 years, blamed the US, the West and the media, during his last incoherent days in power.
Mr. Gaddafi, sounding rather like Rev, Arthur Belling (Vicar of St. Loony Up The Cream Bun and Jam) in the Monty Python show, is blaming everyone from Osama bin Laden to the US for his woes. Mr. Saleh, another US stooge, is ranting at the Americans and the Israelis. These ravings by desperate despots would be funny except for the fact the raving desperate despots are heavily armed and are already using those weapons (supplied mostly by the West, even in Libya) against their own people, with horrendous results.
In the mid 19th Century, a series of popular uprisings swept across Europe, from backward provinces in divided Italy to the teeming suburbs in sophisticated France. The wave lasted around two years, ebbing and flowing, coalescing and dissolving. Some of the struggles were of a nationalist flavour while some had democratic hues, but all stemmed from profound mass discontent with moribund and unjust status quo. The struggles reached varying levels of success, but their cumulative impact changed Europe forever. No longer would European man and women be content to mind their little lives while supposedly inviolable Rulers ruled over them; no longer would Europe be a chess board for monarchs and popes.
The masses have arrived on the European political stage, to stay. In the next 50 years, universal male franchise became the European norm, which was then extended to adult women. Both achievements were the results of decades of struggle and sacrifice.
Predictably the newly empowered people did not always use their voting right wisely. And democracy did not save Europe from wars and massacres; revolutionary upheavals and economic disasters. But with the transformation of the subject into the citizen, people ceased being passive spectators of the fates of their countries; instead they became active participants. From now on the triumphs and tragedies, the successes and failures would be, in varying degrees, the responsibility of the people.
The Arab people today are roughly where the Europeans were 150 years ago. They too demand the right to guide their own destinies for better or for worse.
Democracy is neither won nor defended easily. Nor can it guarantee peace and prosperity; or wisdom. People often vote to disempower themselves, as the Germans did in 1933 and Sri Lankans did in 2010. But tyranny, even when it seems most powerful and stable, is living on borrowed time. Those on the wrong side of history will someday be submerged by history, as the Gaddafis and the Rajapaksas of this world will discover, sooner or later.