People Power—A walk from Tahrir to Edsa

Sol Iglesias is Director for Intellectual Exchange at the Asia-Europe Foundation, a partner of Action for Economic Reforms. The views and opinions expressed are her own, and do not necessarily reflect those of the organization. This piece was published in the February 28, 2011 edition of the BusinessWorld, pages S1/4 to S1/5.

An uncertain set of outcomes faces popular protest and unrest in Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, Jordan, Algeria and Iran in the aftermath of developments in Tunisia and Egypt. At this writing, the most violent suppression so far has been in Benghazi, Tripoli and other Libyan cities. The death toll in Libya is reported to be at least 300 lives lost although some estimates place the figure at 1,000 deaths, and hundreds more wounded.

Little more than a fortnight has passed since the world celebrated a peaceful triumph of people vs. strongman in Egypt. On February 11, 2011, comments on Facebook were either jubilant (e.g. Magandang umaga, Egypt!) or apprehensive (e.g. Hold your horses if you think that Egypt will turn into a modern democracy overnight). After 18 days of protest, Hosni Mubarak stepped down as Egypt’s president of the last 30 years. News anchors pronounced Mubarak’s ouster as a triumph of “people power.”

“People power” has a historical connection to Filipinos. It was coined to describe the culmination of protests that started with the assassination of Ninoy Aquino in 1983, and ended with the Edsa Revolution ousting Ferdinand Marcos on February 25— exactly 25 years ago.

There can be no oppressors where there are none oppressed; what we saw in Cairo are a people shrugging off their own chains without violence. That’s a one-of-a-kind, pure shot of empowerment; and that’s what Tahrir and Edsa have in common.

The comparison ends there, however.

The jarring element in the story of Egypt is the unqualified welcome given by Egyptians themselves to the army as caretaker. In contrast, in the Philippines, Cory Aquino and, Cardinal Archbishop of Manila, Jaime Sin raised the call for people to come into the streets also to protect defectors Fidel Ramos and Juan Ponce Enrile. Thus the military writ large, complicit in human rights violations in the name of counter-insurgency and national interest under Marcos, was relegated to a secondary role under civilian authority from the outset.

This brings me to a second and related point. There is as yet no clear civilian figurehead to lead Egypt through this political transition. Mohamed ElBaradei is internationally respected as the three-term Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Since his departure from that office in 2009, he was an early voice for Egypt’s democratization, and enjoys real distance from the Mubarak regime. Domestically, he is not well-known and some quarters view him with suspicion as an outsider.

Despite having been banned in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood won a fifth of the seats in the 2005 parliament by running as independents (but took significant losses in last year’s reportedly fraudulent polls). The Muslim Brotherhood by all accounts was not the driving force behind the Tahrir protests. Viewed with great distrust by Israel and the Americans, the Muslim Brotherhood is nevertheless well-organized and is expected to play a significant role in transition/post-transition politics.

Egypt, in sum, does not have a Cory Aquino who, as a “plain housewife” and Ninoy’s widow, had both perceived moral ascendancy (backed by the people) and a machinery (backed by a united opposition). Edsa’s early heroes from NAMFREL and individuals in the COMELEC exposed the massive cheating at the counts, foreshadowing the upheaval that was to come. That she won the snap election against Marcos was widely accepted; Cory therefore had the legitimacy to lead the messy transformation to democracy.

Thirdly, another difference may be in terms of the prospects for economic recovery. The Marcoses and cronies plundered the Philippine economy already by 1986, leaving us to a doom that constrains us until today. If the crisis in Egypt had continued much longer, experts predicted that collapse would be deep-set and irreversible. The stock exchange has since re-opened and life is returning to normal.

Egypt, unlike its neighbors, capitalizes on tourism and trade, not oil. Economic liberalization, albeit at a slow pace, has progressed in the last few years and Egypt’s economy is interdependent with the global market. Prior to the revolt, The Economist had characterized Egypt’s economy as “sclerotic” and more recently notes the ubiquity of the army’s business interests. Still, prospects need not be dire, particularly if transition is transparent, responsive to people’s demands and fairly stable, so as to instill investor confidence.

Finally, the largest complication for Egypt is its delicate position in the dynamics of peace and conflict in the Middle East. Egypt was the first of only two Arab countries to sign a peace treaty with Israel. Egypt also controls access to the Gaza Strip on its Rafah border, although it has partially opened access since last June following the Gaza flotilla incident.  Egypt has long been a lever of American and Western influence in the Middle East.

There is serious anxiety over the deterioration of the region’s stability and alarm over the massacre of protesters. The one thing everyone agrees on is that it is difficult to predict what will happen in the coming days, weeks, months. In Egypt, a close watch is kept on how its army plays an unaccustomed role in vouchsafing democratic transition.

Nevertheless, 25 years of democracy—flawed as they can be—are celebrated in the Philippines. We watch Egypt take its first steps in the freedom that the people have won for themselves. There are dangers to be wary of, yes, but from one more Filipino: Magandang umaga, Egypt. Manigong simula sa inyong lahat.

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