Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Revolution is Televised

by Mike Bosia

Thursday by noon, American media was reporting that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was about to step down, and what might seem far away was of immediate importance to a classroom of students at St. Mike's. Our faculty in political science draws on current issues to illustrate the key concepts and theories in the discipline; sometimes, if unusually, the world shouts so loudly in its immediacy that we have to respond to it during a class meeting. Last week, in a course on Transitions to Democracy, the world historic events unfolding in Egypt would not be ignored.

I designed this course 5 years ago to engage students in a discussion of US foreign policy and a new agenda of democracy-building in the Middle East. My approach was to present students with the primary theories about the process that unfolds when a authoritarian regimes collapses, and the necessary mechanisms and precursors to consolidate democratic institutions. These are compelling issues that provoke a variety of choices about how the US might foster democracy and what the limits of these efforts could be. The course concludes with a reading about the possibility of a democratic transition in China, and the Iraq War has always been on our minds even as we focus on specific case studies, where protest movements or political institutions fostered transitions, or where politicians and empowered elites succeeded in seizing power even when so many offered such profound hopes. In 2008, we were fortunate to welcome a delegation of local elected officials from Iraq to the classroom, sponsored by the Vermont Council on World Affairs. Clearly taken from the headlines, this course was nonetheless as deeply analytical and moral as it was timely.

Over the past two weeks, as Mubarak squared off against a movement of young democracy activists (most not much older than the students in my class), we dedicated time each session to review the events, see where the hopes of the activists stood, and talked about what to look for in the coming days to indicate if the regime might budge.

Then there was Thursday.

In real time, Egyptians waited in the streets of every city in the country, hundreds of thousands gathered in Tahrir Square before large screens deployed by tech savvy activists. And in real time in Vermont, a computer terminal in class monitored Al Jazeera English, one of the few news networks with an internet simulcast of its broadcast service.

While we waited for the promised arrival of Mubarak before the television cameras, we decided to complete our section on the April 1974 Carnation Revolution in Portugal. In a striking parallel, the events of 1974 in Lisbon were as dependent on the choices of the officer corps and the solidarity of the front line troops with the people as those in Cairo would be. In Lisbon, the revolution was named for the flowers given by civilians to the soldiers at the city's central market. This week, the young people organizing resistance on the streets of Cairo are a reminder of the brave young junior officers who confronted a calcified dictatorship in Lisbon. Though separated by decades and a wealth of technological advance, the generations in the Middle East and the Iberian Peninsula were equally frustrated about their individual lives and the stagnation of their countries, stifled by an authoritarian state. Matthew Miller's post on this blog earlier this week provides a striking firsthand account of Egypt today.

By the end of class Thursday, the government in Cairo seemed even more in chaos than it was at the start of the day, with Mubarak's television appearance and his message increasingly in doubt. Would he step aside? In class, we could use what we learned from the Carnation Revolution to assess the news as it promised to unfold in the coming days, and what this offered in terms of a democratic transition. Would the Supreme Council of the Military take power and oust Mubarak as the officer corps had done in Portugal? In the first hours of the Portuguese Revolution, we saw the immediate release of political prisoners, the abolition of the hated secret police, the suspension of state institutions, and the promise of democratic elections. Soon after, exiled leaders returned and parties on the left and right began to organize. Those are the things we need to look for in the days ahead, as the transitional government in Egypt fulfills its promise to end the state of emergency and move toward democratic elections.

The Portuguese transition was contentious, not always certain, and frequently threatened with collapse, much like the ongoing events in Tunisia. But it also provided the impulse for a dramatic end to the military regime in Greece and the more gradual transition in Spain, and the eventual admission of all three countries into the European Union as full democracies. As with each wave of democratic protest and transition, not every lesson from previous generations offers guidance or suggest the outcome of today's events. In class, we focus on what we might look for, and what the US role might be - what key precursors, processes, and mechanisms offer opportunities, insights, and challenges - to understand these movements and foster a new democratic wave.

(the embedded video includes English closed captioning. Just click on "cc" in the lower left of the Youtube window)

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