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The People Power in Egypt suggests a paradigm that a nation’s progress will be achieved only with the active and meaningful participation of citizens. The Mursi Government, which came to power through the People Power from the streets, fell a year later through the same People Power from the streets. In other words in Egypt the people have spoken in what might have been the largest public demonstration the world has ever seen.
Now, do street actions produce better results than elections? Maybe, may be not. But that is not the point.
The point is that Egyptians are demanding change. Street protests in the absence of any real debate and cooperation between political forces in the country are seemingly the only way for the majority to speak and be heard.
People Power will more and more assert power in countries with no real opposition to ask unpleasant questions in the Parliament, no journalists who are to castigate the government in power, no judiciary power that will set boundaries, and no president of country that will at least symbolically say – no.
So what happens when you have an opposition that is inconsequential to national decision making under an authoritarian regime? When the opposition stands for nothing more than getting elected?
Let’s revisit the opposition in Ethiopia.
For the last ten years Ethiopia’s opposition, in fact, has been rarely convincing. It has been off key and off message, and has for the most part become professional victims. It hardly had a coherently articulated program, let alone ideology… Who the hell wants to listen to an opposition short of alternative ideas, whining and moaning all the time about the outrage du jour? … Seriously?
As one observer remarked, they [leaders of the opposition], went from being the voice crying in the wilderness, to being the trees that fell in the forest with nobody paying any attention. So if you must be angry, don’t be angry at the Party in power for doing what it set out to do, be angry at the opposition establishment for not doing . . . well . . . much of anything.
Sticking to its plan, the EPRDF went on to forge institutions and coalitions that both structure and control elite relations, thereby both limiting the ability of opposition to arise. It (the EPRDF) hardly wanted opposition parties and movement to have serious presence in parliament, let alone in government. For the EPRDF the call for “democracy” and “democratisation” never referred to the move towards competitive multi-party democracy but rather a response by the EPRDF to perceived societal disaffection and strengthening of the one-party rule.
The EPRDF simply never trusted the opposition which seem to spend nearly as much effort fighting each other as battling the EPRDF. For the latter the restructuring of the economy, building up the nation’s rickety infrastructure, reforming an unsustainable system of power sharing, redefining Ethiopia’s position in the region and all the other massive challenges that face the country were going to require years of effort. And for this, it considered the opposition not yet ready. Has the EPRDF betrayed the trust of its citizens by dismantling the multi-party system the Constitution mandates? Or is it the case of the opposition’s incompetence that left it in limbo. In the absence of an active opposition is it still possible to have a government accountable to its people, or conducive to the rule of law?
As always, the questions asked come down to: Are citizens in a democracy better represented by a one-party system, or a multi-party system? How do you make the ‘bad emperor’ go away in a one party-system? How do you “induce” the party to give up power if and when it loses the people’s support?
In a way these are faux propositions. There is an old Chinese saying: “The people are like water, the ruler is a ship on that water. Water can carry the ship; water can overturn the ship.” Today, nation-states have replaced empires and kingdoms. This week’s Egypt should come to mind. In this analogy, water is still the people. The ship, however, is no longer just an emperor and his dynasty, but the larger and far more sophisticated political system that constitutes the modern nation-state.
In discussions of the EPRDF and how it has governed Ethiopia since 1990s, I believe there are facts that favour optimistic diagnosis. This governance has not been without its fair share of past and current problems, however, it cannot be said the EPRDF has been inflexible and stagnant in addressing Ethiopia’s major growing pains.
Look closely, and you will note a real process setting the stage for the next phase of democratic transition. Almost all of the old guard of the EPRDF have voluntarily relinquished power and passed the baton to the new generation. An incredulous act in this age and day! But are the new generation of leaders better prepared to the coming world; are they bringing in fresh ideas, insights and experience? Do they really know what sort of nation state we (the people) wish to have in the future.? These are some of the most important questions begging for answers.
One thing is sure, these new leaders have to do better than their elders… or risk a nasty calamity. They will have to re-inject some of the energy and enthusiasm they brought to help rejuvenate the Party, and they need to offer the rising generation not just hope, but concrete opportunity… They need, above all, to embrace a clear sense of principles: say, freedom, equality, the rule of law, to start with!
They will also be confronted with many pressing problems: the growing gap between the rich and poor, the lack of transparency, the increasing rural to city migration, the role of the armed forces; state versus private management and ownership of land; issues of competitive elections within the one party system; means of avoiding repression of dissenting views; or the mechanisms needed to protect citizens’ and human rights.
In any case, today it doesn’t matter whether the power one wields comes from the ballot box or not. We’ve seen (and still see) that many popular street revolts are happening in old and new democracies: Brazil Chile, Egypt, Israel, Turkey, to name the few. Ruling parties who do what they want once in office, including ignoring the opposition, stifling the media, and otherwise behaving in imperious or corrupt ways, as if democracy is only about the right to vote, not rights in general are in for a big disappointment.
My humble advice: Start by democratizing your one party system from bottom up, before people take to the streets, forming their own opposition.