Governments around the world need to respect the growing force of the people’s voice

Image by ~sNowFleikuN

Image by ~sNowFleikuN

People have been taken by surprise by the persistent demonstrations in Turkey against Prime Minister Erdogan and his style of government. Turkey seemed to be more a model for the new states emerging from the Arab Spring than a candidate to travel the same route.

What is going on? Turkey is connected with the Arab Spring, but is not part of it. It is not Arab and it is already a well-developed democracy. It is connected, because the Arab Spring, so-called, is not Arab at all. It is a global phenomenon. The process of globalisation in economics and communications, and the empowerment of individuals and sub-national groups in the global spread of freedom, have created a new relationship between governments and their peoples everywhere. This is the great new theme of geopolitics in the 21st century, more pervasive and influential than the themes of East/West, North/South or Islam/non-Islam.

Not only are ordinary people much better informed about what is going on around them, out to the global level if they are interested enough, but they have a means to connect with each other and add numbers to feelings if they have something important to share. As a consequence they are much more aware of what they may justifiably expect from life and much more inclined to do something about it if their expectations are not being met by governments. And their voice has an international impact, not just a national one in each country, because borders are so porous.This trend affects democracies just as much as autocracies, because the power of ordinary people to reshape society is not altered by the political context. Whenever I talk with the current generation of young adults, I find a disillusionment not just with particular politicians or parties but with the political class as a whole. This has to do both with the top-down, one-way communication habits of political leaders and with the short-term, power-oriented obsessions of policy-makers, which seem increasingly devoid of strategic content.

There is also the factor that, in a much more complex, unstructured and transparent world, governments make more numerous and more visible policy mistakes.

How does this feed into geopolitics? ‘Geopolitics’ describes the sum of activities and interactions in the international arena that affect power relationships. The geopolitical trend or mood can be positive or cooperative when states are working together to solve problems and avoiding or remedying difficulties that might lead to competition or conflict. Conversely, when international compromise is weak and competition grows, the geopolitical atmosphere turns negative or difficult.

If governments everywhere find it hard to persuade or control their populations, they scrabble harder to retain authority and become more preoccupied with their domestic situations. This militates against creativity and proactivity on the international stage and against the taking of strategic risk to solve long-term problems such as climate change or nuclear proliferation. The evidence of recent events and policy choices in the EU, the United States and China illustrates this trend, though in different ways in each place.

If the phenomenon is global, why has it come to the surface first and most intensely in the Middle East? The reason is straightforward. The Middle East, or at least the Arab World, has for most of the previous century been the region where the talents of an intrinsically capable population have been most held back by poor or repressive governance. Most other nations have to be increasingly careful how they handle popular demands, but the Arab Republics were/are quite clearly in the category of poor fulfillers of expectations.

So what happens now, as repressive regimes become more determined, as in Syria, or more skillful in deterring opposition, as in Iran, Russia and China? Are we seeing a troubled but ultimately healthy process of democracy-building? Or will the fear of anarchy persuade people that the better choice is firm rule? There may be different evolving answers to this question as between China, for instance, where so far the majority seem to have placed order and controlled economic growth ahead of freedom, and countries like Iraq and Egypt, where the first taste of democracy has stimulated a desire to continue the experiment. Here Turkey may genuinely claim to be a model, if Erdogan can resist travelling the path of Putin.

What seems certain is that the building of new democracies will take time. It is not just a matter of removing the tyrant and holding elections. The growing of a democracy requires the rule of law, the sharing of a national identity and a growing middle-class economy. None of these comes naturally. The first two can be promoted by good leadership, but economic health stems from ingredients which may or may not be present in any particular national mix. Egypt has some real problems in this respect, since the burden of subsidies and public sector over-employment is too great for the productive power of the economy to carry without root-and-branch reform. Libya has a smaller population and huge oil and gas reserves, but the rule of law is proving problematic. Syria is currently off the screen for chaos.

What if the economy opens up in advance of political change? China is the one to watch here. Deng Xiaoping started the drive for a more open economy within a closed political system. That is fine so long as the people want it, but unsustainable if they come to resent corruption and inefficiency more than they value order. This half-century will see the testing of that.

The underlying lesson of this evolving picture lies in the need to respect the growing force of the people’s voice. Erdogan does not appear to have judged this well: he needs the Twitter generation. But people’s greater freedom also carries a corollary: they need decent government, and have to give it room to breathe. If populace and government opt for a balance between freedom and responsibility in most countries, geopolitics will give us a comfortable ride. If not, there is trouble ahead on a global scale.

Sir Jeremy Greenstock is a former British diplomat and Honorary Professor in the School of Politics and International Relations.

Achieving an ‘Arab Spring’ by Proxy: Indirect Intervention and Conflict in the Middle East

IAPS logo

The Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies is now an institutional columnist for the Global Policy Journal. The first in this series of posts comes from Dr Andrew Mumford who has written about the increasing amount of indirect assistance the West is giving to rebel movements in the ‘Arab Spring’. Stemming from research done for his forthcoming book Proxy Warfare (to be published by Polity in 2013), Andrew defines a proxy war as the indirect involvement in an existing conflict by a third party wishing to influence the strategic outcome. As such, he argues that we can see how the ‘Arab Spring’ revolutions, particularly in Syria, have been significantly shaped by such ‘arms-length’ intervention by Western nations, who have provided material and logistical help to the rebels. Such developments, Andrew explains, have a wider significance on the direction of diplomacy and conflict in the Middle East and reveal broader trends in the shifting nature of warfare.

You can read Andrew’s full article online:  ‘Achieving an ‘Arab Spring’ by Proxy: Indirect Intervention and Conflict in the Middle East’.

The Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies (IAPS) is the major centre of the University of Nottingham for research and postgraduate teaching on the Asia-Pacific. The Institute is a University-level research centre and currently affiliated with the School of Politics and International Relations. It brings together more than thirty full-time staff members, visiting scholars and students to foster Asian scholarship across disciplinary boundaries. The mission of the Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies is to promote advanced research in the humanities and social sciences, support and co-ordinate postgraduate teaching and enhance understanding of Asia-Pacific across the University of Nottingham and in the broader community. The Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies enjoys a generous bequest from the late Sir Stanley and Lady Nancy Tomlinson.

Samir Amin interview

In November 2011 Samir Amin, one of the leading political thinkers of the past half century was in Nottingham, for a series of lectures and seminars organised by the Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice based in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham.

In an exclusive, wide-ranging video interview Professor Amin spoke to Dr Sara Motta about the Arab uprisings, political Islam, the contemporary crisis of capitalism and the nature of 21st century socialism.

Middle East democracy: no quick fix

As dictatorships crumble in Tunisia, Egypt and possibly Libya leaders in the West glibly talk about the spread of democracy to North Africa and the Middle East, For example David Cameron said in March: ‘It is in our interests to see the growth of open societies and the building blocks of democracy in North Africa and the Middle East’.

If only it were that simple. Democracy does not arrive in a puff of smoke. It requires thought, institutions but most of all an informed public. Be it John Locke’s idea of government as a contract between the rulers and the ruled or the idea that government is, in Abraham Lincoln’s words, ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’, the people need to know something about their newfound rights.

How will this knowledge be acquired except through education? Education is vital to appreciating the choices that have to be taken in a democracy and part of being in a democracy is to understand its functions. This education can take many forms but its aim, in a democracy, must be to enable all the people to make decisions for themselves. Whether building into existing education systems or beginning again, designing a system of education which will prepare citizens to think about their democracy takes time.

Political thinkers have stressed the importance of education to promoting the full democratic participation of hitherto excluded groups for centuries. For example, eighteenth century theorist Mary Wollstonecraft proposed an education specifically for women that would enable them to become rational and virtuous citizens. John Stuart Mill, writing in the nineteenth century, argued that it made no sense educating women without enfranchising them, for what purpose were women being educated if they were not to have the vote?

Yet, as I argue in my new book, these radical thinkers nonetheless believed women’s participation should run along deeply gendered lines, a woman would fulfil the role of citizen by being a good mother and a good wife – women were to participate, but in a very different way to men.

The region currently enjoying an apparent rebirth of democracy is not well known for its embrace of women’s right. Thus, as North Africa and the Middle East take the first tentative steps towards what might be democracy what role will education play in the process? If women are to have participatory rights and education what form will this education take? Will women be taught that they best realize their democratic potential just through being good wives and mothers?

Or can these protean democracies skip the stage of grudging concessions to women’s participation and allow education to be about participation for all, regardless of class, race, caste or sex. If this happens, it will not be the result of a quick fix. A healthy democracy is not something that simply grows; the ‘building blocks of democracy’ have to be put in place deliberately, with care.

If it is to be sustained education must be deployed to enable all citizens to carry the burden of democratic responsibility. Otherwise the hopes of the present will turn to disappointment.

Ros Hague

Talkin’ ’bout a revolution?

The current Arab ‘revolutions’, pose anew some venerable questions of revolutionary transformation, not least whether they will result in fundamental changes to economic life in the region or, as Antonio Gramsci might have recognised, a restoration of the old political order.

In 1917 one rather renowned contemporary revolutionary figure, V. I. Lenin, opined that, ‘The basic question of every revolution is that of state power’. So what makes a revolution; and can the events in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and possibly elsewhere in the Middle East be seen in revolutionary terms?

Generally, when considering modern revolutions it is usual to highlight certain structural conditions that might shape forces for change — so-called ‘objective’ factors of economic crisis and inequality, poverty, or exploitation — alongside a series of conjunctural circumstances that arise in the moment, due to the historical peculiarities of a place or space.

In my own work Unravelling Gramsci: Hegemony and Passive Revolution in the Global Political Economy, these aspects are deployed to understand Gramsci’s notion of ‘passive revolution’. This refers to social conditions that are not literally passive but are often violent transformations. Further, the term captures how processes of revolutionary rupture become displaced, thwarted, and averted leading to a continuation of the old political order and, commonly, the furtherance of capitalist accumulation processes.

How might the mix of the structural and conjunctural explain today’s Arab ‘revolutions’? And are these pivotal moments better understood as uprisings or revolts (or passive revolutions) leading to a series of reforms rather than a fundamental revolutionary change in power?

First up, on those structural issues, one can highlight the role of the food price crisis in both Tunisia and Egypt. The surge in world food prices, linked to wider speculation on the global commodity futures markets, helped to trigger both uprisings and has been a key factor in past and present ‘food riots’ across the developing world. In 2011, world food prices reached their highest peak in the last thirty years. Given that North Africa imports half its wheat and world wheat prices soared by 50 per cent in 2010, no wonder bread prices have underpinned — but not solely determined — discontent.

What of those cloudier conjunctural factors? Many in the West draw attention to the importance of internet activism – Egypt’s was supposedly a ‘Twitter Revolution’, personified by Wael Ghonim. To overemphasise that aspect, though, would be to fall into a technological determinism whilst overlooking the courage of direct social protest and risk of life against state violence, torture, and imprisonment.

It would also lose sight of other factors, such as odious political regimes and Western complicity; human rights abuses; and kleptocratic states that have contributed to a charged political environment.

We also need to take account of additional specific events and conflagrations in the moment of the conjuncture: Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation and the subsequent street demonstrations in Tunisia; the counter-space of Tahrir as a site of civil resistance in Egypt; and the intransigence of rebel elements in Benghazi, Tobruk, and Misrata in defiance of the Gaddafi regime.

On that basis, where does that leave the Arab ‘revolutions’? Are we witnessing an Arab 1848, or 1989, or 1789? Historical analogies are difficult to make stick, precisely due to the different mix of structural and conjunctural factors throughout history.

Where, moreover, are these ‘revolutions’ going? Zhou Enlai, when asked in the 1950s what had been the consequences of the 1789 French Revolution, allegedly said that it was still too early to tell. Avoiding hasty conclusions, then, in the middle of current events is perhaps wise.

Whether these ‘revolutions’ will amount to fundamental social, political and economic transformations or, instead, the restructuring and consolidation of capitalism remains therefore an open question.

History, clearly, has not ended but is in the making, again, and again.

Adam Morton