From Arab Street to Wall Street: The Changing Political Landscape
From Arab Street to Wall Street: The Changing Political Landscape
Speech by Anwar Ibrahim at the 20th Public Relations World Conference 2012 in Dubai, UAE, 14th March
Half a century ago in Vietnam, a Buddhist monkset himself on fireand triggered thefall of a regime. Since then, there have been numerous self-immolations with significant consequences but none as catastrophic as the one that happened in Tunisia.
Indeed, as we all know, Mohamed Buoazizi did not just set himself on fire. His death ignited the Arab Spring and spelled the doom of long held dictatorships and autocracies alike.
Back in 2005, at the US-Muslim World Forum in Doha, Ispoke of the winds of change sweeping across the deserts of the Middle East. I said that given half a chance, the people would opt for freedom and democracy.
Well, the winds of change have become a raging storm, blowing the likes of Ben Ali, Mubarak, Gaddafiand Abdullah Salleh off their pedestals of power. There are others still hanging on for dear lifebut we know the outcome: it’s just a matter of time. You can’t fight the tide of history.
The repercussions of the Arab Spring are far reaching, going beyond the Middle East. Southeast Asia, for example, will be among the first to reap the fruits of this phenomenal change. Even so-called Old World democracies are affected. Wall Street, the icon of free market capitalism, has not been spared.
But first, the primary implications for the Middle East. Tunisia has successfully experienced her post-revolution general elections with significant results. The Egyptians too have cast their votes and all indications point to an Islamist-centric power sharing coalition. There are concerns that reactionaries may want to turn back the clock on democracy but this fear is premature. What is certain is that the test of democracy will be manifold and challenges will emerge to push the endurance to its limits.
For Egypt now, thereal test of the Arab Spring is whether it will be the voice of the people that will prevail or will the guns and mortar of the military hold sway. And even in this people’s voice, whether the voice of moderation will prevail over the voice of ideological rigour.
As for Southeast Asia, detractors, sceptics, and the powers that be in the region have dismissedthe idea of an Arab Spring.They say that it won’t happen because unlike the Middle East, there has been no winter of discontentin Southeast Asia.
They say that the economy has been good, unemployment numbers are far lower than even the old democracies, and that revolution is not the Asian way.
They say that while the Middle East is marked by the rule of autocratsand family dynasties, Southeast Asia is led by democratically elected leaders. One is notorious for human rights abuses, negation of the rule of law and is a hotbed for terrorism. The other is a region of peace and security and espouses the protection of fundamental liberties, a free market and a policy of non-interference.
It is said that street protests run counter to Asian values. An Arab Spring will undermine societal stability and economic prosperity. The powers that be tell us that Asian values favour a strong paternalistic government, not liberal democracy. Indeed, they have made it clear that they won’t allow it to happen.
Now, we think it’s time for a reality check.
Surely, the likes of Ben Ali, Mubarak and Gaddafinever allowed it to happen and had vowed to come down hard on theirpeople. But the people went ahead, and they prevailed.
In spite of this, Southeast Asian leaders still believe that they can cow the people into submission. It seems to be lost on them that the Arab Spring happened because those deposed did not allow it to happen. And that is precisely the point – the spring is not about what they want – it’s about what the people want.
Before we go from the Arab Spring to Wall Street, a quick survey of Southeast Asia will be telling indeed. With the exception of Indonesia, ASEAN is but a confederation of various pseudo democraciesand several outright dictatorial regimes. Civil libertiesare honoured more in the breach, and political dissent is considered treachery while minorities are treated as second class. Religious minorities in particular are viewed with suspicion and often dealt with in a patronizing way.
As for rule of law, the actions of the authorities leave no room for dispute. For example, instead of being used to fight crime, the police are employed as first line of offence for the powers that be, to suppress street protests by brute force, harass political dissidents, and generally as tools to fight leaders of the opposition.
Similarly, the agency tasked to fight corruption, drags its feet when the suspects are from the government or ruling party while the public prosecutor consistently shows that it is either unwilling or impotent to prosecute those with strong political connections.
In other words, they are behaving in more or less the same manner as the powers that be in the Middle East used to behave before the Arab Spring.
A democracy is characterised by the institutionalising of democratic principles. For example, separation of powersenables the check and balance of one organ of state against another.
In this regard, the Arab Spring itself will be considered a failure if the newly minted democracies like Tunisia, Egypt and Libya are unable to ensure this separation.The judiciary, for example, must be totally free from the influence of the executive. We know that the mother of all power abuses stems from the tenacious hold exerted on the Judiciary by the Executive. I speak from direct personal experience but I’m sure other examples abound.
Again, elections must be free, fair and transparent. There must be equal access to a free media, open debates and a conduct of elections that can stand up to international scrutiny. This level playing field will never be realised when opposition leaders continue to be exposed to criminal prosecutions for exercising their right to free speech.
What proactive steps to reform are the spin doctors talking about when the opposition continues to be barred from the airwaves, rallies are not allowed as of right?
The Arab Spring is a metaphor for freedom and democracy for the rest of the world. It inspires the fight for justice for the oppressed and the marginalised. It gives hope to the weak and downtrodden that despite the odds stacked against them, there is light at the end of the tunnel.
The Arab Spring did not arise from a bed of roses. The violence and bloodshed that was descended on the people will serve as chilling reminders of desperate tyrants and autocrats trying to cling on to power.
The repercussions of the Arab Spring have been so far reaching that some say that Occupy Wall Street has been sired from its loins. Many may take issue with that and to my mind, a more apt description is that both are borne from winters of discontent.
Indeed, Occupy Wall Street is a clear indictment against market fundamentalism. It wants to nail the lie on the Wall Street mantra of “leaving it to market forces”. It exposes the flaws, some say fatal, in the foundations of the capitalistic economic model.
Like the Arab Spring, it has spread beyond its domestic borders moving on from one free market capital to another. It tears apart the philosophy of greed which is said to be the cornerstone of the Smithsonian rationale for capitalism.
I believe it is a build-up of societal angst arising from the gross inequities brought by the free market. The conservatives and the detractors tell them to get a life and get a job. But they have completely missed the point because the fact is that many of them can’t get jobs.
Arab Spring aspirants want free and fair elections i.e. equal opportunity to compete and on a level playing field. Likewise, Occupy Wall Street wants equality and if that is not possible at least an egalitarian deal, a 21st century New Deal. Not the Obama rhetoric of course but a real deal with tangible outcomes.
But we know that free competition has no truck with equality. That is why the bastions of capitalism are being overwhelmed. This is in essence a statement that people are simply fed up with getting poorer while the rich are getting richer – certainly not a new kind of suffering but one which has been given a collective voice by the movement and recognized as a legitimate grievance against the exploitation of the people by the corporate elite.
It is also a clear indictment against the concept of the invisible hand which has remained invisible so often that governments in the free world have felt compelled to intervene in situations traditionally left to market forces.
This brings us to a crucial component of the discourse: social justice. In my view, the principles of justice and fairness in dealings must remain the cornerstone to judge the validity of transactions. Justice and fairness can be attained through social justice.
But it should be remembered that the inequalities of wealth, power and status are not exclusive to nations practicing free markets.
Whatever may be the system, poverty reduction programs are essential without which the gap between the rich and the poor will never be narrowed. Occupy Wall Street therefore carries the overriding principle of the role of the state in guiding towards a more equitable distribution of wealth.
In Islam, the Maqasid al-Shari’a stress the importance of the protection of the environment, the eradication of poverty, and generally the promotion of social justice. Fighting poverty and redressing other social inequitiesare certainly among the priorities.
These concerns which should be the driving force of Occupy Wall Street must also be encompassed by the reforms of the Arab Spring. It is here that we can see a clear convergence. Where once both political tyranny and social injustice were prevalent, now we can say that the Arab Spring has changed the equation.
It has paved the way for further reforms. It certainly won’t be plain sailing but having come this far, there is no turning back.
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