Reflections on fascism, autocracy, media and the democratic political process

fullsizeoutput_153PRINCETON BLOG: Something I wrote for my class blog at Princeton University where I taught a journalism seminar this past semester, based on a lecture soon after the US Presidential elections, by Egyptian journalist Yasmine El-Rashidi, a fellow visiting Ferris Professor of Journalism with the University’s Council of Humanities

America is a democracy and Donald Trump is no military dictator. But some elements of what we’re seeing in America today feel eerily familiar to those who have lived through fascist regimes and dictatorships. Also familiar is the renewed activism determined to counter oppression. Yasmine El-Rashidi from Egypt, a fellow visiting Ferris Professor of Journalism with the Council of Humanities, Princeton University, brought these issues to the fore with a talk at a student dining hall soon after the US Presidential elections.

Part of a series of public affairs dinner discussions, the talk focused on the implications of the post-Trump world, and Egypt’s revolution and popular vote against the establishment. Joe Stephens, investigative reporter for The Washington Post and Ferris Professor in Residence, introduced El Rashidi and moderated the discussion.

Slightly built and soft-spoken with a dreamy gaze, El Rashidi commented on the feeling of revolution she experienced in her homeland, that she now feels in the United States. Growing up in Pakistan under a military dictatorship, the legacy of which still haunts us, I know that sense of unrest, of change, the feeling that something has to give.

I thought also of India, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power on a ‘development agenda’ promising ‘better days’ (‘make America great again?’), using insecurity to rally citizens against ‘the other’.

cairo-city-in-waiting

Cairo, City in Waiting. Photo: courtesy theibtaurisblog.com, 2013

Egypt and Pakistan

The picture El Rashidi painted of Cairo, the discussions in the streets and on the banks of the Nile felt familiar. Like Egyptians, Pakistanis – in fact, South Asians in general – talk politics anywhere and everywhere. No political correctness or polite aversion of the gaze when a discussion gets heated.

The summer of 2010 brought a “confluence of forces” to Egypt. And “something shifted.” El Rashidi referred to her blogpost, Cairo, City in Waiting, that documents this. There was a growing feeling of dissent, resentment at power cuts and the parliamentary elections that the government controlled and manipulated to the extent of hiring thugs to kidnap candidates (like “horse-trading” in Pakistan). There was economic stagnation and the feeling that the government was helpless to improve the situation.

Street protests erupted in Egypt on Jan. 25, 2011– not for the first time as El Rashidi reminded us. But this time was “different.” For the first time, coordinated planning led to simultaneous protests in different locations rather than the usual Tahrir Square. There were “mobile protests” – people demonstrating at one spot and moving to another, marching through alleyways and inviting bystanders to join in. Many did. “There was a positive energy.”

“Liberated”

Then things took an ugly turn. Riot police zoomed in and started to attack demonstrators and passers-by. As El Rashidi and some activist friends headed to Tahrir Square, three men grabbed one of them and bundled him away.

cairo-january-25-2011

Cairo, January 25, 2011. Photo: Pierre Sioufi, NYbooks.com

And yet, that evening, she felt liberated. Some 30,000 people “spontaneously ended up” at Tahrir Square. For the first time in her life, Yasmine El Rashidi, then nearly 40, felt she had a say in where the country was going. Egypt had increasingly become “masculinized”, shrinking public spaces for women. “I had never walked in the city at that time, 3 or 4 am. It was amazing. We thought it would last forever.” The crowds were chanting ‘Hosni Mubarak, the Plane Is Waiting’, as she wrote later.

Hope was in the air. People wanted basics – better jobs, healthcare, education. Some 60 per cent of Egypt’s 90 million-strong population was under 25 years old. El Rashidi pointed to parallels with young people in the US. And elsewhere, I would add.

She raised an important point about the role of the social media, that tends to get overplayed. It is disingenuous to think that social media alone brought about the change, stressed El Rashidi, although it was a contributing factor. The real organizing was happening on the ground. In fact, the crowds reached a critical mass the day after the government cut off the Internet on January 27.

Media

El Rashidi discussed the role of the media in amplifying as well as distorting the movement. Al Jazeera “decided very quickly” to broadcast news of the demonstrations 24/7, their camera angles often making the crowds appear larger. Western journalists focused on “the same nine people who became the face of the narrative and got all the attention.” A mainstream publication (that shall go nameless) betrayed its bias when it backed out of interviews saying that the activists El Rashidi had arranged were “not young enough.”

A year later, Egypt held its first presidential elections. The two main contenders were an “establishment candidate” and “a fascist, extremist Islamist” – the Muslim Brotherhood-backed Mohammed Morsi who won, by a small margin. Why does that sound so familiar?

In Egypt, MB had “stepped in and offered social services where the government had failed”. The past three regimes had also persecuted and jailed them, denied them political space, which contributed to the sympathy vote.

“It was inconceivable that Egyptians would choose an Islamist candidate,” said El Rashidi. Just as it was inconceivable that Americans would usher in a Trump, or Indians, a Modi. In all these instances, media bias against these candidates backfired.

As we discussed in class, journalists tend to be urban-based, with middleclass backgrounds and college education. Their predictions often prove false in societies undergoing rapid changes.

In the ensuing pause, a brash figure with orange hair hovered in the thought bubbles above our heads, the dozen or so students and faculty members seated at the long table, half eaten plates of food before us.

The divide

In Egypt, the divide between the traditional and the changing urban population had grown. El Rashidi’s mother wore short skirts and tank tops in Cairo as a college student. Inconceivable now.

Growing conservatism is visible In Pakistan too. However, the rural-urban divide was never as great at that in Egypt, Afghanistan or Iran where the conservative backlash has been much greater. Women of my mother’s generation could cycle to college (which they rarely do now) but drew the line at wearing short skirts. The present situation owes more to the policies of successive military dictatorships nurturing religious forces for political agendas.

Disenchanted by the choices before them, many Egyptians did not vote in 2011. But even “a no-vote is a political statement” as El Rashidi notes. As for the leftists and progressives who voted for Morsi to show their opposition to the establishment candidate, they soon regretted their “protest vote.” (Hello, America)

Once in power, Morsi began to reverse the freedoms that Egypt had gained. His constitutional amendments undermined the judiciary and increased presidential powers. People started taking to the streets again. There were bloody clashes, and casualties. The protests that began in June 2013 were even bigger than those that had toppled Hosni Mubarak in 2011 ending his 30 year-long stint as President.

“I had never experienced so many people,” said El Rashidi. It was a “sea of people.”

The protests led to a popular military coup against the Morsi regime. “That should have been a red flag but people had sort of lost stamina by that point. People had used the protest movement so effectively until then, we got lazy about the process.”

Process

I remember that moment. It set off alarm bells for Pakistanis. We know that inviting military rule against a democracy, no matter how flawed or corrupt, never improves things in the long run. Democracy is not an event, it’s a process. The process must continue, over decades, to reap any dividends. It’s an ongoing process with no final goal post. We’ll never “win” or be “done.” But we can’t afford to be impatient and throw it over.

Pakistanis learnt this the hard way. In the lawyer-led people’s movement of 2007-2008, retrospectively dubbed as our “Arab Spring,” thousands of lawyers, joined by ordinary Pakistanis, took to the streets against military dictator and self-styled President Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s un-constitutional removal of the Chief Justice of Pakistan.

The movement lasted several months. The activists’ demand, that the Chief Justice be reinstated by Presidential order, countered the political argument that Parliament brought in by the 2008 elections should reinstate the CJ through due process. Bypassing “the process” has long term consequences.

Protest movements need sustained political involvement to succeed, said El Rashidi, suggesting that as a movement gains traction, activists should “penetrate the institutions” rather than avoiding the political sphere. In Egypt, activists refused the positions with political parties. They feared that their involvement would legitimize corrupt institutions.

In hindsight, said El Rashidi, you can’t treat the institutions and the state as one entity – they are separate. “You have to find a way of working with what you have even if the political leaders’ views don’t correspond with yours.” One way to do that is to form groups and parties to counter hegemony and dictatorial tendencies.

Be the change

Egypt today faces extreme crackdown against all forms of expression. “The red lines we had before are now opaque.” You can be in trouble for who you are as a citizen, as an individual morally. People are being jailed for using sexually explicit language. This is the case in Pakistan too, where social activists and bloggers are being ‘disappeared’ in a disturbing new trend.

“We are here because of our own mistakes,” reflected El Rashidi. “We didn’t take the opportunities we had. We were waiting for ‘better’ people. They weren’t going to come.”

And they never will. We are the people. We must be the change.

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