Roads to Tahrir Square (1)

The intent and direction of this post initially started out as something quite different from what I’m intending it to be now. Originally drafted with the title ‘The Top Five: A quick list…or not quite’ (yes, what an uninspiring, anti-climatic title), I’ve now changed it to the title you see here to better reflect the thrust of the piece.

Some events have superseded the ones I’ve described below, but this does not mean that the essence of the news or information is dated in any way.

This post also ‘launches’ two new tags-cum-categories: Regime Watch and PAP regime watch, for reasons that will be self-explanatory further here and as I post more pieces.

Even as Egyptians ask where their revolution went, and return to Tahrir Square after the acquittals of key Mubarak-era officials and a look at the “real power struggles in Egypt”, I give an overview of the key events of 2011.

Coming across a few blogs that have given their ‘best of’, ‘worst of’, or ‘most memorable’ …etc. lists, I’m inspired but less ambitious.  I don’t think I have any lists in my mind that can be strictly categorised as best things, worst things, or anything else.

But taking a (very belated) look back at 2011, it’s clear that momentous events have occurred. I attempt here to present broad themes that reflect the significant issues of the year just past – some with my particular take on them when I’m able to.

This is not a neat listing of my Top Five for 2011, but rather a compilation of reports, analyses, books, blog posts, web articles and video summaries,  grouped variously by subject or theme into five sections, with some overlap. Perhaps readers can identify common threads.

  • One. The American Empire (Project) With the Obama administration more than halfway through its first term, the troubles in the Middle East still brewing, and international security issues at a high (some would say inflation of threats, e.g. Iran’s nuclear programme), I first draw attention to Tom Engelhardt’s American Empire Project. It investigates the notion or reality of the US ’empire’ through a series of books and its website.

Of these, I’ve only read Blowback by Chalmers Johnson, but I already have The Complex: How The Military Invades Our Everyday Lives by Nick Turse on my to-read list (and in my possession).

‘Empire’ by Al Jazeera was a televised discussion featuring both Engelhardt and Walt. It’s a pretty good one, but I felt that the host was too eager to press his points about American ’empire’ and ‘business’, and didn’t let Walt and his colleague a fair-enough airing of their views. Watch it here:

  • Two. Other people’s lists
    These cover a whole multitude of events and issues, hence the inclusion in my Top Five. I’ve picked four sources as that exemplify this.

1) Russia Today, or RT – RT’s 10 that shaped 2011 presented by 1o journalists, each on one story they covered. Although I don’t agree with some of the opinions and analyses, this is a good guide to 10 important and newsworthy issues/events of the year.

2) Al Jazeera English –  three lists:

Al Jazeera recounts a tumultuous 2011. A montage.

101 East – Year end special

2011: A year of natural disasters. Earthquakes, tsunami, floods, drought, hurricanes – from Turkey and Thailand to the Philippines, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and the US.

3) International relations scholar Stephen Walt – his 12 personal favourites from 2011.

4) 12 Trends That Will Drive the Global Agenda in 2012. From UN Dispatch, this takes a look at this year that derived from the developments of the one just past.

  • Three. OWS and other social movements 2011 seemed to be the year of social movements, or in some cases, movements in society: from Tunisia and Egypt to Greece and Spain, from Russia and Kazakhstan to Canada and the United States (oh, and even a little bit in little ol’ Singapore).

Tunisia was the spark that ignited the ‘Arab Spring’, a largely ‘middle-class’ revolt that brought about the waves of protests for change in the North African-Middle East region. Read early commentaries here, here, and here. Global Voices Online has a compilation of summary updates on French-speaking Africa. Libya experienced a revolt that segued into  a civil war with foreign intervention, so it remains debatable whether it’s part of the social movement/protest milieu or not.

Things are still very dicey in Tunisia and also Egypt in particular, after elections in both countries.

In the US, what was, and still is, interesting is how the two very different movements, Occupy Wall Street (and its offshoots) and the Tea Party before them, have emerged. Al Jazeera reported on the similarities and differences between the two here, and AFP”s shorter one touched on how Occupy DC has identified and acted on the nexus of Wall Street and the country’s Washington power base (maybe gaining an advantage over the Tea Party?). RT meanwhile reveals more on this nexus and what the Tea Party’s origins really are.

TIME magazine proclaimed its 2011 Person of the Year ‘The Protester’, and featured or touched on protests in Algeria, Chile, China, Mexico and India in addition to the more well-known places and events. The print version has a map and timeline showing the progression of how activists inspired others to take up their respective causes and organise.

In my reading, it’s a balanced, nuanced article that reveals deeper connections between many if not most of the protest movements across the globe in 2011. It also explores what may lie ahead, especially with Islamists (of various types) in Tunisia’s government and looks set in be in Egypt’s as well (and eventually came to dominate parliament, up to the present time). The TIME article also discusses how “History isn’t a very precise guide to how long” protests might persist.  difficult to “predict” the pathology of such movements and revolutions.

TED featured talks by Wael Ghonim, the Google executive who was instrumental in helping to lead and inspire the Egyptian uprising, and Srdja Popovic, one of the Serbian activists who led the non-violent movement that eventually brought down Slobodan Milosevic in 2000:

“The power of the people is much stronger than the people in power.” – Wael Ghonim

In Russia, people were mobilised from within a formerly apathetic citizenry – or what were thought to be apathetic citizens – to demonstrate against electoral fraud and corruption after the country’s flawed 4 December Duma, or parliamentary, elections.

A scene from Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square. From ‘Photostory: Russian civil society re-emerges’

It must have been some feat for the ruling party, United Russia, to both receive its lowest share of the votes ever (49.3%) and even then had to commit widespread fraud in order to do so! And in a state with ‘approved’ opposition parties.

The incidents of fraud were captured on video cameras, smartphones, and eye-witness photos and reports. In addition, figures were analysed in blogs and disseminated over the internet. There is also a page listing nearly 80 videos documenting electoral fraud (in Russian).

Below is an Al Jazeera report which states that the Moscow protestors were mostly from the middle class who had had enough of what’s been happening in (to) their country’s political system:

Following the string of anti-Kremlin protests in cities all over Russia all the way through 24 December, a sort of stalemate looks about to set itself in; a nuanced and slightly chilling view can be found here – ‘A dilemma for Russian leaders, to suppress protests or not’.

The New Yorker has a reflective piece, ‘The Civil Archipelago‘ that contrasts the resistance against Putin (and United Environmental activists in Khimki Forest, where they camp for months at a time, trying to prevent its destruction. Yevgenia Chirikova, in shawl, was a businesswoman on a hike when she found out that the government planned to cut a road through the vast wildlife park.Russia) and that which occurred in the Soviet Union against the Communists prior and during the break-up of the Soviet empire. The article’s comparative and historical approach is one that I don’t seen often enough in mainstream media today. It’s well worth a read.

‘The Civil Archipelago’ traces the recent rise of civic resistance and movements in the country going back several years, highlighting key events, issues and groups that most may not be aware of.

One is the movement to save Khimki Forest from being bulldozed through to make a new highway (see photo above). The article shows how “there are perfectly ordinary people in Putin’s Russia who find themselves wandering into a life of activism, as if by accident”:

Until then, Chirikova had been serenely upwardly mobile, concentrating on her small engineering company and her growing family. She enjoyed her walks in Khimki Forest, part of a greenbelt around the capital. “I didn’t know about the situation with Putin,” she said. “I wasn’t political. I was lazy.” Now she realized that if she didn’t raise her voice the trees in the forest would fall with barely a sound.

The other movement manifested in the civic action in Moscow in 2010 against the abuse of privileges by the political-social-economic elite regarding the use of blue-light flashers, called migalki, placed on the tops of cars. These are often acquired through bribes and enable the well-connected to disobey traffic laws –  leading to reckless driving and deaths of innocent people. Public anger had risen to such a pitch that a group of motorists used blue plastic children’s buckets on their cars to drive in protests through Moscow’s roads. Read more about this here. ‘The Civil Archipelago’ and this piece in OpenDemocracy cover both these phenomena.

Last but not least, as the presidential election itself draws nearer, a discussion of the significance and consequences of the Duma elections here .

A middle-class ‘revolt’ against the elite? Strains of Occupy Wall Street. (Or see paragraphs under ‘Singapore‘ farther down)

In Kazakhstan (which is also a bit like Singapore, sadly), labour strikes by workers in the west of the country has led one journalist to ask if the social compact between the government/state and society is ‘crumbling’. At least 16 protestors have died while a video of police brutality has emerged, and the Kazakhstani government have started conciliatory moves.

In Singapore, the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) has got itself into a spot. Not only having receiving the lowest share of the votes since coming into power during the 2011 parliamentary elections or general elections (GE) in May, Singaporean society has changed too much – or at least a bit too far – for the PAP to catch up with the hopes, aspirations and frustrations of the people, it seems. Among the issues in the GE were those such as the rising costs of living, inadequate public housing for a segment of the citizen population, overcrowded public transport, general infrastructure concerns, and immigration policies, practices and a lack of proper integration of new citizens – among many others.

Running parallel to, if not emerging directly from this phenomenon, was renewed awareness in environmental-heritage, animal, and human rights issues. These can be seen in the ‘Save Bukit Brown’ campaign, the slightly smaller one protesting the showcasing of dolphins in captivity and animal welfare, and the possibly even smaller movement encompassing the ongoing fight to abolish the Internal Security Act (ISA) which provides for indefinite detention without trial (among other unpleasantries), the Singapore Unity Project for all human rights, as well as the campaign to save Vui Kong from hanging and against the death penalty; more on an upcoming event to rally for Vui Kong here.

The Singapore Unity Project

One mainstream media outlet here even used the terms ‘civil society’ and growing ‘citizen activism’ in a recent TV report* – wow, if I didn’t actually know better, and wasn’t made a cynical realist by decades of one-party rule, I would’ve thought a (media) revolution was underway.

And would the government ‘change’ itself? To use a cliche: I won’t be holding my breath. As it stands, others share similar sentiments t : see Alex Au writing here and here, a WSJ article here, and Andrew Loh here.

The truth is that, in Singapore, we still have a long, long way to go.

* Referring only to environmental and animal-welfare activism.

  • Four. Human rights and social media The intersection of human rights and social media may be incidental in some cases, but no one can deny that social media played – and continues to play – a big part in most of the social and protest movements listed above. From the use of Facebook, Twitter, blogging and text messaging in Cairo to Moscow to Singapore, social media technologies had a crucial role in mobilising citizens and civil society.

In nearly all, or even all of the countries that have witnessed these protests or social movements in 2011, mainstream media is in varying degrees dominated, owned, and/or in collusion with complex webs of corporate (or quasi-corporate), military, and state-government interests – to put it mildly. And of course there is outright censorship and ignoring/refusing to cover specific stories.

Protest in Moscow. The caption from the source of this pic reads in part: ‘And this girl is actually using her iPad as a poster – first I’ve seen’

However, what’s key here are actually the social networks, organisations, and individuals involved – and when I mean ‘social networks’, I don’t mean just the technology or any established concept of ‘new media’. Technological tools are just that – tools. What’s much more important are the emotional, personal, intellectual  motivations and political will to mobilise. Egypt (see here) and Russia are obvious examples of a confluence of social media and offline activism, yet with markedly different outcomes of citizen mobilisation.

So this piece ‘Year in Review 2011: When Human Rights Went Viral‘ is really a good summary if read carefully; it’s definitely not just about online activism. And speaking of ‘viral’, I wonder if this video has gone viral yet, from the United Nations no less, heh:

Human Rights Day is celebrated on 10 December every year.

  • Five. Other almost-random stuff A collection of issues, events and matters – most under the radar, here’s my own list-within-a-list of sorts.
1. Let’s take back the ‘Net! Inspiring but overly-idealistic take on the power of the internet for human rights. Still, worth considering (and watching): Rebecca MacKinnon here.
 
2. Nobel Peace Prize winners, women for peace. Did you know that 2011’s Nobel Peace Prize was given to three women activists? No? (now how did that get under your radar?) It may not be news to much of the world, but see this brief UN video story here. Personally, I don’t care much for the Nobel prizes, but these women were certainly more deserving than Barack Obama was.
 
3. The passing of Vaclav Havel. Playwright, president.
 
An excerpt:

The American President might have been surprised to learn that Havel’s castle makes the White House seem inelegant, but Bush probably remembered the place well. Just a few months earlier, he had been to the Castle for a NATO summit—the first ever in a former Warsaw Pact capital. Bush, his Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, and dozens of generals and other politicians were treated not merely to the usual working meetings but also to theatrical performances organized by Havel himself. The NATO visitors watched an ersatz eighteenth-century dance (complete with powdered wigs and simulated copulation) that might have been considered obscene had it not been so amusing. They listened to booming renditions of the “Ode to Joy,” a souped-up “Marseillaise,” and John Lennon’s “Power to the People.”

“I didn’t understand anything,” Rumsfeld remarked as he headed toward dinner. “I’m from Chicago.”

4. A Game of Thrones

Taken from the first book of A Song of Ice and Fire and described by some as an “international phenomenon”, this book series-turned-HBO television series has garnered some attention in circles not normally given to fantasy works, in print or in broadcast format.

The US-based Foreign Policy.com had two articles:

‘What can Game of Thrones tell us about our world’s politics’ and ‘Realpolitik in a fantasy world’.

And this blog site had a short list of ’10 things foreign policy wonks can learn from Game of Thrones’. I especially like no. 6: If you want a friend, get a dog, better still a wolf.

Caveat: I’m currently reading book two of the series. If you want to get up to speed real quick on the  TV adaptation, read this series of posts.

Here’s the teaser/trailer for the first season:

Stay tuned for Roads to Tahrir Sqaure (2).

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