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Democratic ‘red ink’

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CEBU CITY — An eerie calm blanketed Cairo, just days after “Battle of the Camels” riveted readers and TV audiences worldwide. Astride camels and horses, pro-government riders galloped into demonstrators, massed in Tahrir Square, lashing out with whips and clubs.

Within seconds, a Ghandian-like peaceful protest escalated into a bloody melee. It had all elements of breaking news: gore, fury, screams to fear.

Beyond these flare-ups festers a long term issue: Can People Power fill an embedded “democratic deficit”? Cyberspace media daily erodes shackles in this volatile region.

Dictatorships resort to cosmetic reforms even as they burrow deeper using oil revenues. UN’s Arab States Human Development Report describes this libertarian red ink. Excerpts:

“There are vivid contrasts between actual practice and formal support of democracy, human rights and rule of law…”

Multi-party systems operate in Algeria, Yemen, and Jordan. Lebanon and Morroco made room for political pluralism. Oman, Qatar, and United Arab Emirates set up representative assemblies. Bahrain has an elected president.

This “spate of democratic reforms…has been offset by countermeasures limiting citizens’ rights… Reforms have not changed the structural basis of power. The executive branch still dominates, unchecked by any form of accountability…”

What freedom Iraq’s new constitution gave, with its left hand is snatched back by the right hand of security clauses. Extension of the president’s term office followed Alegria’s Charter for Peace ….

Except for Libya, Arab states permit civil organizations. But laws hobble their activities. “Similar patterns are evident in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and the UAE.”

Despite censorship, Arab autocrats haven’t been able to completely suppress reports of “post-modern coup d’etats” or “revolts from below”.

News on Edsa 1986 spilled across borders. Lebanon’s “Cedar Revolution” expelled Syrian occupiers. Czechoslovakia’s “Velvet Uprising”, Ukraine’s “Orange Revolution”, and Georgia’s “Rose Rebellion” ejected commissars.

These stoked Arab aspirations “ to breathe free”. But “most governments in the region resisted pluralist tendencies”. How?

“(They marshaled) the enormous rents and control bestowed by oil. The political economy allows the state to insulate itself through far-reaching patronage networks and a weighty security apparatus…For countries without oil — Jordan, Morroco, and Tunisia — foreign aid arguably plays a similar role…

“The business sector is weak, as is civil society.” Contrary to the trend elsewhere, “Arab states show few signs of in-depth democratization,” notes Human Development Report 2010.

“Consequently, few Arabs feel they have any power to change current conditions in their country through political participation” — until Tunisians staged their “Jasmine Revolution”.

The region’s first-ever successful revolt sent dictator Ben Ali, wife (“Imelda Marcos of the Arab world”), and cronies packing.

That triggered questions. As in Eastern Europe, would Middle East autocratic regimes topple like domino after another?

Since then, cracks have appeared. Demonstrators told Yemen’s president, “Go. Go now!” Jordan’s King Abdullah brought in a new government. Hosni

Mubarak says he’ll give up the region’s standard president-for-life status.

If Mubarak’s regime folds, it’d “fuel the idea that the region has entered a new era of people power”, writes Roger Hardy, Middle East analyst at Woodrow Wilson Center. “For Arab autocrats, it’d signify writing on the wall in a far more dramatic way than the fall of the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia…But this is no Arab spring” — yet.

Egyptians waving shoes at Mubarak have focused intense attention on basic issues that fuel the regionwide unrest: poverty, hunger, oppression, and lack of freedom.

The Inquirer’s editorial Egypt on Asia thus called attention to former UN Undersecretary Gen. Shashi Tharoor’s observation: Tunisia and Egygt’s biggest failure “may not have been their repressive policies but their failed economics.”

Leaf through the UN’s latest Human Development Index. This gauge measures well-being, not just from income, but also from life expectancy and schooling. Three new indices are factored in: 2011 HDIs, namely: extreme deprivation, gender, and vulnerability.

No Arab state is among the top 20 countries within the “very high human development” bracket.

Norway tops the list. New Zealand is #4, and Spain, #20. UAE #32, Qatar and Bahrain, #38 and #39 did squeeze in among the 42 in this top bracket.

Five Arab states made the second bracket. Kuwait, #47 and Saudi Arabia #55 wedged between Panama and Mexico. Iran follows at #70, Tunisia #81, and Algeria at #84.

HDI’s damming portrait fans a parallel debate: What role did cyberspace age media play in “Days of Rage”? Has Egypt’s uprising become, as some argue, a ‘Facebook’ or ‘Twitter’ revolution?

Stanford University’s Evgeny Morozov has doubts that that Egypt’s uprising become, a ‘Facebook’ or ‘Twitter’ revolution? Only four percent of Egyptians have personal computers, and 17 percent are on Internet.

But 66 out of every 100 Egyptians have a cellphone or a landline.

And in 2000, Filipinos were the first to wage a revolution with the then-new cellphone. They mobilized EDSA II, through cellphones.

Are Arab states closing the “democratic deficit” swiftly enough to prevent more “Battles of the Camels” in the future? The next uprising or two may give the hints of answer.

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