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Raffique Shah


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Spectre of people's power

By Raffique Shah
March 13, 2011

There's a spectre stalking the world. It is yet another resurgence of people's power. Every so often in history, the oppressed, those who face discrimination and subjugation, people whose rights are trampled upon, rise up in a tsunami of discontent. At the cost of some lives, the masses sweep aside monarchies, dictators and even elected governments that have assumed an arrogance that creates a chasm between those who wield power and those who put them in office.

The mainstream media in the most powerful nations on earth would have us believe what we are witnessing in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Oman and Saudi Arabia is an uprising confined to the Arab world. That is a myopic view of a global governance crisis that afflicts most countries. Soon, the contagion of people's revolution would spread into the seemingly impregnable fortresses of pseudo-democracy where ordinary citizens' only right is the few minutes they spend in a polling booth one every so-many years.

True, the Arab world was a time bomb waiting to explode. The phalanx of kings, emirs, sheiks and supreme leaders who have ruled the region with iron fists, thought the good times would roll on forever. The White House willing (forget Allah!), they would spend their countries' oil dollars on armaments they do not need or cannot use. Of course, they also siphon huge amounts for themselves and their extended families and political cronies.

In the case of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, the "bag-man" for his predecessor Anwar Sadat (according to an ex-CIA operative), lived in palatial luxury while the majority of Egyptians endured abject poverty. Mubarak and his ruling clique's main role was to secure Israel's flank, to deny the Palestinians a vital supply route for food, other goods, and yes, arms.

Mubarak never thought Egyptians would muster the courage to rise up against his military machine, to send him packing in fewer days than the 30 years he spent in power. An interesting facet of the popular uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia and now Libya, is the role of the military. In all three cases, many soldiers, naval and air force personnel chose to switch allegiance to the people. This strategic alliance between the masses and members of the armed forces has already brought down two governments. It's only a matter of time before Libya's Moammar Gadaffi falls victim to a similar "pax populi".

While the media focus on Gadaffi's use of excessive force and mercenary muscle, they have failed to highlight King Abdullah's decree that forbids demonstrations and public gatherings. After a few post-jumma outbursts in Saudi Arabia, Abdullah, now 86, having doled out a few billion dollars to placate the poor in his country, has resorted to the tyrants' refuge. He decreed that any public display of discontent will be met with full force by the police and army. How long the armed forces remain loyal to him would also signal how much longer the obscenely wealthy (and bogus!) royal family would remain in power.

People's power will rear its head in all other Arab countries. The dynamics of revolution will determine if the masses can muster the courage to send royalty in the region packing. Washington and Brussels would not want that. They would want to continue to have access to their vast fossil fuels' reserves. More importantly, the Gulf States sit strategically on one side of the Persian Gulf. Iran, the bite noir of the region, sits on the other side.

Besides, when the people of Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India (to name a few countries) see the convulsions in their neighbourhood, and the results of these uprisings, would they not be inclined to act in a similar manner? Some people may be surprised that I have included India, a western poster-country for democracy, among candidates for popular uprisings. But rampant corruption, widespread poverty (300 million Indians are deemed "extremely poor") and neglect of rural communities could spark a revolt...or multiple revolts. India is among the most inequitable societies in the world.

Which brings me to some of the unlikeliest countries that are today experiencing societal convulsions. Huge demonstrations erupted in Wisconsin recently as Republican Governor Scott Walker enacted legislation that would strip public sector unions of their bargaining rights. Reports from that state, as well as from California, speak of the biggest protest marches since the Vietnam War. As Washington and state legislatures bite into Americans' health care and social security benefits, the US is precariously poised for a popular uprising.

Should that happen, state violence against its people would be worse than what we are seeing in Libya. In the 1960s and 1970s, US law enforcement agencies brutalised, killed or jailed thousands of Americansóblacks who fought for basic civil rights, whites who stood alongside the blacks, or those who were bitterly against the Vietnam War.

Europe East and West face daunting socio-economic challenges that have their people restless. Protests, some of them violent, have erupted in France, Spain, Portugal, Greece and the UK. Mostly, people are resisting governments' cutbacks in education, health care and social security. These austerity measures come in the face of governments taking chunks of taxpayers' money to bail out big finance houses that continue to pay obscene bonuses to their principals.

Do not believe we in Trinidad and Tobago are immune to these convulsions. It was people power that removed the Patrick Manning regime from office for its arrogance and profligacy. The new government must heed cries for fair distribution of the national pie or face the wrath of the masses.

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