|Volume 5 Issue 11| November 2011|
The Revolution Will Be Televised
Get involved in revolutions to make them really work, suggest SHAHANA SIDDIQUI and JYOTI RAHMAN.
Yes, my guard stood hard when abstract threats
I was a junior in college when war on Iraq was invaded under false pretenses. Just a few weeks prior to it, my friends and I got on a bus to New York to protest against the war and its so-called weapons of mass destruction. There were over 100,000 of us of all races and class. Different fronts, different discourses but the same agenda -- Stop the War.
No matter how much we screamed and chanted, bombs rained over Baghdad.
What was the most disheartening aspect of that protest was that the media refused to cover the demonstration. At one point we caught glimpses of the local news at a roadside café. There was nothing about us. We stared at the TV screen in complete disbelief -- it was as if the 50 blocks of New York City was a collective imagination. This was before Facebook. This was before Al-Jazeerah had a fancy logo, station and beautiful anchors. This was before live tweets and uploads. Blogs were still in infancy.
Our doomed revolution was not televised.
I took off for a semester abroad to Egypt to better understand the maddening clash of fundamentalisms engulfing my world. I wish I had a good enough friend to slap me out of my own madness. Almost a decade later, I realsze the implicit arrogance of having thought that a foreigner could walk into a centuries-old culture, politics and its people and come up with some kind of a solution to a way forward. It was foolish of me to think that real change happens instantly.
When the Tahrir Square protests began, I was skeptical and thought of the rich Arab friends I had who would join the staged protests from time to time and scream for the rights of the Palestinians. Great stories to tell their kids -- when I was in college, I protested, was a part of a cause (kind of like my own story in this article!).
But this year's one was different -- there was a real demand by the people of Egypt for change, for democracy. I again cried for the Muslim world, for the Arabs, but this time of joy -- the revolution was happening by the people, without any foreign interventions.
And I was watching far away from Tahrir Square. This revolution, dear reader, was televised.
In fact, not just the Tahrir Square. Images from around in the Arab world, closer to home in New Delhi, and further away in London, and now New York and elsewhere, have been flooding our news channels, Facebook statuses, Twitter updates, blogs, internet sites and newspapers throughout 2011.
Images from around the world, but not from home.
It's not like there aren't any ingredients. In fact, there are sparks here and there. Even in 2011, we have seen two grassroot uprisings forcing the government's hands -- first on the proposed airport in Arial Beel, and then about the Viqarunnisa Noon College scandal.
But then again, there were uprisings in Kansat and Phulbari, in Demra and Dhaka University, under previous governments. And what came of them?
Social media platforms provide a space for individuals to project a virtual persona that may have nothing to do with their real life and lifestyle. The status updates and “Likes” are part of that image building people actively participate in to show to a larger audience of how liberal/progressive/radical chic they are.
Thanks to social media, movements when they begin can seem to be bigger, grander, larger than what they really are at the ground level. While Tahrir Square activists may be insulted by the “Facebook revolution” tags, there is some truth to it as well. Mainstream media was able to systematically block out movements before social media/online activism. That is no longer the case in today's real time web-consumed and smartphone operated world. To keep an edge, mainstream media picks up social media “trends” and makes the items “news-worthy”.
It's interesting to ponder about what would have happened if Bangladesh's opposition (irrespective which particular party) were tech-savvy enough to keep a social media team furiously updating from a hartal scene! Perhaps then they will be considered a 'legitimate' social movement and not nameless, faceless thugs of power-hungry politicians. Perhaps then the wealthy and the powerful of Bangladesh would care more about the ground level demonstrations than to be busy with the state of Middle East and North America.
And in social media and blogs, it's commonplace to find people pining for our own 'Dhaka Spring'. But anyone remotely familiar with our history would know that the summer and monsoon that follows are not conducive for any 'Dhaka Spring'. Rather, we have had 'Dhaka Autumns' in 1952, 1969 and 1990.
Notice how these historic popular uprisings are separated by two or so decades? Are we on the cusp of another youth uprising?
Leaving the reader to ponder about that question, let us make a contrarian wish. Let us wish our Arab comrades that their countries become like Bangladesh.
Yes, dear reader, you read that correctly. While the fashionable thing these days is to lament for the lack of an Arab-style uprising in Dhaka, I think that the Arab world will do well if their political institutions resemble those of Bangladesh -- with all our manifold shortcomings -- in a few years hence.
Let's start with Egypt -- the largest and most important Arab country. Since the fall of the Mubarak regime, it has been ruled by an interim government, which is backed by a powerful military. The generals, however, have not shown much inclination towards ruling the country directly. The interim regime is preparing for an election. The Islamists, nationalists, populists and liberals are all jockeying for allies and votes.
What if the elections produce two major camps of roughly equal strengths, both containing a mix of nationalism, political Islam, liberalism and populism to different degrees? What if the two camps agree to write a constitution that cautiously and moderately clip the army's wings?
Can Egypt really do better than the above outcome? Is that scenario so different from what happened in Bangladesh after a youth uprising unseated a corrupt military man in Dhaka in December 1990?
Will this two-party slowly civilianising system turn into partisan bickering? Almost certainly. Will the economy take off right away? Almost certainly not. And even if it did, manifold contradictions between different social strata will not resolve any time soon. But with luck, Egypt will limp along.
Just like Bangladesh has been.
And that's Egypt. The future is far more bleak in Libya (and should the day come, in Syria or Yemen), which is starting out as Bangladesh would have been in the 1970s without the presence of Mujib or Zia.
From Arab Spring to now New York Autumn. Another youth movement sweeping another great city, and beyond. Watching the Wall Street Occupation, we cannot help wonder what is this all about? This is not a movement to stop a war or establish democracy. This is not to stop capitalism, neither is it about socialism. It is not here, there, anywhere yet we are being bombarded on social media platforms, news outlets to join this ambiguous self-proclaimed “movement”.
The Marxist theorist David Harvey describes the intangible capital in the form of finance that travels without boundaries and borders, creating new capital accumulation and modes of production. In today's world, everything from pension funds to aid money is connected to the global share market. Shutting down the financial markets, 'getting tough' on banks, or other forms of populist anger might make one feel better, but it is hard to see how it will actually help the world economy.
But wait, why blame the banks alone? Every transaction has two parties. When the house prices, or indeed DSE share prices, are clearly in bubble territories, and the proverbial 'little guy' puts his life savings on the line, does he not share a little bit of responsibility with the evil banker and capitalist?
Of course, OWS/99%-ers aren't the only populists venting their rage over in the western cities. In America they have the Tea Party, in Europe various far right nationalists.
In the 1930s, the Great Depression was accompanied by illiberal populists of the left and right engulfing Europe, and then the world. Should we fear the populists of today?
History of revolutions is not very encouraging. When the existing order collapses, the most ruthless and the best organised capture power, which is then retrospectively glorified as revolution. St Petersburg 1917, Tehran 1979 -- the singer changes, the song remains the same.
And Dhaka 1952, 1969, 1990 too -- it wasn't the students and youth protesters who came to power after those uprisings.
That's if the uprisings lead to political change. As Tariq Ali bemoans, much bigger uprisings in 1968 led to change in government in no major capital.
Anger and passion can take you only so far. Real political change comes through years of politicking and organisation.
Or perhaps that's too bleak. Perhaps, like Dylan, we were so much older then, we are much younger than that now. Perhaps the populist movements will energise a generation of activists into various causes. Perhaps this will lead to politicians and candidates who are committed to their respective ideologies. Perhaps a better world will result. After all, the 1960s were about more than the youth upheavals of 1968 -- did we also not see civil rights, feminist and environmental movements around the world, and the rise of Bangladesh nationalism at home, throughout that decade?
It is in that note that we want to return home to Bangladesh.
What happened to GolamRabbani, the organiser of the Kansat uprising? According to Zafar Sobhan, Mr Rabbani ended up in political oblivion because our politics remains beholden to the two large parties.And Asif Saleh highlights the case of Indian politician Anna Hazare who recently caused quite the stir in with his Gandhian fast for the much debated anti-corruption bill. In the end, Hazare was a great crowd pleaser, a break from the usual Manmohan-Sonia conversations and social media “shares”.
Political parties serve a legitimate purpose in democracies. They bring together likeminded people on a coherent platform to implement their ideas should they win elections. No one would look at our political parties and feel optimistic. And yet, we tried, and failed, without parties, in 1958, 1975, 1982, 2007.
Counter intuitively then, dear reader, let us suggest that if you really want to see a better Bangladesh, get involved with mainstream, party politics. If you are enraged by the prospect of the opposition alliance setting the razakars free, join Awami League. If you are outraged by the ill considered, poorly executed India policy, join BNP. Organise workshops and seminars espousing your party's views. Support the candidate of your choice in the local election -- Selina Hayat Ivy shows that one can remain loyal to the party ideology and still defy anti-people diktats; Chittagong City Council election last year showed last year how the opposition can shun street politics and still win.
With all their imperfections, these parties reflect the reality of Bangladesh. Pox on both houses isn't an option -- that means pox on Bangladesh.
Get involved. In real life, not just in Facebook.
Because if you don't, the 'revolution' -- involving uniformed men in tanks -- will be televised.
Shahana Siddiqui and Jyoti Rahman are bloggers.
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