Columns

The Arab Spring and our own discontent

Grace VIRTUE

Tuesday, May 06, 2014    

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"...Let's take the long view for a moment. Can he who does not know where to go, find the way? Is driving the dictator out, the end? From where you are, Mohamed, next to God, you can tell that not all roads lead to Rome; ousting a tyrant doesn't lead to freedom. Prisoners like trading one prison for another, for a change of scenery and the chance to gain a little something along the way."

Algerian author Boualem Sansal wrote those words in an open letter, June 2012, 18 months after the beginning of the Arab Spring, as the series of uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa between 2010 and 2013 came to be known.

It began December 2010 with Tunisian vendor Mohamed Bouazizi who, unable to find work, sold fruits on the side of the road. A municipal inspector confiscated his goods December 17 and, an hour later, Bouazizi set himself on fire. His death, January 4, 2011, became the catalyst for the unemployed, trade unionists, human rights activists and young people unhappy with the status quo. Using cellphones and social media to mobilise, millions of people took to the streets. By December 2013, rulers had been toppled in Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, and twice in Egypt, and minor or major unrest had broken out in Bahrain, Syria, Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Mauritania, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Djibouti, and the Palestinian territories.

Mostly, the revolts were against decades of dictatorship, human rights abuses, corruption, high unemployment and extreme poverty, in contrast to the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few. Cable television and social media allowed us to see the fury, some of it in real time.

We have cellphones too. We are prolific users of social media and we are irresistibly drawn to what people do in "foreign", often misunderstanding the problems and misapplying solution. One gets the impression now that some of us are itching for our version of the Arab Spring so we too can film the rage and post videos of ourselves on YouTube. With politicians and special interests stoking the rage, it is not hard to visualise a fragile Kingston burning just like Tunis, Tripoli and Cairo did three years ago.

Finance Minister Peter Phillips proposed tax on bank withdrawals and science and technology minister, Phillip Paulwell's granting a licence to Hong Kong-based Energy World International for the construction of a 381-megawatt power plant seemed to be the opening some long for. The rhetoric soared last week. Unspecified threats hung in the air. Phillips retreated. Paulwell, under tremendous duress, is sticking to his decision. Paulwell's rationale is in keeping with the Office of Utilities Regulation, that: "consistent with its position that the country needed to have a diversity of offers in order to select the best option, the OUR took a deliberate decision that, while staying strictly within the bounds of the IFFP, it would adopt as flexible an approach to bidders as would afford the country the best deal. In this regard, a number of changes were made to the IFFP relating to...extension of times and modification of bid requirement while...focusing on the objective of obtaining electricity for the consumers at the lowest cost, in the shortest feasible time, and with reasonable level of security and surety" (Media advisory, September 18, 2013).

Let us take the long view of our situation for a moment. The country is facing tough economic times, which means that social programmes cannot be as robust as they need to be to combat decades of neglect and satisfy the increasingly sophisticated demands of the citizens. With low levels of production, relative to the country's debt, the Government has limited options as it attempts to meet conditions set by the International Monetary Fund, hence efforts like the withdrawal tax.

Corruption is also rampant across the public and private sector. Refusing to play by the rule, kickbacks, tax evasion, using public funds to fund private activities, bribery, putting friends and family at the front of the line, regardless of who was there before, are commonplace in our culture. In this regard and beyond, many politicians have skeletons in their cupboards. Some have baby skeletons, some medium-sized, and some have whole graveyards.

So, do Andrew Holness, Audley Shaw, and the JLP know the way, and do the people believe they do? If so, why were they voted out of office in 2011 after only four years in office? Elections are constitutionally due in 2016. The JLP will have a new opportunity to convince us that they have a plan to advance economic growth in short order, allowing them to address the clamour for more and better in critical social services like garbage collection, health care and education.

Suppose we go the way of the Arab Spring, foment mass protest, and force our elected Government out of office -- this, after all, was the objective of much of those uprisings and the JLP, noticeably, is channelling suicide, just as Bouazizi did, in their quest to demonstrate how futile life is for many Jamaicans -- what would it lead to? Would a new Government mean immediate solutions to our problems? And, who would form that Government? The recently rejected JLP? The JDF? Or the "powerful" Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica, Jamaica Chamber of Commerce and the Jamaica Manufacturers' Association?

Jamaica, since Independence, has maintained a stable democracy -- one of our greatest strengths. Even as successive governments have muddled governance, there has always been a commitment to the right of the people to elect their leaders in a manner consistent with the terms of our constitution.

It must remain that way.

True, the system of government needs to be reconfigured to better serve the people; and it is time that this is taken seriously. I believe, too, in the people's right to resist oppression and injustice in the best non-violent tradition of King, Gandhi and Nehru: Not one more Jamaican needs to die to help self-serving politicians grab power. The challenge is to pick the right battle so that when we fight, it is about the common good, not about the ambitions and greed of a few individuals or special interest groups.

Washington, DC-based scholar Dr Grace Virtue is a public affairs practitioner, social policy analyst and social justice advocate. Comments to gvirtue@usa.net

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