Demands for democratic change may be spreading across Africa and the Middle East – but so is apathy

Source:  Independent / / By Borzou Daragahi /

Some 41 years ago, Vaclav Havel wrote about the greengrocer who put up the sign, “Workers of the World Unite,” among the vegetables in his store display.

Iraqi protesters take cover behind a barricade on Al-Jumhuriya Bridge during an anti-government demonstration in the Iraqi capital Baghdad on 25 October, 2019.
Iraqi protesters take cover behind a barricade on Al-Jumhuriya Bridge during an anti-government demonstration in the Iraqi capital Baghdad on 25 October, 2019.

Did he really believe in the slogan? “Is he genuinely enthusiastic about the idea of unity among the workers of the world?” the then-dissident poet and playwright wondered.

Probably not.

“He put them all into the window simply because it has been done that way for years, because everyone does it, and because that is the way it has to be,” wrote Havel, in his famous essay and book The Power of the Powerless.

“He does it because these things must be done if one is to get along in life,” Havel continues. “It is one of the thousands of details that guarantee him a relatively tranquil life.”

Havel’s legacy was celebrated this year on the 30th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution that overthrew Communist rule in what is now Czechia.

Havel, who served as president of Czechoslovakia until its 1993 dissolution and Czechia until 2003, died in 2011.

But Havel’s wisdom and insights are especially relevant today as nations of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond bristle against entrenched, authoritarian regimes which seek to force people into submission.

It has been an extraordinary time of renewed demands for democratic change across the Middle East, with all but the most rigid Arabian Peninsula monarchies unaffected by the clamour of recent months. Popular protests against autocratic regimes this year have struck Iraq, Lebanon, Iran and Egypt, and have toppled longtime rulers in Sudan and Algeria.

Unlike the previous unrest during the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, mostly gone is the naivete and blind optimism of those demonstrating in the streets. Having watched disasters unfold in Libya, Yemen and Syria, protesters in Algiers, Beirut, and Baghdad are cognizant of how hard the road ahead will be. One scholar described the situation in Algeria to me as an “awakening” on the part of a people seeking to “redefine what it means to be Algerian.”

Barring any dramatic breakthroughs, however, entrenched regimes also understand the extent of their power. Using violence as well as cooptation such as removing an official or two, they have sought to whittle down the protest movements to their core, and then arrest a few troublemakers.

And when that fails, they try to merely wait the protesters out, believing – perhaps correctly – that time is on their side. Increasingly, in Iraq, for example, the protesters demanding the removal of the government in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square are increasingly building a utopia that is isolated from the rest of their countrymen.

“Tahrir is fascinating,” a scholar in Iraq told me. “You can do a PhD on it. There really is a new culture being forged there. Elsewhere solidarity is strong across the board, but with a heavier dose of pessimism than what one encounters on Iraqi social media. As strong as the solidarity and sympathy are, daily life in Baghdad is unaffected by what is going on.”

The path to achieving critical mass is understanding how authoritarian systems shape daily life, which Havel attempted to grapple with in his essay.

Havel was attempting to assess how power works in a highly regulated and bureaucratic “post-totalitarian” system that sought to use subtle means to maintain its grip by drawing “everyone into its sphere of power, not so they may realise themselves as human beings, but so they may surrender their human identity in favour of the identity of the system.”

Regimes in Iran, Egypt, and Algeria as well as entrenched ruling cliques in Iraq and Lebanon operate on various levels of sophistication. Security forces in Iran opened fire on protesters, killing hundreds, according to Amnesty International. Masked Iraqi militiamen have been said to have gunned down around 400 protesters. Algeria’s ruling generals are more subtle, arresting key dissidents and offering up elections in which only candidates obedient to the system run.

But to maintain their grip, the regimes rely most of all on the apathy, compliance and humiliating submission of the vast bulk of their populations.

Those seeking change throughout the Middle East and North Africa, as well as in Hong Kong and Chile and other nations – including Czechia, where protesters opposed to the country’s billionaire prime minister have filled the same Wenceslas Square that was the site of the Velvet Revolution – would do well to heed Havel’s spirit.

Leave the square and ask what motivates the local greengrocer or shopkeeper to place portraits of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei or president Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi on their walls, and why they choose to sit on the sidelines.