By June Sochen
For the last few years, the newspapers and television have told us about rebellions, uprisings, and protests in many different parts of the world. Readers of history know about peasant uprisings in the past: landless, illiterate farmers rising up against their masters. The demonstrations were often spontaneous or in direct response to a raise in rents or an unusually bad crop. Almost always, they failed.
The owners used force with no qualms about the casualties. They made it clear to their “inferiors”, as they saw the peasants, that they had no rights and were not entitled to a voice either.
Historians have also written extensively about factory workers who organized and demonstrated, went on strike, and staged their own uprisings in many countries. Laborers had no better success than peasants.
Things are a bit different now and yet there are also similarities to days gone by.
First, then and now, successful uprisings were generally organized and led by middle-class people, not peasants or workers. The American Revolution is a perfect example. The colonists who demonstrated against English rule were better educated, more prosperous, and confident that they deserved independence. They had already enjoyed limited self-rule and now rose up to obtain their complete freedom from Great Britain.
Sociologists talk about rising expectations; that is an apt description of when most uprisings occur and when they succeed. It is precisely when things are getting better, and people expect progress to continue, that they organize, march, and express their discontents.
The Egyptian demonstrations currently under way are in response to an unfulfilled promise. The protesters expected Mohamed Morsi, the elected president, to bring the democratic and economic changes promised. After one year, little progress has been made toward these goals, thus the demonstrations in Tahrir Square in Cairo and in other cities around the country. The military intervention has aborted the demonstrations and the future is uncertain.
The recent protests against the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is another example of a growing middle-class expressing its dissatisfaction with governmental policies. Erdogan, without consulting anyone, with no input from the public, decided to turn a small park in central Istanbul, the only green space in the area, into a shopping mall and a mosque. This action was viewed by the educated class, the students, the environmentalists, and anyone else unhappy with his autocratic behavior as excessive.
Thanks to Twitter, Facebook and all of the other social media, word spread quickly and hundreds of people gathered. While the Turkish leader did not back down, he agreed to talk after firmly putting down the demonstrations. The protests, at least for now, have stopped.
Uprisings in one part of the world often motivate the discontented in other parts of the world. There is an infectious quality to these actions and geography is no longer a barrier to similar actions. But each country has unique features: what began as protests against the Bashar el Assad government in Syria, escalated into a full-blown civil war. This is obviously the most extreme form of public disobedience to the authorities.
Unexpected consequences inevitably occur. The original unity of protesters quickly deteriorate into disunities. Diverse groups may agree on bringing down the government but they disagree on what should replace it. Long-suppressed ideological differences among the rebels erupts and the hoped for unity against the larger enemy is not fulfilled.
The United States has been an uneasy observer of these uprisings. The government keeps close track of the events everywhere but generally stays clear of the struggles. President Barack Obama is being asked by some legislators and other interested groups to side with the Syrian rebels and offer them more substantial aid. Others counsel caution and noninvolvement.
One of the most challenging aspects of uprisings is that neither the participants nor the observers always share the same goals. Indeed, as already suggested, not all of the rebels in each case share the same goals. Is a religious state the goal? A secular government? Power-sharing? What does democracy mean in the Middle East?
We have often emphasized the importance of elections as the primary symbol of democracy. But maybe we’re putting the cart before the horse. Doesn’t the electorate have to be educated in the ways of democracy first? How about public debates on the key policy issues facing the country? How about freedom of assembly, of the press, and of speech?
All of these questions need answering before election day.