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Pondering What Was and What Lies Ahead in Egypt

There has been a swift end to Mohamed Morsi’s presidency. After just one year, the democratically elected leader in Egypt has been turfed out of office by the military after a groundswell of protest against his rule in the fledgling democracy. There are no ifs or buts about it, the events of the last 24 hours were nothing less than a coup. There was no negotiated transition, instead, as is common in these situations, the military stepped in to ensure that the increasingly unpopular leader was removed from power – and not in a particularly democratic manner. And now an Egyptian judge, Adli Mansour will be interim president.

The events were truly astounding and no doubt troubling, at least for the Western world and Morsi’s supporters. But the events appear to have been potentially positive, despite the unseemly way in which President Morsi was dispatched from office. On the face of it, it seems that the majority of Egyptians are just satisfied that Mohamed Morsi is gone, and that they are not troubled with the method of his departure.

When examining events such as this, it is important to determine the good moves, the bad ones and to provide thoughts on what perhaps might have been a better idea.

There is precious little, at least in terms of individual elements, which is positive about what occurred in Egypt.

The protests, at least initially, were peaceful. People gathered in Tahrir Square, as they did before Hosni Mubarak was deposed in 2011. The numbers grew as days went by. But the last days in particular were marred by violence which claimed lives. There was also a disturbing number of sexual assaults reported.

It is positive, judging by the general reaction, that Mr Morsi is no longer in office. It appears that it is what the majority of people wanted.

But we can also count this as a negative. The former president was not voted out at an election, nor did he resign the presidency after seeing the widespread opposition to his rule. This was a coup by the military, albeit apparently responding to the will of most of the Egyptian people. Regardless, it is far from ideal for a democracy, especially one so young, to see events like this only a year after an election.

The formation of a “grand coalition” appears to be a move that the Egyptian military is willing to help foster and that is certainly positive in terms of helping to aid the transition back to democracy and, if sustainable, helpful for democratic consolidation in Egypt. There also has to be a strong opposition willing to be constructive and to adhere to the rule of law and other democratic ideals.

The arrest of former President Morsi and other officials was unnecessary and inflammatory. This might well provoke significant backlash from supporters of Morsi and would make constructive dialogue across the political divide very difficult. It could be a factor in creating a disenfranchised group in Egypt.

That’s what did happen, what was good and bad about the military backed revolution. What might have been better?

Even though it would have been almost impossible to force, there should have been an election. Ideally, Morsi should have called one when it became clear that support for his regime was falling apart. Or the people could have waited for an election. but there could well have been a significant political and social cost involved and it is possible that it may have never eventuated.

The “grand coalition” idea might have been prosecuted better had it been something done while the status quo remained. At least though, it has a year to form and to attempt to find common ground across a range of different groups.

In moving forward toward elections in a year, proper attention needs to be paid not just to the future of Egypt, but also its history, both distant and the events of the last weeks and months.

From Hope to Despair and the Path Forward in Malaysia

The 2013 general election in Malaysia has come to an end. The poll was much-anticipated, with the promise that it appeared to offer the opposition, Pakatan Rakyat (PR). Pundits in Malaysia and around the world were of the belief that the 2013 election would be the closest in the country’s history and that the opposition, led by Anwar Ibrahim, might have even been able to prevail on Sunday the 5th of May. But it was not be for Anwar Ibrahim and the coalition of parties behind his bid to be the first of Malaysia’s Prime Ministers not to come from UMNO which has ruled the country since its independence in 1957.

The 56-year rule of the governing coalition is set to continue after Barisan Nasional (BN) took 133 of the parliament’s 222 seats, a simple majority, with PR snaring 89 seats in the assembly.

Not much has changed since the 2008 poll. Prime Minister Najib Razak was hoping to recapture the supermajority lost by Barisan Nasional in the election five years ago and Anwar was widely expected to do much better than the results indicate.

Where there is hope for Pakatan Rakyat is in the popular vote tally. PR won that contest, but of course, successful gerrymandering of electorates helped to offset the good showing in the popular vote which needed to be more uniform across the country for the opposition coalition of parties to be delivered government.

Prior to and throughout polling day and into the night, as the votes were counted and the election called, claims were aired about vote rigging and other unsavoury, undemocratic practices. There was indelible ink too, which turned out to be quite easily removed. And there were claims of foreign workers brought in to vote using Malaysian ID cards.

There appears to have been a significant amount of contestable incidents during the general election on Sunday and the Opposition Leader will not accept the result. Anwar Ibrahim has called for a peaceful rally and the wearing of black on Wednesday as the country and the world continues to digest the result.

There is almost no doubt that there were significant irregularities, but even the most hopeful of analysts readily admit that there was probably not enough examples of undemocratic behaviour by political actors on the day to overturn the result. It is arguable however, that gerrymandering alone could have prevented or at least aided in blocking a win for the opposition.

Then there is the simple matter of the electoral commission being under the purview of the Prime Minister. There is little chance that there will be even a shred of a meaningful examination of the claims and more than likely none at all. In fact Prime Minister Razak has already urged the opposition coalition to accept the result.

It appears then that there will be a period of, at best a calm unease and at worst, small-scale riots perpetrated by fringe elements of opposition supporters. The rally on Wednesday will provide a test to see if cool heads prevail. But it should be used, for the most part, as a rallying cry for the next election in five years’ time.

The situation going forward, beyond this election result, is a complex mix of factors, not least of which is Anwar’s future in politics and the future of the opposition movement and how they organise. Then there is what needs to change in terms of government, governance and democracy in the country more broadly.

Before the election, the Opposition Leader had announced that this would be his last campaign. The former Deputy Prime Minister had signalled a desire to quit politics should he fail in his dream to be PM. This will without a doubt leave a large hole in the opposition which will prove almost impossible to fill, at least in the short-term.

Should Anwar Ibrahim hold to his pledge to quit politics, the real, the popular face of the movement for change will disappear. Politics in countries around the world is growing increasingly presidential in nature and that means that the hopes of political parties will increasingly rest on the popularity of party leaders. And Anwar Ibrahim was an immensely popular opposition figure.

The only other PR figure with such a high-profile is Anwar’s daughter, Nurul Izzah Anwar. The opposition would have to seriously consider turning to her to continue the momentum brought by her father.

Another significant figure that Pakatan Rakyat should seriously consider trying to lure into a parliamentary career is the face of  the Bersih protest movement, Ambiga Sreenevasan. This will prove difficult however, and is, at best, an option in the medium-term future rather than in the short-term.

We know what must happen in terms of democratic change in Malaysia. Elections need to be more free and fair and that will only come to pass with a strong and vocal opposition movement, up against a powerful state with the traditional media all in its corner. The gerrymandering has to stop and the electoral commission must be made an independent body, certainly not located anywhere near the reach of the Prime Minister.

Sadly, this part of the recipe will prove to be the hardest ingredient to combine in the mix for a move to a more open and democratic Malaysian society. Seemingly. the only way this will change will be if the ruling party of 56 years is thrown out of office in five years from now. A more vibrant and creative civil society will play a significant hand in this, even though they will be pursued all the way by the cautious, paranoid and power-hungry regime.

What happens next is crucially important.

When Politics Gets Ugly

Parliament is often very loud. Parliamentarians are regularly seen raising their voices at one another across the floor of the parliament. But it is not very often that a lot of noise comes from the public gallery. But earlier this week that is exactly what happened. A group of protesters, as they have once or twice before in this the 43rd parliament, raised their voices and heckled and called the Prime Minister those most creative and under-used names which will not be repeated here.

This week’s interruption, as the last one did, raised two main questions. The first is all about the standards of the public discourse and any improvement it requires. The second question is the most important and that is who is ultimately responsible for the tone and demeanour of political communication – any communication for that matter.

The tone and manner of all forms of communication, especially that of a political nature actually matters. We the public get frustrated with the behaviour of our politicians, frequently referring to them as different kinds of animals because of their rambunctious and at times obnoxious behaviour in parliament, most notably during Question Time.

Parliamentary debate, even during the hot-headed hour and ten minutes that is Question Time should be much more subdued and civilised. Obscene statements and generalisations should be kept to a minimum. More importantly, name-calling, despite our larrikin nature as Australians simply should not take place.

Despite the poor behaviour of our elected representatives, we should not be engaging in equally poor behaviour ourselves. Parliament should be treated with respect, regardless of the political colour of the government of the day. That means no childish name-calling from the galleries, despite what’s happening in the chamber.

What happened the other day was simply too much. The whole spectacle was ugly. The way the protesters chose to interact with the Labor Government demeaned the parliament. More importantly, it made the protesters look just as silly as the politicians they dislike. The actions of the protesters also unfortunately and rather unfairly. tarred with the same brush, those who might have a similar view of the current government, but express their disquiet in a different manner.

That’s not to say that protest is not a vital part of democracy. It is. But as with protest elsewhere, it should be conducted in a sensible manner and in a sensible forum or it does the cause behind it much harm.

The response to the loud behaviour of the observers was both fair and unfair. The Speaker was right to chastise the rowdy actions which took place this week. There should be a zero tolerance approach to an interruption of the parliament that is loud like that. Very few people outside of those involved in or sympathetic to the particular cause involved, ever take such actions seriously.

What was quite unfair about elements of the response was the apportioning of blame for the actions of those in the public gallery. The Coalition were singled out and blame was apportioned. Yes, the Coalition have been responsible for some pretty ordinary moments during this minority government, as have the ALP. But that was their actions and again, a rational response from those which view such behaviour is not to repeat it.

There is also a very important concept in liberal thought which is completely ignored by this purely political accusation levelled at the Liberal and National Party Coalition. That concept is one of responsibility for one’s own actions. Despite the sometimes over-the-top actions from the Opposition, it is the protesters and only the protesters, who are responsible for their actions.

It is important that the standards of political communication improve. It would cut down on some of the cynicism which surrounds politics, though not necessarily the political process itself. Both politicians and the public need to improve how they discuss and engage with politics.

First and foremost, politicians and punters alike are responsible for their own actions, not one side of politics or another.

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