MANILA - The popular upheavals underway against dictatorships in the Middle East andNorth Africa have evoked memories of the mass demonstrations in the Philippines that gave birth to the term "people power" and changed the way in which revolutions are staged around the world.
As the Philippines commemorates this week the 25th anniversary of its popular revolt, there are important lessons for street protesters fighting for change in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and Libya.
On February 25, 1986, demonstrators overthrew the repressive regime of presidentFerdinand Marcos through sustained mass street protests. The Philippines was just one among nearly 100
different countries that shifted from authoritarianism towards more pluralism in the last quarter of the 20th century, according to some academic estimates. But the long-term results of a political transition determined in the streets rather than through legal processes have been a decidedly mixed bag.
Unlike countries in the Middle East, the Philippines had the political infrastructure in place to make the revolution work. The Philippines functioned as a democracy prior to the implementation of martial law in 1972 and the opposition was well-prepared to assume power in the revolution's wake. The uprising also had a central figure to rally around in the late president Corazon Aquino, whose senator husband was gunned down three years earlier by government agents at Manila's international airport.
Aquino won snap elections in 1986 and the former housewife assumed power smoothly after Marcos fled the country. That is, there was no power vacuum and a civilian government took control despite the military's machinations during the people-power protests that destabilized and ultimately toppled Marcos' regime.
For the current people-power uprisings sweeping the Middle East and North Africa, the democratic outcomes are less certain. In Tunisia, president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali resigned in disgrace and fled to Saudi Arabia on January 21 after weeks of protests that ended his 23 years of iron-fisted rule. Yet members of his old cabinet, including prime minister MohamedGhannouchi, now lead an interim government.
In Egypt, 18 days of street uprisings put an end to Hosni Mubarak's 30-year authoritarian rule. But he relinquished power to the military, the institution from which he rose, and there are now questions about how deeply the top brass will allow democracy to take root and whether they will willingly hand power over to an elected civilian government. The outcome of Libya's people-power uprising and the future political role of the military is even less certain.
As witnessed in the Philippines, people power is only successful if the military refuses to crack down. That's what happened recently in Tunisia and Egypt, where each country's top brass finally agreed to sacrifice their dictators and answered public demands for political change. How soldiers negotiate their roles and privileges after the protests and during the transition will largely determine each country's democratic future.
In the Philippines, the military leadership leveraged its post-Marcos popularity into ballot-box gains. Several retired military officers became senators and the military's growing political presence culminated in the election to the presidency of former top soldier Fidel Ramos in 1992. Yet despite the military's entry into mainstream politics, successive democratically elected governments have weathered several failed coup attempts.
Twenty-five years after the original people power revolt, Philippine democracy is still shallow and deeply flawed. While basic civil liberties have been restored, many of the problems left behind by Marcos, including severe poverty, rampant corruption and extreme economic inequality, have endured and even worsened under democratic regimes. Abductions and murders of activists and journalists, common occurrences in Marcos' martial law period, continue with impunity today.
Some argue in retrospect that the Philippines moved too fast towards reconciliation and too slow in exacting justice for past abuses. Efforts to recover ill-gotten wealth and punish the sources of abuses during the Marcos era eventually lost steam and were left largely unresolved. A quarter of a century after the revolution, Marcos' victims have yet to receive full justice, while those who bankrolled his abusive regime remain in privileged positions of economic power.
The former dictator's son, Ferdinand "Bong Bong" Marcos Jr, is now an increasingly influential congressman. He was recently quoted in the local press saying that the country was better off during his father's period of martial law, claiming the country had a better standing in terms of international status, poverty rates and financial stability.
Knee-jerk reactions to the decades-long domination of a single political party during the Marcos era saw the introduction of a multiparty system that has ensured that no presidential candidate has been elected in an outright majority since 1986. It also gave birth to a new political species, the so-called political butterflies, which jump from one party to another depending on patronage rather than political conviction or ideology. Constructed to avoid the re-emergence of a Marcos-like dictator, the post-people power system has paradoxically ensured that democracy remains weak and open to abuse.
New members to the people-power club in the Middle East and North Africa should take heed of the Philippine experience. One unfortunate upshot of people power here is a deep-seated impulse to take grievances, however marginal, to the streets. That same tendency has provided cover for political power plays among elites, as was seen in 2001 by the people power II ouster of democratically elected president Joseph Estrada.
There are also geopolitics to consider. The current uprisings in the Middle East threaten to undermine the US's position in the strategically important region, as was the case in 1986 in the Philippines. With nationalistic sentiment running high in the wake of the revolution, legislators were keen to punish Washington for the substantial support it had previously provided to Marcos' regime. That eventually led to the cancelation of the US's access to key military facilities and a series of nationalistic policies that undermined broadly the country's competitiveness vis-a-vis regional neighbors.
Nationalists and Islamic political groups in the Middle East will likely draw parallels to the support the US has provided their fallen or shaken dictatorships, particularly in Egypt. Thus the new political orders that arise from people-power movements could prioritize diminishing Washington's role in their respective countries and provide cover for a lurch towards more nationalism.
If the Philippines' experience with a people power-led transition to democracy is any guide, those same groups would be wise to emphasize keeping their militaries out of politics and administering justice to those who suffered under the outgoing authoritarian regimes.
Joel D Adriano is an independent consultant and award-winning freelance journalist. He was a sub-editor for the business section of The Manila Times and writes for ASEAN BizTimes, Safe Democracy and People's Tonight.