The two recently fallen dictators in the Middle East, Zine al Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia’s dictator-president of 23 years, and Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s autocratic president of 30 years, sternly reminds us that liberty is worth fighting for. A political cataclysm is now reverberating in the region and beyond. Libya’s brutal dictator for 42 years, Moammar Gadhafi, too, is at a tipping point. So is Yemen’s ruler for 33 years, Ali Abdullah Saleh.
When Moscow’s first McDonald’s opened in Pushkin Square in January 1989, a two-hour-long queue snaked out of the doors. On that day alone, the restaurant served some 40,000 customers. In the same year, a mass protest erupted in the Tiananmen Square in Beijing in April but was quashed in June. In 1991, the Red Square military parade ended for good and the Soviet Union was dissolved, while the massive machine-precision military parade in the Kim Il-sung Square in Pyongyang, North Korea, an old Stalinist Red Square remnant, still lingers on.
History proves time and time again that the people’s outcry for liberty, whether successful, aborted, crushed or suppressed, will ultimately prevail over tyranny. Only time is a variable. The ruled rule the ruler, not the reverse, and the just power of a state derives from the consent of the ruled. Human freedom is one of the most precious universal and inalienable rights.
As a student protester in South Korea, who saw firsthand “a mere demonstration” sparking into a revolution, I’m offering a few caveats here for the unfolding events in post-Mubarak Egypt, the Middle East and beyond.
First, the Tahrir Revolution in Egypt is a new and different kind of phenomena from all the previous popular uprisings and revolts in the region in subtle yet significant ways. It was spontaneous and leaderless. Neither was it anti-Semitic nor anti-American. By and large, it was secular and peaceful, taken up by people from all walks of life, though mostly young people. Above all, “the enemy of the people” is found within: corrupt, brutal, repressive and prolonged dictators and their cronies.
Second, the Egyptian people can closely examine a similar South Korean case of half a century ago. In April, 1960, students in South Korea protested against the fraudulent presidential election of the Syngman Rhee’s 12-year-long authoritarian regime. It triggered a nationwide popular uprising, leading to the collapse of the Rhee regime in less than two weeks and forcing him into exile in Hawaii.
A caretaker government was hastily set up to supervise the general election, and by August a civilian parliamentary government was launched. Eight months later, in May 1961, the military staged a coup and de facto ruled for 31 years.
In the interim, student and civil protests, often violent and bloody, continued on and off. The military regimes responded with brutal repression and draconian measures. After three decades of popular struggle, a working democracy in South Korea was realized in early 1990s.
During these years, South Korean people went through 10 martial-law periods, decreed to crack down mainly on popular uprisings and political protests against dictatorial rule. They encountered nine constitutional revisions, contrived to disguise the protracted extra-constitutional rule.
In this context, economic conditions of two countries are also noteworthy. South Korea’s per capita income in 1960 was less than $100, which is now about $20,000, and that of Egypt is currently around $2,000.
What have we learned from these excruciatingly painful and often bloody struggles? Democracy is not free for all. It takes time, sacrifice, struggle, trials and errors, and vigilance. There is neither painless democratic formula nor a get-rich-quick economic panacea. So many internal and external factors come into play on the road to democracy.
Third, the Tahrir Revolution is only the beginning of a new day in Egypt. The removal of a dictator is only the first step before the regime change. Above all, realizing a functioning democracy is a tall order. Unlike the 1960 April Revolution in South Korea, the military in Egypt is now directly and immediately involved in the power transition. Fraught with uncertainty and treading on uncharted grounds, the Egyptians can expect pitfalls and setbacks ahead.
Still, Mubarak was forced out by popular uprising, engineered primarily by young people. These young protesters belong to a new generation of human species, what I call “homo electronicus,” equipped with the Internet, Google, Apple, Wikipedia and WikiLeaks. They are IT-smart in using iPhone, iPad, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Against them, the Mubarak regime’s initial attempts at suppression had no chance.
Finally, will the popular revolution of homo electronicus spread to the neighboring Muslim countries and beyond? Spillover effects and falling dominoes are already evident. The eruption of anti-government protests in Bahrain, Iran, Libya, Algeria, Yemen and other places attests that the ousters of dictators in Tunisia and Egypt are only the beginning, not the end, of the homo electronicus revolution.
At a minimum, this new nomad, the homo electronicus, has proven in Tunisia and Egypt that it is a new force of change and reform to be reckoned with. As Jordan’s foreign minister recently remarked, “Egypt is Egypt and Jordan is Jordan,” and every country is sui generis. Still, the homo electronicus is a growing political force and a worldwide phenomenon today. Regimes less adaptable or even hostile to it are bound to be more vulnerable to violent mass upheavals.
As one of the oldest cradles of human civilization, Egypt is now in the throes of sea change in the age of homo electronicus.
All these having been said, an age-old truth remains: Virtuous or venal, no mortal power lasts forever. Wise is the political leader who knows when to quit and exit from power. The tragedy, though, is that such a leader is extremely rare.
By Yang Sung-chul
Yang Sung-chul, a former ambassador of the Republic of Korea to the United States and a distinguished professor at Korea University in Seoul, is the author of “The North and South Korean Political Systems: A Comparative Analysis.” ― Ed.