Guidelines for Democratizers I

Secure your political base; Maintain backwards legitimacy; Gradually shift your own constituency so as to reduce your dependence on government groups opposing change; Be prepared for standpatters to take extreme action; Seize and keep control of DEM process; Keep expectations low; Encourage development of moderate opposition party; Create sense of inevitability about DEM process. —Samuel P. Huntington (1991) “How Countries Democratize”

We spend a lot of time discussing how social media made the Arab Spring possible. A new art exhibit featuring this very theme pops up in just about every city that didn’t recently have to actually experience an uprising – New York City, Berlin, Paris, but not Cairo or Tunis (although I can’t speak definitely on this topic because I don’t know the happenings of the art scene in said cities). Yes, it’s true – social media, technology, modernization (if you will) – creates a medium of self expression and allows people to mobilize more rapidly. And we, from afar, the ones living in a relatively peaceful climate, where social change is not so desirable or necessary, get to analyze all these struggles for democracy(?) or perhaps a better, more neutral term is progress, unfold and grow into something like a Muslim state (Egypt).

But, it’s not true that these public sentiments for change are not stirring in our home cities. Occupy Wall Street, was/is a movement for the masses. Although it lacks any central cohesiveness and is dwindling down into nothing, it got people talking and it got the attention of some politicians. Here in Tel Aviv, the Rothschild tent protests of 2011 were a big deal. And last night, it seems as though the protest movement in Israel, which some say was a precursor to the international Occupy Movement in 2011, is starting up again. The first protest of the “season” took to the streets last night. I was celebrating a birthday when roughly thousands of people marched on through Allenby street protesting Yair Lapid, Israel’s finance minister, who has “fallen victim to his own rhetoric” and is failing to protect the working man – really, isn’t this the fate of all politicians? Change is promised during elections but once in office ideal dreams are shattered, budgets are cut and the working man remains the majority, disgruntled working man. What’s the point of protesting this kind of thing this day in age?

Yair Lapid is Edward Scissorhands

I’ve always thought protests were a waste of time, surely there must be more efficient and productive ways of getting heard. But it is the start of something, and more times than not, it won’t amount to anything; but sometimes, you can get enough people together and feel like you’re a part of something; you’re not the only one that’s pissed off. Maybe that’s enough – solidarity with your countrymen.

An Israeli friend of mine was explaining to me last night, as we watched from the sidelines the masses marching through Tel Aviv, that the protests from 2011 were an extremely formative experience for him. He said before this monumental event, there were consistent protests against the Israeli occupation, and he participated in these demonstrations but without really feeling too passionately or inspired by the events. In his mind, he thought the occupation had to end before the state could concentrate on how to improve domestic issues. But the occupation kept marching on and in 2011, all of a sudden, people were focusing on taxes and rent and internal issues, instead of the everlasting Interim Period. For the first time, he said, he felt like he was a part of a movement,of something stirring and that change was possible. That sounds like the beginning of a strong social movement, but then a bunch of people set themselves on fire in 2012 to prove a point and the movement took a fatal turn. What’s in store for 2013 in Israel this summer, only time will tell.

I have a hard time taking to the streets on issues I don’t really understand, and even though I carry a passport that says otherwise, I’m not Israeli and I have a hard time yelling about finances, when there is a huge security fence, barrier separating a population of people from coexisting with Jews, further ostracizing Jewish people from the rest of the world. Moreover, I have a hard time publicly complaining about rent when there is a war raging on every border of this tiny country. Sure, I’ll complain about it to my friends, but taking to the streets is another story.

Food for Thought – Middle East History and Revolution

The Iranian Constitutional Revolution of 1905 was the first of its kind in the Middle East, considering it actually established a parliamentary institution. Ultimately it failed but it got very far in the grand scheme of the country’s history because it was a social, national movement created by, what John Foran calls, a Populist Alliance (1991) – a multiclass, popular social movement involving loose coalitions of aggrieved social forces. The merchants and artisans financed the thing, got together with the ulama (clergy), and the intelligensia organized the urban phenomenon behind the scenes. The goal was to apply pressure on the Qajar Dynasty because Iranians/Persians (national identity is a whole other topic) from all wakes of life, were pissed off about the economy being flooded with European exports and the Shah taking out a much needed second loan from Russia in exchange for political influence. The merchants wanted economic freedom, the ulama wanted more Islamic law and less foreign influence, the intelligensia realized that a change had to happen; the people were behind this idea of a majlis (parliament) and equated having a constitution with victory and independence. Unfortunately, this social revolution ultimately failed, even after Mohammed Mosaddeq tries to revive it in the 1950s to establish an Iran independent of imperialism by nationalizing oil. It fails because the Shah actually succeeds in keeping the old regime in tact by agreeing to the establishment of a constitution and a majlis, Unlike the 1979 Iranian revolution, where the frustration reached another level and the foreign imposed rule was truly overturned by the people’s desire for independence from imperialism, but not necessarily the bigger-picture independence they thought they were fighting for.

There has to be a trigger and an opportunity for a revolution to start and relative deprivation, – the belief that the situation should be better. However, the problem with the relative deprivation argument is that it attempts to explain every phenomenon in the world, not just one specific revolution. Historians say that in history, if you say something explains everything it really explains nothing at all. You can’t generalize something like a revolution. The economic situation is just one factor, you need mobilization, ideology is huge, but you also need a trigger and an opportunity – that perfect moment when you should say something that’s been on your mind for ages, that opening to go in for the kiss… you know.

Digging for Oil

I’m not a historian but one of the reasons I stayed in this country is to see what happens next. Not with rent prices but instead with the broader Arab-Israeli conflict. When I first came here, it felt like Israel was on the brink of some kind of change, the country was bubbling over with conflict and my antagonist mind was colored with intrigue. I believe in human rights, I believe in justice and order, I believe in all people’s sacred values and want them respected, I wanted to understand the situation from legally tainted, overly analytical background. I felt like here, as opposed to the United States, there was a revolution going on because I truly believe that even though it is a contradiction, a Jewish democracy can be implemented without causing so much hate in the world. But the so-called leaders are not implementing this ideal in the right way. How do you change this without getting into politics yourself, a path which is not open to everyone?

Getting the masses on the same page is a integral part to creating any type of lasting change. The public wasn’t ready for peace during Oslo, everyone keeps saying, and the peace process was thwarted because one Israeli extremist thought it was his duty to put a bullet through a peace-making leader’s head, causing the divide between two peoples to become more bloody and farther from peace than ever before. Is the public ready now, almost 20 years later? Is their distrust for the finance minister here in Israel evidence that perhaps change is possible this time around? I really hope so, but I’m cynical, and unfortunately the more time I spend here the more cynical I get. But it would be nice to be a part of a social movement that was on the right side of the argument, even if the movement fails, it’s the only place we have to start from.


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