As long as they are peaceful, protests act as a useful safety valve. What they accomplish in the political realm is a different question. The Arab Spring is a case in point. As Simon Mabon, Professor of International Relations, Lancaster University, points out, the uprisings in the Arab world highlighted the fractious nature of political life and relations between the people and their governments, resulting in the toppling of authoritarian rulers in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. ‘But these were limited victories – and protesters elsewhere were not as successful. The protests revealed a profound political crisis that continues to resonate across the region. And in most cases, the issues that provoked the protests – economic inertia, a lack of political accountability, rampant corruption and a growing gap between rich and poor – continue today.’
We also saw protests in Greece over austerity measures adopted to correct the excesses from the fiscal profligacy of the previous political regime. In France, not much has changed despite the months long protests of the ‘Gilets Jaunes’. But these were demonstrations of a different nature compared with what we had seen in parts of the Arab world, where the protests began against increasing inequality. The gap had widened to such an extent between the haves and the have-nots that there was a spontaneous surge against authority by the population as a whole.
All the events in the concerned Middle East countries have occurred against the backdrop of generally weak economic conditions. Following the financial meltdown of 2007, the economic recession which followed caused millions to lose their jobs and millions others were unable to enrol on the labour market. The youth were among the most unemployed. Poor economic conditions in large parts of the world have given people the courage to go down to the streets, something that was unthinkable before. Injustice exerted by oppressive political regimes became the final trigger of the protest movement.
When people are unconvinced about the good faith of their rulers, they can rise to get back their power. No one is insulated against such protest movements which can have dramatic consequences for the seats of power. But there is always the risk that the fruits of such protests may be opportunistically recuperated by obscure forces lurking behind the scenes. This will be too high a price to pay, a price that may include descent into violence.
The same issues that provoked the protests elsewhere – economic inertia, a lack of political accountability, rampant corruption – are present locally. To these should be added the controversy over the Wakashio grounding and subsequent oil spill, together with suspicions of murder of political activists and of one civil servant, and a growing perception of cover-ups unheard of earlier in this country. Two earlier street protests had assembled large crowds last year, and the latest, jointly organised by the opposition common front with support from the ‘Linion Sitwayin’ with Bruneau Laurette in the lead, should have signalled to the government the growing opposition of a large cross-section of the population to its governance of the affairs of the country. But does this mean that change would be in the pipeline?
This looks quite unlikely. The main reason for this is the disparate nature of the forces and group interests that were present or represented in the latest street protest on Saturday. The question remains as to whether these can morph into a unified coalition or alliance — whatever be the appellation – to challenge the regime. That’s a remote possibility. On the contrary, the latter will lose no opportunity to leverage those contradictions and exploit them to its advantage, in addition to throwing doubt about whether such an entity is truly representative of the country as a whole.
There are no two ways out of this conundrum: it is only a return to good governance. It is most unfortunate that while tough challenges in the management of public affairs are beckoning us for quite some time now – especially in the wake of the Covid pandemic -we have ended up diverting our attention to highly emotionally pitched issues.
While politics and the future of politicians are important, more important is the need to prioritize decisively, for the good of the country, a convincing departure from the series of questionable and in some cases what appear to be unlawful practices, which have eroded trust in government action so far. Mauritius needs all its resources to fight its way up against the numerous odds besetting its economy. Good leadership can make a big difference. Short of such and strong and well-meaning leadership, and the political will to go with it, the government risks finding itself in the “carreau-cannes” in a not too distant future.
* Published in print edition on 16 February 2021