After Algeria, Hong Kong and Sudan, the fever and rage of protests have spread to Cairo, Jakarta and now Iraq. Protesters are demanding change, loudly denouncing corruption and challenging their governments
By Nita Chicooree-Mercier
A formidable wave of protests staged by youths is spreading like fire in several countries. Demonstrators are demanding a say in the running of their countries’ affairs, the right to criticize and protest, and to free speech. They are protesting against lack of transparency and freedom, corruption, self-enrichment of governing élites, failing and stagnant economies, unemployment and oppressive policies. A year ago, hardly could any political analyst could predict such movements creating a domino effect and emboldening the younger generations to voice out their concerns about their future. It is happening and it is showing that the world does not move at a uniform single pace. Every country has a different political, economic, and social background, and accordingly, their people rise up in unity when they deem it necessary to speak in one voice in a profound desire to shape their future.
After Algeria, Hong Kong and Sudan, the fever and rage of protests have spread to Cairo, Jakarta and now Iraq. Protesters in Cairo are demanding change, loudly denouncing corruption and challenging the government led by General al-Sissi. The latter was first welcomed when he toppled the elected government headed by President Mohamed Morsi in the wake of the Arab Spring, cracked down on fundamentalist hard-line policy, and sent around 350 members of the Muslim Brotherhood to the gallows. Sluggish economic progress, siphoning of public funds, unemployment and poverty are becoming unbearable, protesters claim. For the time being, the movement may not be infiltrated by fundamentalists in an attempt to make a come-back on the political stage.
In Jakarta, as the government Mps meet in Parliament, students flooded the streets to protest against rampant corruption, self-enrichment of the ruling body, homophobia, oppression of minorities, to claim rights to free speech and to criticize the government. In a shocking scene last year, a crowd cheeringly watched two homosexual men being publicly lynched in the province of Aceh. Whatever discrimination there may be against minority ethnic groups is not given media coverage – a situation which is similar to what has been happening in Malaysia for decades.
A few days ago, Indonesian soldiers led a punitive expedition against natives of West Papua who attacked a few Indonesians for hurling racist slurs at them, equating them with monkeys. Feelings of resentment against Indonesia have been simmering for decades. West Papua was given independence by the Dutch in 1961. It was invaded and controversially annexed by Indonesia in 1969.
Iraqi voices claim that the US-backed government in Baghdad is wading knee-deep in corruption, is not developing the economy and creating widespread unemployment. In the context of mounting tensions between US and Iran, it is also alleged that a pro-Iran body has been deliberately kept at bay.
As China celebrated its national day, the 70th anniversary of leadership by the Communist Party, riots flared up in the streets of Hong Kong, showing the unwavering determination of young men and women to make further demands to preserve their way of life which they inherited during British rule. A sight unseen in any other post-colonial society, the British national anthem resonated in the street and the US flag was waved in a symbolic message. Pro-China supporters who tear down posters and beat up protesters are said to have mainly come from mainland China and settled in Hong Kong.
A big majority of the people of Hong Kong is said to be suffering from collective depression since 2014 when a crackdown on protests led by 14-year-old Joshua Wong and supported by businesswoman Dorothy Wong and the umbrella mothers forced the public into silence. The protest in 2014 was sparked by an attempt by the officials to implement Beijing’s wish to interfere in the educational system and attempt to replicate the principle of obedience in young minds. Something which stifles free circulation of ideas, prevents debates and muzzles free speech.
The explosion of anger seems to have a liberating and cathartic effect in the public. Right now, Beijing’s agreement to withdraw the Extradition Bill has failed to appease apprehensions and fears of further encroachment on their freedom. It just looks like the people of Hong Kong do not trust China. Taiwan, another disputed territory, has sent free tear gas masks and is supporting Hong Kong uprisings for obvious reasons. The writing on the wall for both islands is quite clear. Their freedom is at stake.
The lesson to be drawn from Hong Kong’s rebellious youths and China’s iron-fisted threat is that noose-tightening on free expression and governing bodies cannot work in the presence of a prosperous and educated public who have enjoyed a modern and free way of life for decades. If the islanders were uneducated, poor and corrupt, fundamentalist groups could have lured them into the vision of a better future, as it happened elsewhere. But this is not the case in Hong Kong. Educated and generally better-off people do not willingly give in to tyranny or fall into any kind of enslavement.
Youths in other parts of the world are less fortunate. Loujain al-Hathlool was arrested in May 2018 for driving, weeks before the ban on women driving cars in Saudi Arabia was lifted. She is still kept in prison and has undergone physical and moral torture, her sister reported in Geneva. Other rights activists are also behind bars.
Ali Mohamed Al-Nimr, a young man from a Shia province in Saudi Arabia was arrested in 2012 in a crackdown on anti-government protests and thrown in jail and tortured at the age of 17. He is accused of plotting against the state and carrying weapons, with no evidence to support the charges. The young man faces death by crucifixion. Just like Jesus! Anyone can imagine the implications of such a death sentence. Any prominent politician in Mauritius ready to ask for his liberation and support the Free Ali Mohamed petition?
In the same vein, are Mauritian youths satisfied with governance, the state of affairs and the distribution of wealth in Mauritius?
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A David and Goliath situation?
While the disproportionate forces in the Hong Kong-China stand-off fit in the narrative of the Old Testament, Iran is playing another game. It is trying, in a most incomprehensible manner, to portray itself as a powerless and weakened nation where stocks of powder milk for babies and medication for elderly people are running out due to US sanctions. Strangely, Iran claims responsibility for drone attacks on oil tankers, and subsequently, denies them a few days later. The ‘do and deny’ tactic is fraying the nerves of opponents and keeping them busy looking for evidence. One day, Iran acts like a victim of strong nations, and the day after, it is telling them that despite economic sanctions and crumbling economy, Iran is a mighty nation and can attack at will.
A few months back a poll in Arab and North African countries showed that over the years, citizens still consider Iran as a biggest threat to peace in the region. Indeed, in the years following the Iranian Revolution of 1979, a competition started among regional rival countries to vie for influence not only in the Middle East and North Africa, but also in south-east Asia with far-reaching terrible consequences even in the West. Belatedly the world has awakened to this reality and is battling to face its impacts.
* Published in print edition on 4 October 2019