Bernardo M. Villegas
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Reflections on the Arab Spring

          Filipino values fostered by the combination of the country's Malay roots, Christian upbringing under the Spaniards and tutelage in democratic institutions under the Americans can explain to a great extent the major differences between what is now being called the "Arab spring" and the EDSA people power revolution in 1986.  The contrast between the two types of uprising highlights the unique culture of the Philippines which enabled it to be a pioneer in achieving a peaceful transfer of power from an authoritarian regime to a democracy, no matter how imperfect, that after only a little while had reverberations in Poland, Germany and the former U.S.S.R. in the last century.  The uncertain outcome of the "Arab spring phenomenon" that is still unfolding as I write these lines in July 2011 demonstrates that the EDSA revolution is not necessarily replicable in societies with radically different cultures.

            "Arab spring" refers to the phenomenon in the Middle East and North Africa in which citizens mostly from the middle class united to try to overthrow what they perceived as long-staying, abusive, corrupt and dictatorial leaders who were being propped up by the military.  This desire for freedom of expression and political participation, long thought to be absent in the Arab world, erupted within months in 2011 in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen and Libya.  In July 2011, Syria occupied center stage.  More than 1,000 people had already been killed, while hundreds of thousands had risked their lives challenging the regime.  In at least two of the countries, the rebels succeeded in ousting the dictators, as in Tunisia and Egypt.  In the other countries, the threatened leaders were digging their heels in and the future outcome was still uncertain.  As some commentators have written, the Arab spring is entering a long, hot summer and may be headed for the deep freeze of winter.  Richard Haass, former director of policy planning at the US state department makes the following insightful observation:  "Yet the most important lessons from the Arab spring remain the simplest.  Military intervention should, as a rule, be avoided.  It is easier to oust a regime than it is to help put something better in its place.  Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya all stand as warnings.  Islamists who eschew violence should be talked to, not written off . . . (Financial Times, July 7, 2011, p.9).

            The EDSA Revolution was a peaceful uprising of mostly middle-class Filipinos who reached their limit of tolerance of what they perceived as an abusive, corrupt and dictatorial leader, President Ferdinand Marcos, who had declared martial law in 1972 and overstayed as head of state for fourteen years till 1986.  The flash point was the rebellion of a group of young military officers belonging to the Reform the Army Movement (RAM) who got the support of the Minister of Defense, Juan Ponce Enrile, and the Chief of the Armed Forces, General Fidel Ramos.  The success of the EDSA (the name of the street where the crowds gathered) Revolution hinged on the support of close to a million citizens who trooped to the streets, defying the soldiers loyal to President Marcos.  These citizens belonged to what is known as civil society (numerous nongovernmental organizations) who obtained strong moral support from the Archbishop of Manila, Cardinal Jaime Sin.  The very visible presence of Catholic nuns and priests served as a moderating force that prevented the shedding of blood.

          The Catholic or Christian element alone, however, does not explain the absence of violence in the EDSA revolution.  Spain was a Catholic country when one million Spaniards died in the most violent civil war in the last century.  Up to very recently, violence had been rampant in Spain's Basque region which is also predominantly Catholic.  Catholic Latin America has not been spared numerous deaths that resulted from violent uprisings in such countries as Mexico, Chile, and Argentina.  There was another element that combined with Christianity that accounted for the relatively peaceful people power revolutions in the Philippines.  I would attribute it to the non-confrontational nature of Malay culture, which when combined with Christian beliefs, can  make a people generally peace loving and non-violent.  Malays have a high boiling point beyond which they "run amok."  Thanks to the moderating force of Christianity, Filipinos, especially the soldiers under the command of General Ver, did not run amok during the EDSA revolution.

          Then there is the element of a minimum level of a democratic culture in a society   The Arab spring and the EDSA revolution are similar in that both were instigated by middle-class citizens who were aspiring for more freedom of speech and participation in the political process.  Both were geared towards the removal of a dictatorial and corrupt regime.  They differ in the circumstances surrounding the political institutions prevailing in their respective countries. The main difference was the greater preparedness of the Philippines for the restoration of democratic institutions.  The Philippines had some forty years of tutelage under the U.S. in democratic practices before it got its independence in 1946.  From 1946 to 1972, Philippine society had practical experiences in building democratic institutions, no matter how imperfect.  Even during the martial law regime, freedom of speech was not completely curtailed.  In fact, I can personally testify that the private economics think tank, the Center for Research and Communication (CRC), for which I worked during that period could come out with economic data and forecasts contradicting official government propaganda with impunity.  There was only one instance during those 14 years of the Marcos rule when he threatened to "close down CRC."  But even that threat was empty.  We continued to operate till the very last day of martial rule.

          There were other positive features of Philippine society in the 1980s that made possible a peaceful revolution.  Especially important was the penchant of Filipinos to organize non-government initiatives to address the common good, either as a supplement to the government or in many instances as a substitute to failing government action.  Again, the predominance of the NGO culture was a product of the American colonial period.  As Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America, a salient feature of American democracy which differentiates it from its counterpart in the European continent is the spirit of volunteerism that he observed in North America already in the 18th Century. Modesty aside, the Center for Research and Communication and the Makati Business Club, two NGOs to which I belonged, had a major role in paving the way for the late Corazon Aquino to run for President in the 1986 Presidential elections.  The CRC economists were also active in giving economic briefings to then General Fidel Ramos and the young officers belonging to the Reform the Armed Forces Movement (RAM).    In contrast, the countries in the Middle East and North Africa involved in the Arab spring had very little previous experience in democratic practices and had weak civil society structures, if at all.

          Just for completeness in comparing the two types of people power revolutions, let me cite other differing circumstances.   The availability of new electronic media (especially the cell phones and the internet) facilitated the Arab Spring.  The EDSA revolution depended almost exclusively on word of mouth and the radio to gather the crowds in EDSA.  Especially in Egypt and Tunisia, electronic media helped the rebels to neutralize the strong military power still wielded by the authoritarian governments, leading to the eventual exit of the dictators. Then there is the difference in the dominant religions prevailing in the countries being compared. As already discussed above, religion played a very important role in the EDSA revolution.  This was evident in the very visible presence of nuns, priests, and lay people praying the Holy Rosary and carrying religious statues and images as they defied the soldiers of Marcos.  These religious symbols did much to prevent blood from being shed in the EDSA revolution.  In contrast, Islam--the dominant religion in the countries where the Arab spring erupted--was not an important rallying point among the rebels and to the extent that it played a minor role in some of the countries, it was used to justify the violence that led to hundreds of killings.  Finally, at least in the case of Egypt, the deteriorating economic condition served as an aggravating factor that led to mass discontent with the current leaders, although in other Arab countries, the economic situation was not a major cause of uprising.  In the Philippine case, the economic crisis that started in 1984, with GDP dropping by double-digit rates and inflation skyrocketing to over 50 percent, contributed in no small measure to the discontent of the middle class that eventually led to the uprising.

          I hope these reflections can help world leaders in finetuning their attitudes and policies towards the countries in the Middle East and North Africa that are affected by the Arab spring.  Without being resigned to the coming of a "winter freeze", every opportunity during the "long, hot summer" must be explored to painstakingly build democratic institutions and to encourage the establishment of nongovernmental organizations committed to economic, social, cultural and spiritual development.  The Governments of the countries concerned should welcome all types of international NGOs to replicate their experiences in other parts of the world, in partnership with local NGOs.  The Philippines, thanks to its cultural heritage from the West, can be a rich source of NGO experiences in practically all spheres of social life.  For comments, my email address is