Stay Off the Street

by Jillian Schwedler | published May 21, 2014 - 9:31am

In a recent Slate article, Anne Applebaum makes the case that Egypt’s presumptive president-to-be ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi should look to India, Brazil or South Africa, rather than the United States or other industrialized states, for examples of how to “do” democracy. She rightly notes that Sisi’s argument that Egypt isn’t ready for democracy is an old standby for authoritarian regimes. Based on research published by a London-based think tank (for which she serves as executive editor for a project called Transitions Forum), Applebaum argues that “in countries with high levels of poverty and inequality, democracy can help balance the demands of wildly divergent ethnic, religious and political groups.” She sees Egypt as just such a case.

In a passing reference, Applebaum notes that one feature of democracies is that they “allow public protests.” What a strange comment, and yet I didn’t detect even a note of irony. Why strange? Because, for months, the Brazilian government has been doing anything but allowing protests. As it gears up for the World Cup in a few weeks (and for the Olympics in 2016), the Brazilian government sees the widespread protests in the country as threatening and destabilizing, rather than as legitimate expressions of the aspirations of the nation’s people.

Crushing protests isn’t exactly an idea that Sisi has yet to get behind -- he’s already doing it. Apparently, it’s OK to crack heads in a democracy like Brazil…. Is that why Applebaum wants Sisi to look to Brazil as a model? 
But there is a larger question: Why don’t we see protests like those in Brazil as a routine form of democratic expression, and thus an expected feature of any healthy democratic society? One part of the reason is that the Western media frequently portrays protests in non-Western countries as threatening and destabilizing. It is not always that Westerners don’t see the validity of the demands of the thousands in the streets and the hundreds being arrested in a given place. We may even feel for them and root for them from a distance. But our deepest concern with these protests is often less about the substantive claims than about the danger such protests might represent for us.

In the case of Brazil today, it’s about the supposed perils for tourists who plan to attend the World Cup, perhaps the greatest spectacle in global sports. As Brian Phillips argues in Grantland, attention to violent incidents in Brazil in recent months has less to do with understanding political dissent or local politics than with drawing spurious connections between isolated acts of violence and the safety of international tourists. Two unrelated beheadings have drawn considerable attention, but, as Phillips rightly says, images of violence and protest raise undue hysteria about risks faced by visiting soccer fans. (And, he points out, beheadings are unusual but not unknown in the US in recent years.) There is clearly a code at work, he argues, one that works on several levels, but the basest of which tells the visitor, “Hey, this could happen to you!” The risk that any soccer fan will be beheaded, or even be caught up in protests where citizens are expressing anger over housing demolitions or horrible labor conditions, is realistically zero. But the stories feed the fear that “it’s not safe down there.” You are safe at home, “in your protective bubble of law and security, outside of which is madness.” If the 2022 World Cup in Qatar is ultimately seen as “safe,” it will be because the regime will long since have exported all the laborers it had imported to do the dirty -- and deadly -- work of constructing the stadiums and infrastructure for the matches. The perception of safety will not be generated democratically, however.

I study protests in my own research, so I couldn’t help but notice that Applebaum reduces “democracy” to representative assemblies selected through periodic elections. To be sure, this view has circulated for centuries and has been touted in places like the Federalist Papers and by innumerable political scientists from Samuel Huntington to Adam Przeworski.

Nonetheless, this definition has deficiencies so serious that one might question its proponents’ commitment to real democracy. By real democracy -- what many call substantive democracy -- I mean routine citizen engagement in a wide range of democratic processes. Rulers and theorists alike often dismiss that definition of democracy as either impractical or foolish. Impractical because in larger societies, substantive, daily engagement in democratic practices is simply not possible for logistical and procedural reasons. If everyone gets to voice an opinion, deliberations could go on forever. Foolish -- and this is the more important point -- because most citizens are simply not capable of thinking about, or even comprehending, the complexities of routine political processes. Versions of this view appear in the Federalist Papers, Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, Max Weber’s “Politics as a Vocation” and Joseph Schumpeter’s Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, to name a few ur-texts of modern political theory. The late James Schlesinger, defense secretary under Presidents Nixon and Ford, infamously noted that the US and Saudi governments shared the view that democratic institutions were “not appropriate” for Saudi Arabian society. But the view of American citizens in the standard cant isn’t much better. Democratic participation is almost always reduced to voting, and representation is practical as well as safer, because it severely limits the regular participation of ignorant everyday citizens. You can participate by voting every few years, more if you vote in local and municipal elections.

The debates around representative (read: elitist) versions of democracy are too many to summarize here, and I don’t wish to suggest that there has been no substantive dissent from the dominant view.

But the fact is that, in democracies, many citizens view protests as naïve and ineffective -- a last resort for use when other options have been exhausted. In non-democracies, protests may be the only form of participation available, and while massive gatherings can threaten regimes, smaller protests are routinely crushed. Instead, I want us to think of protests as a substantive and essential form of democratic political engagement, in all parts of the world (even in non-democracies).

In the West, the average citizen may view protests as both fruitless and nettlesome. Despite the significant numbers of protesters on the right (Tea Partiers, hounders of women and doctors at abortion clinics, and so on), many Americans still think of “activists” who protest as pot-smoking hippies straight out of the Sixties. Protests are cast as creating problems for law-abiding citizens, particularly when they (temporarily) restrict freedom of movement by car. In 1995, none other than the Washington, DC-area spokesman for the American Automobile Association characterized a rush-hour bridge blocking by workers and union organizers active in the Justice for Janitors campaign as “transportation terrorism.” And while traffic delays frustrate all of us, the political elite in the US is even less comfortable with the idea of widespread protests as a routine part of politics. The cantors of democracy fear protests because they represent unpredictable moments, when scripts and narratives cannot be easily controlled, and when the disconnect between citizens and those who purportedly represent them are made most stark.

In non-democratic contexts -- and democracies and non-democracies form a continuum not two distinct poles -- protests are threatening not only to authoritarian regimes, but to Western governments and foreign interests that do business with those regimes. Westerners fear protests when we are traveling in exotic locations, particularly when brown people are protesting. Indeed, at least since the 1979 revolution in Iran, one of the archetypal images of “the Middle East” in the American popular imagination is teeming masses of brown people who are angry at us for reasons we don’t quite understand.

So the overall message seems to be: Sisi can find models of “democracy” that allow him to continue smashing protests. Protesters should keep pushing against authoritarian regimes, but Westerners should stay away from scary places like that. And protesters in Brazil should just go home and be happy that their country is hosting the World Cup.

For the rest of us: Stay home, where it is safe. And even then, stay off the street.

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