As summer heat envelops much of the developing world, the power of street protests is something autocrats fear. Here’s a summary for public diplomacy specialists in free societies to consider:
—In Turkey, the June 23 runoff election victory of Ekrem Imamoglu as mayor of Istanbul, the country’s largest city, was a significant setback for the country’s increasingly dictatorial president, Recep Tayyib Erdogan. He had demanded a re-run of a mayoral election in Turkey’s largest city his preferred candidate had lost on March 31. But this time, Imamoglu’s margin of victory was even greater.
As a Washington Post editorial June 28 put it: “Mr. Erdogan can now turn a corner by ceasing the massive and unjustified prosecution of civil society.” Under Erdogan’s recent anti-democracy purge following an unsuccessful opposition coup several years ago, the Post editorial noted, “319 journalists have been arrested, 6,021 academics have lost their posts, and 4,463 journalists and prosecutors have been dismissed, not to mention tens of thousands of teachers and government workers who have lost their jobs or been investigated. Turkey’s democracy is not dead, but it is still on life support.”
Mr. Erdogan, the Post added, “could make a fresh start by halting the trial of 16 Turkish civil society activists accused of instigating the 2013 Gezi Park park protests in Istanbul that turned into a nationwide pro-democracy rally. The prosecution of the activists “is misguided,” the editorial added, “and is a reflection of Mr. Erdogan’s increasingly paranoid style, transforming Turkey’s system into a tool of repression.”
—In Hong Kong, more than 2,000,000 street protesters, a third of its population, demonstrated against a PRC effort to permit Beijing’s deportation of any Hong Kong citizen to the Chinese mainland. This was widely reported in global media as a setback for the PRC-appointed ruler of Hong Kong, Carrie Lam, who deferred action on the measure.
June has also marked the 30th anniversary of China’s bloody repression of pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989. VOA reporter Anna Kook reminded Chinese listeners on that anniversary that the PRC has worked systematically ever since to erase all memories of the massacre.
According to one report, photographer Liu Jian recently realized that his 17 year-old daughter knew nothing about the Tiananmen murders. He finally went public with 2,000 photos he had shot of the protest rallies which lasted for weeks and the overnight massacre that ended it all.
On June 4, the PRC went to extraordinary lengths to block coverage and social media footage (video, radio and on-line) reportage of the events. On July 1, the 20th anniversary of Britain’s formal turnover of the Hong Kong crown colony to Beijing, more than a half million Hong Kong resident protesters again flooded the streets, smashed windows and defaced interior walls of the Legislative Council building before being forced out by police early July 2.
—In Sudan, a demand by a massive number of street protesters in the capital Khartoum forced the military regime to remove, imprison, and put on trial Omar al Bashir, who had ruled the East African country for three decades. But the generals won’t quit. Talks between their leader General Abdel-Fattah Burhan and the protesters stalled in May.
The junta in Sudan’s capital so far has maintained its hold. But on June 6, the Organization of Africa Unity suspended Sudan until the military restores civilian rule. Six days later, the army said it would begin releasing political prisoners. According to The Economist magazine: “One thing that ought to unite generals and opposition is that the longer the stalemate continues, the greater the risk of a civil war in Sudan.”
—In Ethiopia, Sudan’s neighbor to the east, there have been impressive reforms under prime minister, Abiy Ahmed. The new leader comes from a mixed Muslim-Christian family, and is Ethiopia’s first Oromo leader, the country’s largest ethnic group that was a driving force during three years of anti-government protests from 2015 until a peaceful election and Mr. Ahmed’s inauguration in April 2018.
With sound leadership, street demonstrations and anti-regime protests in chaotic countries can lead to reforms that make a significant difference. Until late June of this year, Ethiopia was a textbook case for reforms since Mr. Ahmed assumed office in April, 2018.
May 2018: the Ahmed government freed thousands of political detainees, including a major opposition leader.
June 5, 2018: President Ahmed lifted a nationwide state of emergency two months early. The same day, Addis Ababa agreed to accept a border ruling giving disputed territory to neighboring Eritrea.
September 11, 2018: A peace agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea led to the ending a month later, of the two decade long Ethiopian-Eritrea war and the two countries opened their land border.
October 11, 2018: Prime Minister Ahmed appointed women to half of Ethiopia’s cabinet posts.
June 22-23, 2019: Sadly, these new reforms aimed at reversing centuries of ethnic rivalries in Ethiopia began to fall apart. Two hundred and fifty people were arrested after a failed coup attempt led by a rogue general and his militias in Bahir Amhara province just north of the capital, Addis Ababa. According to Ethiopia’s state radio, the country’s army chief, the region’s president and three other senior officials were killed in fighting between the government and the rebels. (The predominant language in Bahir Amhara, as it name suggests, is Amharic — long the language of Ethiopia’s ruling class).
An uncertain path lies ahead. The government led by 42-year-old Abiy Ahmed had won worldwide praise for defusing tensions in East Africa and reopening borders with its neighbors to the north. On June 26, the government restored internet access to the outside world. But, according to the Crisis Group, a non-partisan think tank, it “must tread carefully to fully restore security.”
A daunting challenge awaits the Abiy Ahmed government. As Crisis Group scholar William Davison puts it: “It will damage the government’s reputation if it is widely perceived as engaged in anything that looks like a purge of rivals or a crackdown on opponents in the aftermath of these assassinations.” Clearly, Ethiopia — headquarters city of the Organization of Africa Unity (OAU) — can become a model for reform if it moves carefully in the days ahead.
The re-igniting of the Hong Kong demonstrations this month indicates that pro-democracy advocates are winning mass popular approval regardless of the odds. The struggle for souls goes on.
As a 36-year veteran of the Voice of America (VOA), Alan Heil traveled to more than 40 countries a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, and later as director of News and Current Affairs, deputy director of programs, and deputy director of the nation’s largest publicly-funded overseas multimedia network. Today, VOA reaches more than 275 million people around the world each week via radio, television and online media. Read More