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Egypt and the Philippines: Bridging 25 Years

March 9, 2011

Many are wondering what lessons the 1986 People Power Revolution in the Philippines, which ousted Ferdinand Marcos after 14 years of strongman rule (which followed two terms as elected president), might hold for the current “fourth wave” of democratization sweeping through North Africa and the Middle East. Sometimes, having lived in the Philippines through these years, with all of the twists and turns, I am reminded of Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai’s response when asked to assess the French Revolution: “It is too early to say.”

People Power Monument in Philippines

Last month, President Noynoy Aquino led the 25th anniversary of the 1986 People Power at the iconic People Power Monument, above.

In early 2001, after People Power 2 had ousted President Joseph Estrada from office and Vice President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo became president, The Asia Foundation sponsored a visit by several Filipinos to cities in the United States to explain the perspectives of the new administration. At the last stop, a long-time immigrant from the Philippines said, “Every time there is a new administration in the Philippines a group like you comes through and tells us how things are going to be better. What makes this time any different?” One of the visitors responded, “It took us more than three years after Ninoy Aquino’s assassination [in August 1983] to get rid of Ferdinand Marcos. This time it only took us four months after the jueteng [a numbers game] exposé to get rid of ‘Erap’ Estrada. We are getting better at ousting bad leaders.”

Five years later, the 20th anniversary of People Power 1 was marred by a state of emergency declared by Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo who was struggling to stay in the presidency after accusations of fraud in the 2004 elections. She eventually served out her term, to be succeeded by Noynoy Aquino, son of the martyred Ninoy Aquino and former President Cory Aquino, who had led the forces ousting Marcos.

Now the 25th anniversary of the 1986 People Power, presided over by President Noynoy Aquino, not only seems to complete a cycle, but also offers a lens to view the same kind of peaceful ouster that played out in Egypt.

First, we can look at the role of the military. While not precisely the same in the Philippine and Egyptian cases, the rough outlines are similar. A bulwark of the previous regime, the military decided in the time of crisis to follow the lead of civilian demonstrators – and most importantly did not fire on the crowds – and became part of the new administration. In the case of the Philippines, elements of the military disaffected with the course of the Cory Aquino administration attempted seven coups, all of which were successfully put down. President Cory was succeeded by Fidel V. Ramos, retired general and defense secretary, who managed a reconciliation process with “Reform the Armed Forces Movement” (as well as with communist and Muslim separatist insurgents). While there are still problems in the military – resulting, for instance, in military men taking over luxury hotels in 2003 and 2007 for a few days – the armed forces 25 years after People Power 1 have made progress, and, as an institution, are under civilian control. The Egyptian people will have to make their own pact with the Egyptian military.

Second is the disproportionate influence in the new democratic politics of a disciplined ideological minority. Much ink has been spilled recently about the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt before, during, and after the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak. A functional equivalent is the Maoist Communist Party of the Philippines, whose New People’s Army continues to wage a nationwide insurgency against the Philippine government. Many analysts emphasize the small vote totals that Muslim Brotherhood obtains as a way of measuring its influence. Similarly, in the May 2010 elections here, candidates sympathetic to the communist cause won only some 11 percent of the vote (measured either by the highest candidate for the nationwide Senate, or the combined totals of sympathetic parties in the party list vote for the House of Representatives). But in intellectual circles – universities, intelligentsia, and the media – sympathizers are quite prominent. Some are columnists in leading newspapers, including the leading business newspaper. This can lead to some interesting disjunctures, such as the prevalent anti-American rhetoric of politicians, columnists, and activists, when in fact, average Filipinos are very pro-American. In any case, a well-organized group that exerts ideological attraction to some in the citizenry needs to be included in any pluralist democracy, which is why, for example, the Philippines after People Power legalized membership in the Communist Party.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, history’s verdict will depend on how much the new dispensation improves the lives of citizens. Both countries have massive poverty but neither the Philippine nor the Egyptian revolts were social revolutions – rather, they were political revolutions that changed the government, with uncertain consequences for development. For instance, growth in the Philippines has been slower than Asian averages, and even when sustained economic expansion was achieved in this past decade, poverty has still been increasing. Economic growth needs to be inclusive, and this is indeed what citizens focus on. In ratifying the post-1986 Philippine Constitution, the most often cited reason for voting to ratify was the provision for free education through high school. How the social and economic systems of Egypt deliver positive change to the citizenry will determine the ultimate judgment of history.

Steven Rood is The Asia Foundation’s country representative for the Philippines and Pacific Island Nations. He can be reached at srood@asiafound.org.

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