‘Why do we protest?’ Analysis by Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and James M. Dorsey

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A quarter century has passed since Cory Aquino’s departure from a pristine and undisturbed life in a Massachusetts suburb.

In the late summer of 1983, shortly after the assassination of her husband, Benigno Aquino, she returned to the Philippines, no longer the shy and reclusive widow of the most famous opposition politician to Ferdinand Marcos. Rather, she stepped out of the shadows of domesticity to become the icon of a reawakened national movement that would challenge the two-decade Marcos dictatorship. A four-day uprising in February 1986 billed as “people power” brought an end to Marcos’ dictatorial regime and installed her as president.

What drove Filipinos to openly protest after more than two decades of silence and acquiescence? What urged Tunisians, Egyptians, Libyans, Syrians and Yemenis to break their silence and speak back at power despite the brutal response from some of their governments?

The sociologist James Jasper calls it “moral shock” -- a transgression of all the sentiments, values, beliefs, feelings, emotions and ideas that people hold about themselves, their leaders and their society. A breach, if you will, in the boundaries of what is collectively considered decent and courteous and an irreparable break in the routines of social relations.

Thus, a fruit vendor’s self-immolation disturbed a country and shocked a region into persistent protest, much like the televised image in the Philippines of an assassinated senator broke all emotional, psychological and cultural barriers.

Over and above these collective emotions of shock and rage is also a “moral vision,” which goes beyond consistent pressure to oust leaders and end regimes, and to propagate a social order that embodies a new social contract. It embodies a different utopian politics that delivers a nation from degradation, serves as a barometer of future progress and calls for democratic politics, citizen participation, demands an end to corruption, and seeks a new beginning.

It was what Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda failed to do. The toppling of authoritarian leaders like Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Tunisian President Zine Abedine Ben Ali in early 2011 sealed the side lining of Al Qaeda by providing an alternative to jihad and radical interpretations of Islam as the way to throw off the region’s yoke of dictatorship. While the ousting of Messrs. Mubarak and Ben Ali was relatively bloodless, escalating violence and casualties elsewhere in the Arab world that increasingly threatens to morph into civil wars have done nothing to boost jihadist appeal.

Al Qaeda’s leadership has proven incapable of exploiting the protests to its advantage by adapting to a popular movement that opts for peaceful rather than violent resistance and does not embrace puritan interpretations of religion as key drivers of its strategy.

In doing so, Bin Laden and his successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, have further reduced already strongly diminished public empathy for militant groups like his that they need to succeed, expand and achieve a modicum of success. By insisting on the replacement of autocratic rulers by an Islamic government rather than by a pluralist system, possibly inspired but not governed by Islamic law, Al Qaeda failed to provide a moral vision that is currently sweeping an entire region.

In the 1990s, the same moral vision among protestors in Eastern European countries enshrined the Velvet Revolutions and installed democratic systems that demanded accountability from their leaders.

Wherever citizens have been gripped by the fervor of peaceful people power, it was always the pursuit of an imaginable social utopia that drove protestors, who harbored no fear and were convinced that a new universe of social relations can be created based on a common belief.

It is a moral vision best described as the relationship between the citizen and the ideal progressive state as the embodiment of the highest aspirations of a nation’s political life. Protest is a statement writ large of the desires of millions of individuals to supplant the arbitrariness, brutality and partiality of prior arrangements based on the private power of disposition.

In its stead is the desire for the state to exercise objectivity and rationality, and to promote a social life based on ethical practice. For many countries especially in the developing world, this vision constitutes what philosopher Alfred Meyer calls a “possible dream and a categorical moral imperative.”

And finally, there is the personal pleasure and the deep existential satisfaction of protest. In sites where a massive number of protestors gather, previous strangers become friends and allies, bonded together by a singular purpose greater than the summation of their numbers. Days and nights spent together in the streets, waiting for the moment of transformation, protestors talk and discuss, articulate and elaborate, affirm and confirm their principles and their beliefs.

In Manila in 1986, protestors prayed and sang, waved banners, fed food to the soldiers and offered them yellow flowers. A group of nuns knelt in front of the tanks, and the machines of death were effectively stopped. In Bangkok, during the siege of Rajdamri Avenue in May 2010, Red Shirt protestors found time for foot massages while their leaders engaged in heavy negotiations with the Yellow Shirt government of Prime Minister Abhisit. During the cool February days in Tahrir Square at the center of Cairo, youths brandished cellphones and connected with each other through Facebook, awaiting the birth of a new Egypt.

If protest provides these deeply moral pleasures as James Jaspers suggests, then the battles in Libya, Syria, and Yemen have already been won. Against the military might of their rulers determined to crush them, protestors surge forward, armed with a sense of pushing history on the forward march, united by a Durkheimian collective efflorescence. There is no bullet that can kill this ideal nor maim this experience.

(Teresita Cruz-del Rosario, a former Assistent Minister in the Philippines Government, is Visiting Associate Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. She is the author of Scripted Clashes: A Dramaturgical Approach to Filipino Uprisings. She can be reached at tdelrosario@gmail.com. James M. Dorsey is a senior researcher at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. He can be reached via email at: questfze@gmail.com)