The Absence of Foresight
By Ambika Vishwanath
2014 will be an important year, as Turkey and India, two major giants and world players are scheduled to have elections. In the run up to the elections in India, I have been reading several new books on modern Indian political history, and have been particularly fascinated by the story of Indira Gandhi. The iron lady of India, it seems, had a rather strange lack of foresight when it came to the growing dissent in the country. She paid for it with her life.
This absence of foresight and strategic thinking seems to be lacking a great deal in the leaders of the world today. Many leaders have adopted a Machiavellian approach and are using crude force to retain power. 500 years after Machiavelli’s treatise, just as his hero Cesare Borgia fell, so will many leaders in their own spectacular fashion. The presence of foresight does not require the prediction of the future or the ability to presage as a priest is wont to do, it is the skill of a great leader to listen to the voice of the people and realize that small changes make a huge difference. At present, leaders such as Turkey’s Erdogan and Egypt’s Morsi would do well to exercise a certain amount of foresight. Had small acts of good governance been employed by President Assad and his coterie, Syria would be a very different place today. President Morsi of Egypt is tethering and while he and Prime Minister Erdogan are unlikely to pay with their life, Bashar Assad may well one day.
In March 2011 in Daraa, a small town in southern Syria, a group of young school kids were arrested and tortured for graffiti on their school walls that called for changes in the regime. They called for democracy and freedom but not for the fall of their President, Bashar Assad. The parents protested against the police brutality and the government intervened with small concessions to the families. A peaceful show of dissent was then organized to protest police brutality and for an end to the 48-year old emergency law. Yet, when the people marched through the city after Friday prayers on 18 March 2011, security forces opened fire, killing four people. The following day, they shot at mourners at the victims' funerals, killing another person. The army was called in to crush the emboldened protestors and the unrest spiralled out of control into Syria today.
Had President Assad better handled the Daraa incident, publicly cracked down on police brutality, and implemented even one of his numerous promises, the revolution might have taken a very different turn. A more prudent leader would have also realized that the people’s response was dictated by what was happening around them in region and they were buoyed by the success of their neighbours. By the time Assad lifted the emergency law in April of 2011, it was too late and the more the Syrian army fired on unarmed protestors, the more the unrest grew.
Perhaps Turkish Prime Minister Reccep Erdogan and his Egyptian counterpart President Mohamed Morsi will learn from this colossal lack of political acumen and exercise better decisions. It seems today that there might be no hope for them either.
Erdogan's miscalculation against what started as a peaceful protest movement by a group of environmentalists trying to save a park in June 2013 is startling given his reputation as an astute politician. His harsh statements against the protestors, insistence that the development projects would go ahead because he had decided, and lack of any serious condemnation of police brutality has ensured that the protests continue. These eruptions, coupled with the creeping Islamization into the Turkish society, with a bill against alcohol consumption, abortion and other measures, have sown seeds of discontent against him and his party. Already, a few AKP members who are mayors and leaders in smaller towns have stated that they will reconsider decisions and confer with the people in a more transparent manner.
As of July 2, 2013, Morsi has been given an ultimatum from the military and has found himself in a corner. If he manages to stay in power, he would do well to dissolve his dysfunctional cabinet, remove the lightweight Prime Minister and submit to some of the opposition’s demands. By showing the people that he has reconsidered his priorities in terms of Egypt by freezing his group’s “Brotherhood-isation” plans, he will not only buy himself some time but also avoid another revolution. One that will undoubtedly be far bloodier than the last. If he is forced out, his successor should learn by example.
In the context of mass protests, disgruntled populations and revolution in the Middle East, arises the example of Jordan. Governed by King Abdullah, Jordan experienced her fair share of protests with a revival of the Jordanian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. Yet these protests faded away with minimal violence giving way to a cold peace. Had the king not dissolved in the government in the early stages, calling for elections and eased certain restrictions, but the world might have seen another royal family in exile.
Change is not possible overnight, as much as it is desired. Yet the semblance of meaningful change, the realization that a leader has acknowledged that change is required is a good step towards working with a revolution. In today’s age of twitter and Snowden, leaders find themselves accountable to the public in unprecedented ways. It is a foolish leader that does not heed the power of a small spark and the magnitude of social media by simply blaming unrest on foreign interference.
Had Assad heard his people, who wanted freedom and democracy and not his downfall, Syria wouldn’t be in the midst of a civil war. If Erdogan and Morsi listen to the millions on the street, scale back their obvious stubbornness and dialogue with the other side, the future will thank them for it. If not, Morsi will most certainly be the cause of bloody movement in Egypt and Erdogan the cause of his own downfall and that of the AK Party. 2014 is an important year for Turkey and Prime Minister Erdogan, who has shaped a remarkable country in a decade, would do well to exercise some foresight in the coming days.
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