Rise And Retreat, Autumn Lessons From Mediterranean Spring

Activists from Turkey, Morocco, Spain, Egypt, Greece, Tunisia and Syria gathered to swap stories and compare notes about nearly four years marked by protest, liberation and repression.

Mediterannean warriors
Mediterannean warriors
Jared Malsin

CAIRO — On a warm evening in June 2013, Turkish activist Bulent Muftuouglu was on his way to a concert and protest in Istanbul's Gezi Park, the site that would host a summer of battles between police and demonstrators. He called his comrades in the park to ask if they needed anything. "Cold beer," they said. Muftuouglu stopped in a corner shop near the park, but the beer fridge was empty. He asked the shopkeepers what was going on.

"Something is happening in Gezi," one of them said. Some 35,000 people had descended on the park. The cold beer was gone, and only warm beer remained.

Muftuouglu told this story in plodding, accented English, on a recent Thursday morning in Cairo to a room full of activists from Mediterranean countries. The activists sat around an oval table in a wood-paneled conference room. The anecdote unleashed a chorus of chortling. One of the Egyptian activists stared straight ahead and raised his eyebrows.

All of this unfolded at a conference called, “Social Movements and Civil Society around the Mediterranean Sea: What future?” It was a rambling two-day symposium on revolt, including delegates from Turkey, Morocco, Spain, Egypt, Greece, Tunisia, and Syria, who came to Cairo to exchange ideas, reflect on nearly four years marked by protest and repression, and to begin to chart a way forward.

The tale of the empty beer cooler was the kind of story that every activist in the room could identify with. It was that electric moment when a planned protest snowballs into something larger and more uncontrollable, the kind of demonstation that the guys in the corner shops are talking about. It signaled the power of the unexpected.

But it was also a moment that playfully highlighted the gaps in experience.

Here's a deeper example: The activists from Greece and Spain are fighting austerity, unemployment and alienation from political elites. They are doing so in places where, despite police brutality, it is still possible to stage a protest. In Egypt, activists are fighting the same social ills, but they are also fighting a vast police state and an autocratic government.

So what is the relationship between the movement against austerity in Spain or Greece and the uprisings against dictatorship in Egypt and Tunisia? Are these movements even members of the same species?

During the two days there were a striking number of points that activists from all over the region could coherently and plausibly compare notes about. How do insurgent movements deal with more traditional structures such as labor unions and student organizations? Should such movements contest elections? What is the best way to communicate with the public when the media is mostly controlled by oligarchs?

After two days of exchanges, the small tensions in the room were palpable. The Egyptians used different vocabulary from the Spaniards and the Greeks, whose phrasing in turn varied from that of the sole Turkish delegate. The Spanish anti-austerity movement has spawned a set of radical political parties contesting parliamentary elections. Most of the Egyptians in the room had nothing but skepticism and contempt for formal democracy. The only dissident among them was Alfred Raouf, of the Dostour Party. "Without a majority, how will you bring change?" he said. "You can have all the civic movement in the street, but it's the parliament that makes the laws."

Quarreling teammates

At times, the most heated arguments took place among delegates from the same country. For a panel dealing with the role of labor unions, Egyptian labor activist Mostafa Basyouni gave a presentation extolling the importance of the 2008 textile workers strike in Mahalla as a forerunner to the 2011 revolution. From the audience, an independent revolutionary socialist named Sally Touma chided the unions for failing to support protesters during the November 2011 battle of Mohamed Mahmoud Street against police forces.

"Labor leaders refused to come support us," she said. "They said, "The revolutionaries are taking advantage of labor issues."" Basyouni glowered from the stage. The failings of the official unions, he argued, shouldn't mean that activists should dismiss the workers' movement entirely.

Some issues, meanwhile, remained on the table as questions for all the activists and their different struggles. Some questioned the relevance of the ideological positioning of social movements. Others lamented the lack of theorization, particularly in the Arab Spring mobilizations, to produce a viable political project that could contest the traditional poles of power. And some spoke about the importance of differentiating between squares of dissent and streets more generally, with social movements needing to target wider bases of support.

On a tactical level, participants exchanged notes about how to establish parallel media structures that triumph social movements, while also having ways to penetrate mainstream media. They spoke of the need for innovative counter-narratives to those conceived by the state, such as resorting to bare information-based narratives or turning public spaces into actual media outlets, as the "Liars expand=1]" campaign did to counter the Egyptian military narrative, as cited by activist Wael Iskandar.

Telling stories

The most compelling moments came when the activists set aside abstractions and switched to a kind of storytelling. Touma narrated the extraordinary scene of marching through Cairo to Tahrir Square on Jan. 25, 2011. Christos Giovanapoulos, an activist from a Greek group called Solidarity for All, gleefully told the story of activists seizing the state TV headquarters in Athens in 2013. The stories proved to be a kind of salve to the other, more jagged conversations about the rigors of long-term political struggle.

It was a conference that was as much about the aftermath as it was about the future. It was a kind of post-war retreat for a ragged group of warriors, weary from three and a half years of pitched battles and moments of euphoria, but also the capture and killing of thousands of their compatriots.

"These were the utopic moments of this movement. These utopic moments mean that a new birth is taking place," Giovanapoulos said on the morning of the second day. "They set up the agenda for a longer period. It's not that they have completed the task."

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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