Polish Round Table Talks in Warsaw, Poland, on February 6, 1989. © Erazm Ciołek | Polska: sierpień 1980–sierpień 1989
EssaysLiberal Democracy in Question

Reflections on a Revolutionary Imaginary and Round Tables

The new always appears in the guise of a miracle

This is the prepared text answering the question “What do we really know about transitions to democracy?” for  the General Seminar of The New School for Social Research, March 19, 2014.

It was a quarter of a century ago, in 1989, that a new kind of revolutionary imaginary emerged, one that promises a new beginning, and demonstrates the possibility of comprehensive systemic change without bloodshed. Velvet or otherwise un-radical, this kind of revolution has become a site of tangible hope, a site in which words have power, where people regain their dignity, and realize their agency through instruments other than weapons. Negotiated revolutionis not an oxymoron, but it is still an extraordinary event, as dictatorships are by definition opposed to any spirit of dialogue and compromise. …

Woman casts her ballot in Egypt's 2014 constitutional referendum as child looks on © Bora S. Kamel | Flickr
EssaysLiberal Democracy in Question

Egypt’s Constitutional Mess and Solutions from South Africa

Of the many important lessons the Egyptian people might take away from their 2014 constitutional referendum, three certainly stand out in stark relief: first, that the military owns the product of the plebiscite and must also own the political consequences; second, that no constitution or government will enjoy true legitimacy without a national reconciliation effort; and third, that the pathway out of Egypt’s transitional morass might in fact begin at the other end of the continent in South Africa.

When the government of ousted Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi sent its constitution to a public referendum in December 2012, it would have been a tall order to find a more emblematic case study in how not to establish a democratically legitimate national charter. In a desperate effort to jam through a constitution that would ensconce its role in governance, the Brotherhood made several strategic blunders that virtually ensured the showdown that led to Morsi’s ouster: …

International Human Rights March, Tel Aviv, December 9, 2011. Bedouins campaigning against Israeli government policy in the Negev. © Oren Rozen | Wikimedia Commons
EssaysLiberal Democracy in Question

Sweeping the Sand Out of the Desert: From Verwoerd to Prawer

Ethnic cleansing in the Negev

The Prawer-Begin Plan was shelved. But the idea that you can forcefully transfer an indigenous population and determine where it can legally reside – looks and smells like a plan pulled from the dusty drawer of Hendrik Verwoerd, architect of Apartheid South Africa. And that didn’t work out so well.

Sadly, it was too early to celebrate the downfall of the Prawer-Begin Plan. The victory of suspending the Knesset vote following the the “day of rage” protests on November 30 was short lived. The dark threatening cloud of ethnic cleansing still hovers over the Negev’s Bedouin population. Nevertheless, Prawer’s suspension was the culmination of a grassroots mobilization that took months, years actually, to climax and grab public attention. It was an historical achievement.

The good news is that for the first time, the Jewish Israeli public woke up to the sound of a clear, well articulated and well organized Bedouin-led resistance movement…

Collage of public Jacob Zuma photographs © André SC | Flickr
EssaysLiberal Democracy in Question

The Booing of Zuma

The booing of South African President Jacob Zuma at the Mandela memorial gathering – this before a resplendent cast of visiting global dignitaries, around 60,000 audience members and millions of international television viewers – resonated through first the stadium that hosted the 2010 soccer world cup and then the country beyond. The resonance consists in another bout of national self-interrogation (what does this say about us?) and political punditry (what does this say about the ANC’s prospects in next year’s general elections?). So what can be sensibly said at this point?

First, South Africans showed that they have enough democracy to get away with humiliating their President in front of the world. Zuma, who has built himself an entire village at state expense in his native Nkandla, does not take his status lightly. It is not impossible that ruling circles will buzz again with talk of the need for an insult law to protect the President. But what the crowd did broke no laws and is quite typical of the style in which ANC factional battles have been waged since 2005…