Transitions

A tomb for the Pharaoh of Barinas

Despite holding a political philosophy based, in part, on valuing groups above individuals, Marxist governments have long been fond of embalming particularly memorable leaders and putting them on permanent display. Lenin, Mao, Stalin, Ho Chi Minh, two generations of Kims, Gottwald, Dimitrov.... The list goes on and on.

Yet despite Latin America's strong regional tradition of leftwing populism, this practice has never really caught on. With the exception of the Inca mummies and Eva Perón (who only ever held minor political positions and was preserved at the behest of a distraught husband, not a government), nature has generally been allowed to take its course upon even the most venerated of corpses.

This may be changing however. On Thursday afternoon, following several days during which thousands of Venezuelans waited in multi-kilometer queues to pay respects to the body of Hugo Chávez, acting president Nicolás Maduro announced that El Comandante's mummified cadaver would be placed within a "crystal urn" in a yet-to-be-completed Caracas museum, so that the people could "see him for eternity."

Many Venezuelans reacted to this news with cheers, while others found the idea macabre or even disrespectful, given Chávez's own stated preference that he be buried among the savannahs of his home state of Barinas. Some are simply relieved hoping that an earlier idea under discussion (and still supported by Diosdado Cabello, the head of the National Assembly) that El Comandante be buried next to Simón Bolívar in the National Pantheon - may be set aside at least for the time being. Such an act would theoretically require a constitutional amendment to bypass the mandated 25-year waiting period. On the other hand, these days Venezuelan constitutional provisions seem to have been relegated to the level of "guidelines" rather than actual rules. And given the multiple contradictory announcements that have been made by several high-ranking government leaders including Maduro, there is little certainty. 

Specialists in the preservation arts have likewise warned that, unless a specific cocktail of chemicals has already been injected into the body, preferably mere hours after the cessation of life signs, the hot climate and humidity of Caracas may render preservation now difficult if not infeasible. Then again, among the more conspiratorially minded, there is even speculation that Chávez has already been permanently embalmed. Some of the more imaginative rumors contend that he actually died in Cuba soon after traveling there for surgery in mid-December 2012 -- only to have the news kept secret by the regime until it was finally deemed convenient to come clean a few days ago.

The move might also be aimed at providing the ruling party with a new powerful symbol of PSUV power and influence within the capital. The Venezuelan constitution mandates that new elections must take place within thirty days of the official pronouncement of a presidential death. And while the government has made it clear that keeping to this timeline may prove tricky, given the massive funerary folderol currently taking place in Caracas, elections do seem likely to come about quite soon. After all, following weeks of public events celebrating the life of Hugo Chávez, of mourning visits to Caracas by world leaders, and of hagiographic celebrity op-eds, Maduro and his fellow socialists have every incentive to make the most of this free pro-government publicity by holding elections sooner rather than later.

On his own, the acting president is an untested and uncharismatic man, with a known penchant for secrecy and a bit of a mean streak. And yet, given that he is Chávez's anointed heir, these flaws are likely to strike many potential voters as immaterial, at least for the time being. The more time that elapses, however, the greater the chance that Venezuelans may form new opinions of the neo-Chavista regime (rather than sticking to their old ones). Should they do so, this would come as a boon to Henrique Capriles, who, as the most likely opposition candidate, will have a far better shot against Nicolás Maduro than against Hugo Chávez's ghost.

Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez is a fellow at the Comparative Constitutions Project and is a regular columnist for the Venezuelan daily newspaper El Universal. His Twitter handle is @Dlansberg.

Photo by LEO RAMIREZ/AFP/GettyImages

Transitions

Do the Ikhwan Shake

It turns out that the Harlem Shake fad has one redeeming quality: It seems to annoy Islamists to no end. 

The kids in the Pères Blancs high school in Tunis who filmed their version of the dance certainly didn't plan it that way. But once the clip went viral, they found themselves under attack by the minister of education himself, who went out of his way on a day off to accuse the students of immorality and "lack of respect for the institution of education. He ended his radio diatribe by threatening an "investigation" and "punishment for those responsible."

And that, really, was the epiphany for a new generation of protesters. Upon discovering that shakin' it for 30 seconds to an obscure remix of a Colombian Spanish tune (and bearing no resemblance to the actual Harlem Shake) drives Islamist-led government officials and their supporters absolutely nuts, young people in Tunisia knew what they had to do. The dance became a strange mark of political resistance. (Sigh.)

Days later, hackers defaced the Ministry of Education's website while others organized a Shake next to the ministry building.

That was probably the day when the dance went from being a fad to a political statement -- in furry costumes and boxer shorts. 

Various incidents occurred around the performances, most with little political significance -- students clashing with their school principals and so on. A more noteworthy clash occurred over a planned Harlem Shake gathering at the Bourguiba Language Institute, Tunis' best-known language school, which is located in one of the city's most conservative neighborhoods. But this time the malcontents were not the authorities but a dozen Salafi men and women who attempted to prevent students at the institute from indulging in the dance. One of the men, wearing military gear and carrying a Molotov cocktail he never used, told the dancers that he wanted to prevent them "from sinning, as you are dancing while the Israelis are killing our brothers in Palestine." The students responded with shouts of "dégage!" ("go away"), a bit of fisticuffs ensued, and then the Salafis departed, leaving the students to film their video

In a similar fashion, Egyptian activists also somehow figured out that their government seriously disliked the dance -- and proceeded to milk that knowledge for all that it's worth. After the first "Shakers" were arrested for dancing in their underwear late last month, activists upped the ante and organized a Harlem Shake of their own in front of the headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood. MB officials tried to put a good face on things, at least at first. "Any peaceful form of demonstration is welcomed," said spokesman Mahmoud Ghozlan. He then qualified his remark by adding that he doubted that the event would remain peaceful: "These matters always lead to violence which is unacceptable." The event went ahead anyway, and ended without event. There were as many journalists on the scene as dancers.

The choice of location is quite interesting in itself. After all, the Muslim Brotherhood has no official governmental affiliation. The dance could have been organized near any of the government ministries, the presidential palace, or even the headquarters of the Freedom and Justice Party, the Brotherhood's political arm. But the dancers chose to go to what many view as the real source of political power in Egypt: the opaque and unregistered organization that is the Muslim Brotherhood. "The event is in front of the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters because we know their office is ruling the country," stated one of the organizers. 

In retaliation, a handful of Muslim Brotherhood supporters, in an attempt to mock the opposition, also recorded their own clip, wearing homemade masks that depicted various opposition leaders. Sadly for them, one of them was promptly identified and mercilessly mocked on social media. The lead character in the video was ultimately compelled to apologize [in Arabic] to his fellow Muslim Brothers, admitting the video might have been "shocking and inappropriate for many." 

 

Now, what sort of real political change is likely to come from a Harlem Shake protest? Zero. Imagining that dancing for 30 seconds could produce any sort of serious result is naïve at best. Unlike a genuine protest, a quick Shake barely sends any message to the state and the public: The number of people involved is a few dozen at best, and the people who watch the Youtube clips are hardly the general public.

It is, however, an effective way of telling off The (Islamist) Man and making a statement. In this sense, the overreaction authorities played right into the hands of the dancers.

And if we factor in the age of most of the Harlem Shakers in transition countries, we realize that this is probably, for a large number of them, their first act of political rebellion. Even if it was in costume and underwear.

Mohamed El Dahshan is the Egypt blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his posts here.

Photo by GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images