Where are the Venezuelan protesters?

In the last few weeks, Latin America observers have been taken by surprise upon seeing millions of Brazilians marching in the streets demanding change. Long accustomed to hearing about the "Brazilian miracle," Venezuelans looked to their Southern neighbors airing their grievances and wondered: "Why not us?" After all, if Brazilians -- with their sophisticated democracy and their country seemingly on the uptake -- are taking the streets, why aren't toilet-paper-less Venezuelans doing the same?

The answer probably has several components. It can be found in the evolution of the Venezuelan political process, in the particular circumstances of its economy, and in the recent track record of popular mobilizations.

Academics point to several factors as "triggers" of popular mobilizations. Latin American researchers Fabiana Machado, Carlos Scartascini, and Mariano Tommasi find that where institutions are strong, they serve as mechanisms for channeling people's frustrations. On the contrary, where institutions lack credibility, people take to the streets to vent their anger. They find that people do so regardless of the strength of individual affiliation to political parties or their relative political extremism.

Obviously, Venezuela's institutions are largely seen as lacking credibility, at least by a significant portion of the populace. Therefore, why aren't people hitting the streets like they are in Brazil, Turkey, or Egypt? If Nicolás Maduro is seen as illegitimate, why is he still there?

Loyola University political scientist Christopher Martínez has looked at the reasons why presidential regimes fall. He says that "presidebilismo" -- a term coined from the combination of the Spanish words for weak, "presidencialismo" and "débil," -- is particularly prevalent in Latin America, a region with a long tradition of presidents falling thanks to the pressure of popular movements.

Martínez claims that presidents that fall to popular pressure tend to have a low share of the vote in legislatures. They also happen to preside over slow-growing economies, and suffer from a particularly acute bout of political scandals.

None of these factors seem to be present in Venezuela. The current government has a strong majority in the National Assembly, and legislative roadblocks are virtually nonexistent. And while the economy is suffering from acute shortages, it seems to be growing -- barely, but just enough to stave off most protests.

Finally, the continuous succession of previous scandals in revolutionary Venezuela may help the government survive. No single issue remains in the public consciousness long enough to trigger outrage. Every scandal begets another, bigger scandal, until the population became immune to scandals overall. Just recently, a secret tape recording of a pro-government shock jock threatened the regime's foundations, but the fallout from was easily contained.

In Venezuela, however, one scandal in particular can't be so easily ignored: The claim by the opposition leadership that last April's election was stolen. Why hasn't this triggered massive protests?

According to political scientists Phillip Kuntz and Mark Thompson, stolen elections can sometimes trigger massive public demonstrations, and in Eastern Europe in particular, stolen elections have led to the crumbling of entrenched autocracies. In Venezuela, however, this has not happened yet.

Part of the reason lies with organizational and financial difficulties within the Venezuelan opposition itself. Yet another significant part of the problem is unity within the revolutionary movement -- it would seem as though tensions within the governing coalition have been kept under tabs, and unity within chavismo does not seem to be cracking.

Finally, the fact that election "shenanigans" play a routine part in Venezuela's political process may contribute to the view that demonstrations would be ineffective. Many voters might not view the election as "stolen" but merely as one where electoral fraud was "pervasive," and this may also be playing a role.

Venezuela has a complicated recent history with mass protests. In 2002, massive street demonstrations led to a massacre and a brief military coup that saw Hugo Chávez ousted for a few days. When Chávez was reinstated, he acted swiftly against his enemies. More demonstrations ensued in the next few years, but they were quickly followed by pro-government demonstrations of comparable size.

After years of marching, many within Venezuela's opposition movement have decided that taking to the streets is ineffective when dealing with the chavista autocracy. Venezuelans will seemingly march to support a candidate or when an extraordinary event triggers the need to do so, but there is an entrenched view that marching accomplishes little. Just this past weekend, university students (shown above) marched by the thousands demanding improved conditions, and the government has so far ignored their pleas.

The opposition leadership, however, has not given up on popular mobilization as a weapon. It seems as though they are biding their time, waiting until one or more things happen: the economy takes a serious downward turn, the regime's unity crumbles, or a massive scandal shocks public opinion. Until something like that happens, millions of Venezuelans stay in their homes awaiting their leaders' absent calls to hit the streets.

Juan Nagel is the Venezuela blogger for Transitions and co-author of Blogging the Revolution. Read the rest of his posts here.


Celebrating a Disaster in Egypt

You’d think we'd won the World Cup: cars honking, loud celebratory music, people carrying flags. There are also flags hanging from the military helicopters flying at low altitude above Egypt's main cities.

The joke's on us, though. This isn't a cup, it's a coup. A military coup against a failed president, but a coup nonetheless. This is no time for celebration.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces -- the SCAF, remember them? -- has issued a 48-hour ultimatum to “everyone” to “bear the burden of these historic circumstances." If "the demands of the people aren’t met," the army will announce a “roadmap” for Egypt's further political development. The implementation of this roadmap will, of course, be overseen by the army itself. There's even an app counting down the hours till Morsy's time "expires." 

Just read that one more time and let it sink in.

By omitting any reference to Morsy in the communiqué (the president is merely another part of that nameless “everyone," one of multiple parties to the conflict rather than the government of the country), the SCAF has effectively handed Morsy's scalp to protesters, putting the responsibility for resolving the existing deadlock squarely on his shoulders while emboldening the protesters by recognizing their demands and pledging to respond to them.

The youth group behind the petition drive that led to the June 30 protests quickly clambered [in Ar.] onto the SCAF's lap, saluting the army's declaration and calling the army "the house of Egyptian nationalism."

The Muslim Brotherhood's first reaction was to send text messages to its supporters asking them to stage protests in a few locations in Cairo. The Islamists are planning a multitude of marches tomorrow. Some of them almost certainly clash with the anti-Morsy protesters. Around  2 am, the president's office issued a panicked and sheepish press release -- which it posted on Facebook, no less -- arguing that “democratic mechanisms are the only safe way to manage our differing viewpoints." It also claimed that the president is continuing to conduct a “generalized national reconciliation process," and whined that the statement issued by the SCAF “was not shared with the president for consideration beforehand," adding that “the president's office sees that some sentences in it have meanings that could confuse the complicated national scene."

The army issues an ultimatum for a coup. The president's office complains in a communiqué in the middle of the night that the SCAF doesn’t take Morsy seriously, while on the ground the Muslim Brotherhood sends its people to occupy the square across from Cairo University as some of its senior leaders issue threats to anyone who threatens the president’s “legitimacy."

How did we get here? And how is it that Egypt seems to systematically choose the worst possible option whenever it finds itself at a crossroads?

Today was the second day of nationwide protests that marked the first anniversary of Morsy’s presidency. Millions of people, armed with red cards, revived the protest chants of the 18 days of 2011, most notably Erhal -- "Leave."  The protests started with an air of carnival (families with their kids, popcorn vendors, and the tricolor hats you’d more often see among football fans rather than on the street), but they quickly devolved into violence in many parts of the country. In some cases the culprits were faceless shooters aiming at the crowd; in others there were clashes between anti- and pro-Morsy protestors. At least six were killed as they protested (violently, it must be said) at the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters on Moqattam Hill in Cairo. Over 46 cases of "mob sexual harassment" (the worst version of what you imagine it means) were reported by the Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment volunteer group. Renowned human rights activist Ramy Raoof reported that “the intensity and number of sexual assaults that took place in Tahrir was beyond our expectations and our ability to respond. This is much worse than January 2013."

"Leave!" might have been their main slogan, but the people who took to the streets yesterday to demand the end of Muslim Brotherhood rule had clearly spent little time pondering what would happen once this regime is removed. There is at least some excuse for this, though: no one really expected Morsy to simply give up and go away. Most of the protestors were actually aiming to obtain some sort of concessions from the government -- perhaps constitutional reform or even (the wildest dream of all) an early presidential election. Unfortunately, however, they spoiled their negotiating position by failing to articulate what precisely what it was they wanted.

The sad truth is that there was much naiveté on the part of protesters -- and here I include myself. The assumption of rationality on the part of the opponent is simply unjustified. Yet most of the anti-Morsy protesters I spoke with told me that their main reason for taking to the street involve blackouts and gasoline shortages. Very few mentioned Morsy's dubious constitutional decree that put him above the law, the disastrous laws drafted by an unrepresentative lower chamber of the parliament, or even the Brotherhood-tailored constitution.

In its one year of rule, the Muslim Brotherhood has squandered much of the public sympathy it had garnered over 80 years of existence and 60 years of military persecution. The same people who took to the streets in January 2011, protesting the police violence that often targeted the Brotherhood, were out today to celebrate the Islamists' demise.

But now the clock is being reset to 2011, and Egyptians are faced with the ridiculous choice between a military junta or a theocracy-flavored-dictatorship. It isn’t a choice we should have to make: Egypt deserves better. But we have failed to develop the better alternative.

For the moment the SCAF’s coup -- for that's exactly what it is, albeit a bloodless one -- may be welcomed by a segment of Egyptians on the street as a knee-jerk reaction to the Muslim Brotherhood's terrifying mismanagement of the state. But if the army does take over, under the guise of "overseeing the roadmap" mentioned in their communiqué, it won't be long until the people who were today chanting "the army and people are one hand” will be reminded that this is the same army that, just a few months ago, was responsible for the Maspero massacre, that unleashed angry mobs against the peaceful protesters who objected to its rule, that conducted virginity tests on Egyptian women, and that subjected 12,000 civilians to military trials.

This is no day for celebration. I have no sympathy whatsoever for the Muslim Brotherhood; I was out there yesterday, too, protesting their disastrous rule. But we have to remind ourselves that the enemy of my enemy is not my friend. The army communiqué speaks doom, not salvation.

The 48 hours set by the SCAF’s delayed-action coup is a very long time. Much can still happen. But it’s unlikely that the final outcome will be worth celebrating.

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