Transitions

Venezuela's Political Crisis Hits the Streets

Venezuela's students, along with its opposition leaders, took to the streets on Feb. 12 to demand changes from the country's leadership. The nationwide protests ended with bloodshed. On Wednesday, three demonstrators were killed, prompting the government and opposition to accuse each other of responsibility.

Students have been protesting against the government for several weeks. Their causes are numerous: Venezuela is suffering rampant crime, soaring inflation, and record-setting shortages of basic staples. A new "Law of Fair Prices" sets a maximum profit rate of 30 percent for all goods and services and imposes a penalty of immediate expropriation for all companies failing to comply. Needless to say, this will only aggravate the shortages.

Until recently, the protests were relatively constrained. They were concentrated primarily in the western bastions of San Cristóbal and Mérida, two medium-sized cities that sit high in the Andes, close to the border with Colombia. Both cities are opposition bastions. But on Feb. 12, a day when Venezuelans commemorate a battle in the War of Independence led by young people, the protests grew in size, taking place simultaneously in most Venezuelan cities, including in Caracas, the capital.

The local media has largely ignored the story. Most TV and radio channels are either owned by the government or subject to self-censorship. Reporters claiming to be from some of these outlets even have anonymous Twitter accounts that enable them to skirt corporate guidelines on what can be reported. As for newspapers, many continue to take editorial lines against the government, but now the administration is retaliating by refusing to give them currency to import paper. Many papers have stopped circulating, while some of the most influential ones are warning that they might be shut down at any moment. Meanwhile, President Nicolás Maduro has hinted of impending new rules that will regulate newspaper ownership and content.

As in many places around the world, social media has largely done the job traditional media refuse to do. Pictures of beaten-up students circulate on Twitter and Facebook. Social media has also carried the story of their detention by military authorities.

Interestingly, the protests haven't only expressed discontent with the government -- they've also shone a spotlight on the conflicts within the opposition. Henrique Capriles, the former opposition presidential candidate and purported leader, has publicly distanced himself from the protests. The opposition's main organizers, legislator María Corina Machado and the leader of opposition party Voluntad Popular, Leopoldo López, are widely viewed as the main rivals to Capriles's leadership. In spite of their differences, Machado, López, and Capriles have shown restraint in their public comments, but there are deep divisions on how the opposition should respond to a rapidly deteriorating economic and political climate.

It's tempting to draw comparisons between the situation in Venezuela and the ones in Ukraine or Thailand. However, there are sharp differences.

Venezuelans have endured 15 years of Chavismo, a period that has seen mass street protests. Most of them focused on the late Hugo Chávez. In 2002, protesters demanded that he resign; in 2007, they wanted him to reopen a TV station he had just shut down. The crowds lost in both cases. Chávez survived, and the station never reopened; today, indeed, the government controls all broadcast media.

The failure to effect change left a bitter taste in the mouths of many in the opposition. The general feeling among opposition leaders and activists was that protesting against an authoritarian government with a fat petro-checkbook accomplishes little to nothing.

Why are they taking the streets now? What has changed? In a word: demographics.

The students currently protesting were too young to do so in 2002. They have not lived through the disappointment experienced by their parents and relatives back then. This poses some serious challenges: Though the protests have been spirited, they are also disorganized.

While all protesters want the Maduro government to go away, they have no clear vision of how to accomplish that. They don't believe fair elections can take place in Venezuela, since the government has a tight grip on all public institutions, and yet they also claim that they don't want a "coup." The startling lack of focus of the protest movement is the main reason people such as Capriles remain skeptical.

On the other side of the proverbial sidewalk, protesters are now confronting a much more heavily armed and less restrained government. Unlike before, the Venezuelan government is now willing to confront protesters with armed gangs similar to Iran's Basij militia, which played a prominent role in quashing the protests there in 2009.

The protest movement faces enormous obstacles, both internal and external, so its staying power is dubious at best. Regardless, Venezuelans appear determined to resolve their disputes in the country's streets, a telling sign of a sick political system.

Juan Nagel is the Venezuela blogger for Transitions, editor of Caracas Chronicles, and author of Blogging the Revolution. Read the rest of his posts here.

Photo: JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images

Transitions

On Egypt's Streets, It's the Mob That Rules

On Jan. 25, the third anniversary of ex-dictator Hosni Mubarak's ouster, violence broke out on Egypt's streets, led by mobs exacting vigilante justice on anyone who dared to question the government. The clashes came just a few days after a new constitution was approved with 98.1 percent in a less-than-democratic referendum. Activists who distributed flyers criticizing the vote were attacked and beaten. (Some were also arrested.)

The anniversary brought frightening images of what Egypt has become. When Arab Spring revolutionaries -- those who not long ago dethroned Mubarak and who remain associated with the Tahrir Square demonstrations -- staged a march to commemorate the events of January 2011 and denounce the military's renewed dominance, they were met with such violence that one activist, whom I personally know to be very brave, sent out a warning: "Grab a Sisi poster and walk casually out of there. Get the fuck out of downtown. It's extremely dangerous and useless."

Street vendors were spotted selling posters of Mubarak; one would be hard-pressed to find a more egregious symbol of Egypt's backsliding. Yet most of those flooding the streets celebrated a new deity: General -- pardon me, Field Marshal -- Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

In Alexandria, mobs also assaulted virtually anyone who wasn't actively declaring their love for Sisi. Angry crowds attacked journalists -- and anyone with a camera, really. In one video, several women were assaulted so viciously that they sought refuge in a nearby shop. When the police dragged them out, bystanders insulted, hit, and sexually assaulted the vulnerable women. The police, naturally, did nothing but arrest the victims.

These angry masses are a force to be reckoned with -- and they are also a malleable tool in the hands of the security forces. Perhaps the most tragicomic moment of protests occurred when, unaware that the camera was rolling, policemen threatened a private television crew, warning that they would "unleash people on you and tell them you work for Al Jazeera."

Egypt is spiraling into fascism, and its descent is tangible, palpable, and well-documented. But it is this normalization of mob violence that frightens me most. Whenever you find yourself outnumbered by members of the opposing political camp, there's a good chance you'll fall victim to potentially deadly violence. This has become a regular fact of life -- and that, to me, is much more frightening than the violence itself.

Barely anyone is condemning this citizen violence. The general attitude among most Egyptians ranges from approbation to indifference to victim-blaming, as if someone who dares to hold a camera deserves to be beaten by random strangers.

In a way, though, this isn't new. Egypt has a history of vicious grassroots policing. Neighborhood residents regularly pummel robbers caught stealing rather than call the police. Hit-and-run accidents are all too common, because drivers know that if they stop, they might be killed by angry residents and passersby. This is sad, but it's no joke.

There is also nothing new about the cynical, political use of mob violence against political opponents.

Since the first day of the revolution, mobs have attacked political dissidents, often under the watchful eye of security forces. Countless protesters were assaulted during the revolution's protests by emotionally charged crowds, barely escaping with their lives. I was the subject of such irrational savagery myself. Nearby army officers watched as a mob manning an ad-hoc checkpoint beat me up. When the officers finally detained me, they told me that I was better off that way: if they let me go I'd be killed by the mob. They were probably right. During my overnight detention in the army encampment, I watched members of those mobs come by and deliver the food, water, and medication they had stolen from protesters to the soldiers, whose explicit approval for these actions was more than obvious.

But perhaps the most visible instance of mob violence was the infamous "Day of the Camel," when pro-Mubarak thugs, some mounted on horses or camels, attacked protesters in Tahrir Square. Most people attributed the violence to "paid thugs" (baltageya in Arabic), making the implicit assumption that someone would only attack peaceful protesters if they were paid to do so. In reality, many in the assaulting crowd were merely enraged people who took the opportunity to throw a punch.

At the same time, officials exhorted citizens to help guard their neighborhoods as the police cowered. These "popular committees" used their implicitly state-sanctioned role to assault anyone they deemed "suspect" -- and at times rob or harass innocents.

But it was only in July 2011 that these freelance thugs won their tongue-in-cheek nickname: "Honorable citizens." The "honorable citizens," as distinct from the "paid things," are the obedient attack hounds of the state. These are the people who, on July 23, 2011, at the implicit request of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces spokespeople and pro-government media, ambushed a march that was heading from Tahrir Square to the Ministry of Defense. It was this mob that murdered 23-year-old Mohamed Mohsen.

Since then, the "honorable citizens" -- individuals who find sport in beating protesters with the enthusiastic consent of the security forces -- have been a staple of every protest. They take out their frustrations -- at political instability, at the bad economy, perhaps even at terrible weather -- on protesters. Under Mohamed Morsi's reign, the "honorable citizens" conducting the mass beatings were the Muslim Brotherhood's rank-and-file members and supporters. Though more systematic and vicious, the civilians operated with the knowledge and guidance of the ruling authorities, terrorizing those who disagreed with their political ideology. Today they have been replaced by the extreme fringe of Sisi supporters.

Sexual violence is another horrible aspect of mob violence. Mass sexual harassment has been a recent staple of public holidays over the past decade; its use as a political tool is more recent and equally savage. Dozens of sexual assaults and rapes have been reported during the largest protests, as early as 2011. The handful of accounts offered by survivors and volunteers vividly documents the viciousness of the mobs.

Mob violence in Egypt is a worsening nightmare, and though it often goes unreported (since snapping photos of a lynch mob can be bad for your health), it poses an urgent danger to today's peaceful protest movement. For now, Egypt's new rulers are quite content to use this violence to their advantage. But they'll soon discover that they've created a monster -- one that might one day turn against them. In August 2013, in the wake of the Rabaa massacre (when the police murdered hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood supporters), the Ministry of Interior briefly realized the risks entailed by relinquishing the state monopoly on violence. The Ministry attempted to declare the "popular committees" illegal and asked them to disband.

But that attempt to renounce the power of the mob was short-lived, and the current government now appears to have returned to using mob violence against its political opponents.

We have reached the point where these mobs have, for lack of a better term, become self-aware. They no longer need the media or the government to incite their rage. Now they're ready to attack anyone who dares to snap a photo of graffiti, or is unfortunate enough to do so while looking like a foreigner.

Talk of peace and compromise is meaningless amid a climate of constant intimidation by the mob and the authorities. The atmosphere of violence makes a mockery of any hope of reviving the tourism industry that was once so vital to our economy. A backlash is inevitable. This time around, it won't take 60 years of army rule.

Mohamed El Dahshan is the Egypt blogger for Transitions and a Nonresident Fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council. Read the rest of his posts here.

KHALED KAMEL/AFP/Getty Images