How to handle a popular upheaval

Jul 29th, 2011 | By | Category: Israeli summer

The Middle East’s dictators have already written their playbook, but what about the region’s quasi-democracies?

Middle Eastern dictators have followed remarkably similar paths in responding to the popular protests of the “Arab Spring.” So much so that a recent episode of This American Life attempted to codify them into a how-to guide for the Middle Eastern autocrat, detailing their steps one by one.

These included moves like ‘shut down the internet’ (step 1), ‘send in thugs’ (step 2), ‘blame Al Jazeera’ (step 7) and ‘organize paid demonstrations in favor of your regime’ (step 8).

However, what happens when popular protest breaks out in “the only democracy in the Middle East” – where things like cutting off the internet just won’t fly, and where the cost of hiring camel-mounted thugs is prohibitively expensive?

Caught without any such playbook, the protests which began on July 14 have forced our wise and experienced leaders to improvise, essentially making it up as they go along. Here, then, is a roundup of their actions thus far, offered as a free public service to other quasi-democratic governments in the region, who are liable to find themselves in their shoes sooner or later.

Step 1: Co-opt the protest

Cozy up to the demonstrators. Put on a casual shirt, drop by their tent camp and make nice. Tell them you are on their side, that you believe in their cause. Press some flesh and grin toothy grins for the cameras.

Step 2: Conspiracy theorize

When they refuse to go away, cast them as a fringe phenomenon. Call them “radical leftist anarchists.” Try to associate them with “enemy” groups, imply that they have violent tendencies. Hint that a left-wing, anti-government conspiracy is paying for their tents. Pin the blame on the usual suspects (left-wing NGOs and upstart political movements).

Step 3: Try paternalism

Tell the protesters you’re way ahead of them, that you’ve spent years thinking about the very same problems they’re complaining about now. Publicly invite them to come to Jerusalem to support your (neoliberal) reforms. Smile smugly for the cameras.

Step 4: Call them spoiled

Unleash the hordes of right-wing columnists and spin doctors against the ungrateful citizens. Attempt to paint them as spoiled, lazy children who are looking to get something for nothing. Call them communists. Emphasize the wisdom of the market, use words like “market forces,” “macro” and “supply and demand.”

Step 5: Fake empathy

Recognize the protesters’ distress. Call it “real.” Tell the media that you “embrace” and “identify with” them, reassure them that you’re only looking out for their best interests. Really. Promise “surprises.”

Step 6: Panic

Call frequent late-night meetings with senior ministers, float rumors of an impending cabinet shake-up, castigate ministers in front of the cameras, use macho army metaphors, cancel trips abroad.

Step 7: Bluff

Announce that you are planning to integrate some of the protesters’ demands into your neoliberal reforms, then don’t. Hope no one notices.

Step 8: Divide and conquer

Agree to meet with one of the protesting factions, but not with the others. Offer them some goodies, but only for them. Tell them it’s cause they’re special, that they’re “the foundation upon which the state is built,” or some such nonsense. Hope they take the bait.

Step 9: Make a plan 

Call a press conference. Present the exact same neoliberal reforms as before, but repackaged and with minor adjustments. Be sure to emphasize: “there is no magic bullet.” Use hand gestures. Project an air of jovial collegiality with cabinet ministers. Use Power Point. Tell the nation that everything’s under control, flash smug smile repeatedly. Use selective hearing when responding to journalists’ questions.

Step 10: Give cops a raise

Young police officers making the minimum wage might become overly sympathetic to protesters. When no one’s looking, give them a hefty raise, while continuing to insist that you can’t afford one for the country’s doctors – who happen to be on a hunger strike.

Step 11: Play the “responsible adult” 

Put a figure to protesters’  demands, preferably in the billions. Hint that implementing them would lead to a Greece-style debt crisis or a US-style near-default. Remind the population how successful your macroeconomic policies have been.

Step 12: Appoint a panel

Recruit some of the more socially-minded cabinet ministers and a few well-paid consultants to engage in dialogue with the protesters. Send in Shimon Peres.

Step 13: Give ’em the finger

Ram above-mentioned neoliberal reforms through parliament. Ignore the protesters demonstrating outside, as well as their leaders’ characterization of said laws as “cynical and wicked.” Look  unbearably self-satisfied during the vote.

Step 14: Declare a 180

Tell the head of the panel you appointed that you are willing to change your stripes and repudiate your neoliberal worldview. Release a few trial balloons.

 Step 15: Beat the war drums

Wait for a terrorist attack or security-related incident to occur, and then use it to divert attention away from socio-economic issues. Revert back to pre-protest security discourse.

 Step 16: Return to business as usual 

After the panel you appointed submits its recommendations for policy changes (which, needless to say, will be cosmetic), you can finally get back to the status quo ante. In order to prevent the return of the social-economic discourse to the headlines and op-ed pages, amp up the saber-rattling.

Step 17: Create a decoy

Encourage members of your coalition to propose a diarrhea-like flood of anti-democratic bills. That should divert the attention of the bleeding hearts and the media for the time being. Doesn’t hurt to target NGOs’ sources of funding either.

Step 18: Wait for next elections

Cover image: A “stroller protest” marching through the center of Tel Aviv on July 28, 2011. (Photo courtesy of ActiveStills.org)

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  1. I am totally supportive of these protests, yet I pray that they will lead to a lasting, sustainable structure for the economy, rather than short term populist proposals. For example, we need a discussion about protecting the country’s remaining natural areas, revisiting what it means to build densely (ie. dense low-rise urban neighbourhoods as opposed to towers with vast lawns), and discussing what should be cheap and what should be expensive. I am alarmed at the talk of lowering prices for electricity, water, gasoline, etc., because these are shortsighted moves that will only perpetuate a wasteful, consumerist society. Instead, we must tax those who spend money on luxury goods, cars, and cottages in Herzliyya Pituah in order to allow lower prices for those goods that benefit everyone sustainably (such as public transport, locally grown produce, etc.)

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