People's uprisings and revolutions, sometimes bloody, sometimes non-violent, have turned the pages of history. Vox populi Vox Dei is the age-old Latin slogan that holds true to date. The voice of the people is the voice of God. Even to those who don't believe in an Almighty, the meaning is clear. But one lesson from history is that few learn from its lessons.
Egypt's leader for three decades, President Hosni Mubarak, learnt that lesson the bitter way. His people were on the streets in unprecedented numbers clamouring for his ouster throwing the country, the region and the world into a spin, and heralding an uncertain future for much of the issues relating to world peace have their roots in that geographical locality - the Middle East (West Asia to us).
Years of suppression and oppression burst the dam of discontent in a mass movement that said in one voice; "enough is enough". It is not only the iron fist with which President Mubarak, an otherwise true patriotic Egyptian, had ruled the country and its people that they were rebelling against, it was the reeking corruption he has presided over especially in the latter part of his 30-year tenure; corruption by his cronies, including family members and establishment acolytes.
Given the juxtaposition of the Egyptian Armed Forces in the national fabric, and the absence of any viable political Opposition (because such opposition has been discouraged if not put down), it was inevitable that they would have had to step in and take over the administration of the rudderless country with President Mubarak's exit on Friday. In countries like Thailand and Bangladesh, the military has similarly played transitional roles, and in the case of the latter done a better job than the politicians. However, these have been by far the exceptions and the general rule is that military councils in the long run are bad news for any country. Egypt must move towards a democracy of the people, by the people, and for the people, and remain hopefully, a secular state. The euphoria currently sweeping Egypt must not turn into a nightmare in the months ahead.
Since the end of the cold war and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the influence of western nations led by the United States has vastly increased in the region. Not wanting to be trapped wrong-footed (which happens to them ever so often), especially when there is a mass outpouring of public sentiment, the US has voiced cautious support for democracy and reforms which it was happy to live without all these years. The US clearly sees the bigger picture; could secular Egypt become an anti-western hostile state just like in Iran, when the Iranian Revolution brought the Shah's rule to an end ironically exactly 32 years ago -- February 11, 1979 -- to the date of the Egyptian Revolution?
True, Iran merely transformed from a pro-West capitalist monarchy to a theocratic Islamist state and the oppression of the years under the Shah continued unabated depriving the citizens of the freedoms they had sought through the people's revolution. The Western concern for Egypt simply should not be empty moral posturing. The US simply does not want Egypt, as Iran did, sliding down the slippery slope to Islamist groups in the vacuum created by the sudden departure of President Mubarak at the helm. Washington seems comfortable with the notion of the military which it funds generously annually, playing midwife in the transition to civilian rule.
The message from the protestors all of last fortnight was loud and clear. It struck a sympathetic chord with millions around the world for the sheer passion and conviction behind it; that here were a people from an ancient land who deserved better leaders for a better tomorrow.
Recent years have witnessed the power of such people's movements to throw out dictators and despots, break down the Berlin Wall and free Eastern Europe from the yoke of secret police states. The leaders of those nations were flung into the dustbin of history - Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, and Marcos and Suharto closer home.
These events must surely resonate in these parts of the world not only among the populace but the leaders. For not only did the Egyptian protest capture the imagination of those reading the newspapers, listening to the radio or watching television, but so too the mobile generation on Facebook, twitter, their i-pads and hand-phones. But have the leaders logged on?
Much has been written about the erosion of democratic freedoms in Sri Lanka and the breakdown of hallowed institutions that for decades were the pillars on which the structure of the state and the nation existed - a fearlessly independent judiciary, an impartial and upright public service and police, a free media etc.
In Transparency International's list of corrupt countries Sri Lanka is ranked 91 out of 178, marginally better than Egypt (98th) and worse than Tunisia (59th). It was only last month that we wrote about the vast sums spent on rebuilding the highways linking the South with the war-ravaged North and East, and how soon these roads have broken into rubble and pot-holes, becoming unmotorable. Parliament was told last month about a staggering Rs. 411 million being spent on just four kilometres of road on the Maha Oya-Chenkaladi Road in Batticaloa - Rs. 100,000 per little metre. The question was asked if that road was paved with gold. There was no proper explanation given.
In the aftermath of the recent floods there appears to be, in some quarters at least, a certain amount of glee and anticipation that the heavy damage caused amounting to an estimated Rs.50 billion would bring them new opportunities to rebuild broken roads and irrigation tanks.
It is like 'manna from heaven' for many -- already eyeing contracts, commissions and kick-backs. One of the glaring shortcomings in this regard in Sri Lanka is that the law on Access to Information, found in more than a hundred modern democracies, including India, Pakistan and Bangladesh in South Asia, for whatever reason, is not in Sri Lanka.
The countries that do not have such laws for transparency and accountability in governance are the ones that are facing people's revolts. With the re-shuffle of the Cabinet last November, the new Health Minister made a scathing attack on the prevailing corruption in the ministry, and this week, the Food Minister vowed to break the 'rice mafia' that monopolises and controls local rice prices.
It is not that the people are unaware of what is going on. It is only a matter of how much patience they will have. The authoritarian Tunisian and Egyptian regimes tried to keep the happenings in the corridors of power hidden from the people. But the people knew better, and there came a time when they could not stomach it anymore.