Concern-trolling the Revolution

A couple days ago David Rothkopf surveyed ongoing protests in Egypt, as well as Turkey and Brazil –  and found them wanting. Protesters, he claimed, are steadily revealing that they don’t know what it takes to enter the halls of power and effect lasting change; they are “better at organizing protests than… institutionalizing their movements or creating, cultivating, and empowering leaders who could master existing institutions.”

He goes on (after lauding the American Revolution as the historical exception that proves the rule):

Look at some of the recent outpourings of public discontent that have captured our imaginations in the past couple of decades. Tiananmen Square. The uprisings that brought down the Soviet Union. Iran’s Green Revolution. Tahrir Square. Revolutions in Libya, Tunisia, and elsewhere in the Arab world. Taksim Square. In each case, even where revolutions have brought seeming change, the protesters were hardly among the greatest beneficiaries of the outcomes.

There were really two kinds of outcomes. In the first, there was precious little change at all — as in the case of China, Iran, or, to date, Turkey. In the second, the change shifted power from one entrenched elite to another: Russia may not be communist, but it is run by a former KGB officer in a very undemocratic way; in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood sought to fill the void created when Hosni Mubarak was pushed out, and if the current protests there play out, expect the military to resume primary control of the state, reversing the “reforms” demanded by President Mohamed Morsy.

The essay ends on a perfectly reasonable note – that is, that those who seek to encourage change must “focus more on training oppositions in the long game of getting and consolidating power,” though one might quibble that it overlooks entirely the possibility for oppositions to build their own capacity (no minor quarrel, now that I think about it!). But in its long middle passages it betrays troubling misunderstandings of the workings of revolutionary politics in general, and an odd sense of the way that things might play out in Egypt specifically.

On a general theoretical level the essay’s focus on directly pitting the goals of elite actors against the goals of the revolution muddies conceptual waters profoundly. The author complains that that when “elites have the money, control the military, control the police, control the mechanisms of political expression, if they can use the means of the state to suppress upheaval or if they can exploit revolutions to advance their own agendas versus those of other elites, they become hard to dislodge” – presumably thwarting the goals of real revolutionaries. But it is the rare revolution which contains no elite actors within the revolutionary fold. It is inconceivable, for example, to imagine the French Revolution without the participation of journalists, urban merchants, clerics, even, especially, dissident nobility.

And let’s look to the recent mobilizations cited. In the failed revolutionary case of China in 1989, prominent (and at the time recently deceased) reformer Hu Yaobang provided student protesters with a potent political symbol, while General Secretary Zhao Ziyang cast his lot with the students in a bid to open reform and lost. In the failed Iranian “Green Revolution,” young people flooded into the streets to protest against the effective marginalization and disenfranchisement not of the popular classes, but of two elite (and Guardian Council-vetted!) presidential candidates, both true sons of the 1979 Revolution. These were no less revolutionary upheavals for their incorporation of elite currents of thought and elite actors into an overarching revolutionary discourse.

The essay’s focus on alleged elite appropriation of revolutionary movements is especially jarring, given its choice of a revolutionary lodestar in 1776. The planters, merchants, artisans, and intellectuals who assumed the leadership of the American Revolution were in many cases the homegrown equivalent of a local aristocracy. Seeking to preserve their own interests meant that the American Revolution was not a revolution of “those from below”; elites’ control of money and the means of political expression were key to the American Revolution’s triumph. That’s how these things work.

And not only in that case! The outcome of the Mexican Revolution, which accomplished (relatively) profound structural changes in the Mexican state, was determined by the trajectories of regional rebellions in which elites routinely participated, and by the shift of former players in the old regime to the revolutionary side. Does their participation make less revolutionary the subsequent changes in land tenure rules, the purges of clergy, the nationalization of oil reserves?

Indeed, revolutionary movements almost always incorporate elites into themselves, whether they fail or not. This is because revolutions are inherently messy enterprises, prone to innumerable tactical shifts as their protagonists struggle for advantage not only against reactionary opponents, but also among themselves. This does not mean that pure-at-heart revolutionaries should ignore Rothkopf’s advice to get organized, the better to push back against reaction and retrenchment. But the trajectory toward greater organization and more substantive skills is a long arc, and that elites may wind up on all sides of these enterprises does not detract from their revolutionary potential per se. If we only made revolutions of parties, which also were sure to benefit not a single elite actor, we would all, from “America” to Brazil to China and so on, be… still waiting. In short, revolutionary politics are more or less always profoundly imbricated with elite politics. Imagining a neat binary of the two serves to obscure more than it illuminates, and only makes it more difficult to struggle for justice within the revolutionary context.

It is the more specific case of Egypt, to which I will now briefly turn, which helps to illustrate a bit more the point around revolutionary organizing for institutional control versus contentious politics, with a guest appearance by the oft-posited virtual-physical divide. Remember, Rothkopf is concerned that as things come to pass in Egypt we must “…expect the military to resume primary control of the state, reversing the “reforms” demanded by President Mohamed Morsy.” This is presumably the fault of protesters who failed to build stronger secular youth-powered parties and so on. But this analysis has at least two flaws. One is that it is by no means a foregone conclusion that the military will resume primary control of the state, as the military more likely seeks a sphere of autonomy and impunity in which the generals may feather their nests and preen in peace.

The latter point, which has greater bearing upon the study of comparative revolutions, and with which I will close, is that the protests of the past several days have been the largest in Egyptian history. They have been preceded by a sustained drive for signatures to a petition demanding Morsy’s ouster. Whatever one thinks of the wisdom of such popular impeachment campaigns, the oft-cited number of 22 million signatures represents an impressive logistical feat in one of the key arenas of civic action: good old-fashioned canvassing! This is organizational capacity beyond “chants” or “the Twitterverse,” and it indicates that Egypt’s revolutionary forces are working hard to mature and build their own capacity as political actors. Of course there’s a long way to go – but as Rothkopf himself points out, “lasting change is hard.” From all indications no one is heading into this next phase of revolutionary upheaval with their eyes closed. It will continue to be a long haul, with considerable struggle necessary to advance accountability, and human, social, and economic rights. But knowing this upfront means that a little bit of optimism about elite participation and mobilizational forms of revolutionary contestation might not do anyone, least of all editors at Foreign Policy Magazine, any harm.

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As I sit in a Lima hotel room writing this missive, Egyptian president Mohamed Morsy has more or less just finished a speech in which, as usual, he demonized opponents of his rule and called them “feloul” (remnants (of the old regime)). Referring to his democratic mandate as the elected president of Egypt, he dismissed the swelling chorus of demands for his resignation as counterrevolutionary hot air. These have come from the press, from an unprecedented mobilization of protesters in the streets, and from the military, which yesterday issued an ultimatum, ostensibly to all political actors, but really mostly to Morsy, which boils down to: fix this in 48 hours or we will.

In this very instant the New York Times is running a chilling photograph of a phalanx of Morsy supporters, gathering girded by pledges to defend his rule and give teeth to his defiant statements. Dressed neatly, polo shirts tucked into belted kahakis and pressed jeans, they’d look as though they’d stepped out of a mobile phone sales office were it not for the millwrights’ hard hats on their heads, the short staves that they hold by their sides.

I am trying so effusively and cross-disciplinarily to situate my readers in time because soon after I publish this essay, the piece will surely be outdated. Events in Egypt are moving too swiftly to keep up with, although plenty of folks are trying gamely to offer quality analysis in real time. The good people at Jadaliyya have done yeoman work in tracking the contortions, tactical shifts, and discursive strategies staked by the country’s major actors (this is of course not a new phenomenon). Egyptian journalist Sarah Carr renders deeply foreboding with abundant metaphor the atmospherics of the slow rolling confrontation:

The army is already swooping as the protests grow and all we hear from the MB is the steady sound of a grave being dug. There are several possible outcomes to this mess. Even if Morsy is not sacrificed there is likely to be a major army-imposed cleaning out at lower levels. Whatever the result the MB will undergo a military-led emasculation of some sorts and the bill will be written in civilian blood. Everyone loses.

Indeed, it is hard to see, at least in the short-term, a pleasant way for this to end. But events will lead on to events, most surely, and it is a necessity that those of us who follow Egypt and wish the best for its people should attempt to lay out some political heuristics. It is in this spirit that I offer an attempt to see beyond the current state of high tension, to the longer game that I suspect many of the revolutionaries have been striving toward: a more accountable Egyptian state, in all senses: democratic rule, citizen engagement, robust social and economic rights. So this will be cold comfort should Egypt in the next days descend into coup, or civil war, but I am going to talk here about accountability, and the prospects for an Egyptian “accountability ecosystem.” TLDR warning: 1600 words ahead (though that includes great block quotes from Sarah Carr, Hesham Sallam, and Issandr El Amrani).

* * *

Over the past several days I have been turning over in my head a vexed question: what would an accountable Egyptian state apparatus even look like? Attempts to envision such a beast are complicated, of course, by the profound polarization of the Egyptian public, who likely hold competing visions of such a hypothetical: some inflected by shariah, some holding a more maximalist conception of social and economic rights, some holding a more classically “liberal” sense of what the ties between governors and the governed might entail. And so on, according to individual variance in conceptions of legitimacy. Fortunately for me, some compelling journalistic and intellectual work on this has been done already.

In The National, Issandr El Amrani of The Arabist recently laid out three kinds of dueling legitimacy at play in Egypt today.* It’s an excellent piece and you should read the whole thing and then come back here, but I sum up a little bit. Revolutionary legitimacy is what keeps both Morsy’s supporters and opponents claiming that they are acting in the defense of the revolution. The need to harness revolutionary legitimacy is what leads to the application of pro-revolution rhetoric to profoundly reactionary gestures, like protesters’ calls for a coup, and indeed like the slow-motion “pretty much coup” currently simmering. Electoral legitimacy is of course conferred by winning an election, though the conferral of this upon Morsy and the FJP have been complicated immensely by their profoundly majoritarian understanding of democracy and their utter failure to speak to the 49% of Egyptians who did not vote for them. The third is institutional legitimacy –that is:

…the traditions, practices and power centres of the Egyptian state. These have been threatened by the revolutionary trend, which seeks to transform them, and by the rise of a political movement widely seen as intent on taking over institutions. The military, the civilian security services and the judiciary have thus far shown the most resistance and ability to alter the course of the post-Mubarak transition.

Indeed! And while this tendency of state institutions to resist incursions upon what they see as their own prerogatives, particularly by the judiciary, has been seen as a brake on “Brotherhoodization,” it has also undoubtedly been a brake on other, more salutary reform(ulation)s of the state. Surely, for example, fear of a bureaucracy throwing innumerable spanners into its own works has helped fix Morsy’s resistance to a rationalization of that apparatus, and his administration’s continued high spending upon that bureaucracy. One can only imagine what the bureaucracy might “think” about popular incursions into those prerogatives – doubtless nothing good. That is to say that like most state institutions, Egypt’s pursue their own, often narrowly construed, interests in an environment in which a great many factions continue to jockey for advantage. They are not – wait for it – accountable, nor interested in becoming more so.

One kind of legitimacy which El Amrani does not discuss, for the very good reason that precious few examples of it would present themselves, is the kind of legitimacy conferred by the establishment of robust connections of institutional accountability between governments and citizens, and which governments and political leaders must continuously earn in truly “democratic” contexts. In theory this sort of legitimacy would reside within both electoral and institutional realms, but this has yet to be established in Egypt, in even very tenuous terms, although of course the revolution is in no small sense about redressing the injustices of the profound accountability gaps inherent to Egypt’s pre-Revolutionary political order. On the contrary, the Egyptian state apparatus has routinely sought an exceptionally high level of autonomy from the society it putatively governs. This is aptly diagnosed in Steve Negus’ comment that one of the (many!) divisions cleaving contemporary Egypt lies between those seeking greater accountability from state institutions and “the considerable number of Egyptians who work for one of these institutions who want to be left to do as they please.” The Armed Forces’ attempts to cover themselves in glory by mediating the removal of Morsy, or by pulling off some other political clean-up operation, are in reality nothing more than another play, in a long line of plays made since their play made in removing Mubarak, to preserve a carved-out realm of autonomy, opacity, and impunity, the better to carry out their real function: self-enrichment.

Robust institutional lines of vertical accountability (even in a “newly democratized” system) are absent, and polarization of the state apparatus itself has largely precluded functioning systems of horizontal accountability. Thus more participatory ties of accountability – linked to freedom of information, the publication of state budgets, and such things – are especially absent. And thus, the crowds of Cairo (and well beyond) have come into the streets, repeatedly, as a sort of proto-institution of accountability, and been to boot the only accountability “institution” in existence. That this is not a long-term sustainable institutional situation is a truism, barely worth stating (though some do in essence make this statement). But it is what currently exists in a bewildering ongoing state of institutional, revolutionary flux.

Current events are of course by no means promising. The Armed Forces’ return to the scene as an arbiter of democratic contestation is, as noted above, is not being attempted with the national best interest in mind, and sets a(nother) awful precedent. So, as Sarah Carr notes, would be (probably) the removal of Egypt’s first elected president by popular mobilization (and, Carr again – the worst precedent perhaps involves both together):

Ideologically, I am extremely torn about the protests’ demands. I would like nothing better than for Morsy and his arrogant, obstinate Brothers to be booted out of Egyptian political life (and I voted for Morsy in order to keep out Shafiq) but have three issues:

1. It would hit the Muslim Brotherhood harder if they were ejected from Egyptian public life via elections. They would not be able to cry foul, and this would hit at their precious legitimacy in a way that the protests don’t. I have long been of the opinion that the Muslim Brotherhood should be left to their own devices as long as the economy can stand it, so that they continue to fuck up, destroy their support base, and we can be rid of them forever. This is a problematic and unpopular position, I know and it assumes firstly, they hold elections and secondly, they don’t forge results.

2. I keep imagining that it was ElBaradei or Hamdeen or someone non-MB and palatable to those taking to the streets on Sunday was elected. I imagine, what if Mr Palatable did something to garner the ire of his (Islamist) opposition on a par with Morsy’s constitutional amendment, something along the lines of removing all reference to Sharia in the constitution (PEDANTS: I AM JUST IMAGINING FOR THE PURPOSES OF THIS EXERCISE AND AM NOT SUGGESTING THEY WOULD).

Say that this inspired mass protests similar to those at the presidential palace in December 2012 and that Mr Palatable’s supporters used violence against the raging Islamist mobs. Now imagine that the political impasse dragged on and on until the exasperated Islamist opposition, together with ordinary Egyptians fed up at the economic situation and turmoil (I am assuming that no president could have fixed much in a year) took to the streets demanding Palatable go.

What would my position be? I would most likely stand against the Islamist mob and one of the arguments I would invoke is that Palatable was democratically elected and you, raving Islamist mob, represent nobody but yourselves.

3. If a miracle happened and Morsy did step down as a result of these protests it sets an awkward precedent. Particularly if the army is involved.

Then again (to read Hesham Sallam in fruitful dialogue with Carr, perhaps) it may be wiser to read the ongoing popular action as the exercise of a participatory proto-institution, demanding the removal of an elected president who has manifestly declined to rule as someone benefiting from a sovereignty conferred upon him by the nation as a whole. In opting for the sovereignty only of his own constituency, one might argue, Morsy has forfeited his sovereignty on behalf of the nation as a whole. As Sallam writes in Jadaliyya:

In the absence of real national politics, there have been no credible means for channeling widespread popular discontent with the current government. This is explains the surge in protests and strikes throughout the country, as well as the overwhelming support for the Tamarod Campaign’s grassroots initiative. It takes a lot of diligence to ignore the reality that the existing political system is defunct. In such a context, prevalent media sound bites that the current protests are aimed at “aborting Egyptian democracy” are simplistic and naïve. That so-called Egyptian democracy never saw the light of day.

…Rectifying this problem demands, at the very least, a new, inclusive transition that could generate the type of politics capable of bridging part of the long-standing gap between people’s basic demands, and national political institutions. Certainly no alternative transitional framework can succeed in Egypt if it is managed by the partisan sensibilities of the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi, though it must not exclude them either. After all, if the current mobilization leads to an NDP-style marginalization of the Brotherhood, then what was the point of the January 25 Revolution? Whatever its mechanisms and details, any solution must begin by heeding to people’s demand for Morsi’s resignation.

In other words, the revolution will – or must – continue. And as events continue to lead on to events, perhaps la revolución continua is the precedent that must take precedent over the terrible precedent of that-which-is-occurring. If a genuinely accountable political system with a progressive and participatory institutional configuration is currently difficult even to conceive of, it will become no less difficult to imagine and implement in the absence of revolutionary will and pressing forward. This means not only prosecuting the people’s case against Morsy and the Brotherhood, but also against the Armed Forces, whatever the next days and weeks may bring. In the face of tremendous uncertainty, the revolution must continue for the realization of any accountability agenda, and for the fight to build a politics of “bread, freedom, and social justice” in Egypt.


*And this is without even the presence of a fully functioning legislature to lend to Egypt’s battling institutions the kind of dual legitimacy problem currently plaguing, say, the US system. On the other hand, if this did exist perhaps one might expect some of these other forms of legitimacy to lose their individual points of salience, and to converge in a more consolidated democratic institutional setting.

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Blood and vinegar: Practices of violence and Brazil’s protest movement

Notwithstanding my general sense of optimism about Brazil’s protest movement, disturbing incidents have occurred on the margins that raise questions about the role that violent practices play in actors’ responses to the uprising. It would seem that the citizen-centric governance toward which protesters, in the best of worlds, would move; yet at the same time, entrenched practices of “violent pluralism” will likely prove a formidable obstacle to democratic deepening.

This piece published by the New York Times yesterday gets at one piece of the violence puzzle nicely throughout. The author elaborates upon a theme of structural violence that underlies Brazil’s modernizing project, which he sees as driving a “delusional modernism,” intoxicating to the country’s wealthier denizens. He notes the burden placed upon many Brazilian citizens by the price of services inadequate to their needs, and notes ongoing inattentiveness to the needs of the country’s poorer urban residents:

The cost of public transportation for a family living in Rio or São Paulo is, proportionally, higher than in New York or Paris. Yet, the service delivered is humiliating. In 2009, security guards of a train company that services the Rio metropolitan area used whips on passengers during rush hour crowding. The mayor of Rio has proudly declared that during his tenure not a cent is being spent on subsidizing public transportation.

At the same time, he notes that repressive police actions against protests helped to catalyze resistance and bring more people into the streets. This only makes more striking, though, the clear implication that São Paulo’s initial police response was really business as usual. That is to say that from accounts of pervasive police brutality in the 1990s; to the insertion of “milicia” – death squads made up of off-duty security forces – into the violent political economies of some urban favelas; and on to Rio’s contested favela pacification programs in the present day, in which even proponents of the counterinsurgency-inspired approach to policing concede that more work must be done to avoid human rights abuses; it is clear that Brazil’s forces of law and order remain profoundly imbricated in violent practices. These relationships of violence and control, often mediated by the country’s notorious corruption, undergird a democratic status quo which perpetrates ongoing structural violence against Brazil’s urban poor. These multiple types of violence – interpersonal, structural, state-directed, and criminal – are bound together by complex networks of exchange.

This bloodshed on the margins of a movement in which Brazil’s mobilized citizens protest, in part, against the conditions that are part and parcel of what has been brilliantly characterized as a politics of “violent democracy,” illustrates the complexity of Brazil’s contemporary political context, and highlights where the limits of optimism may lie. Take, for example, the following incident, reported yesterday by the BBC:

At least nine people have died in gun battles with drug dealers in a favela (shanty town) in the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro, police say.

The clashes started on Monday evening after a demonstration in Bonsucesso, which reportedly ended in mass robberies near Rio’s main access road.

Hundreds of police and National Guard officers, with the support of a tank, are being deployed to secure the area.

Police say at least six of the victims were suspects and one was a policeman.

At least nine others were arrested during the operation in the Favela da Mare area, and a number of guns and drugs were confiscated, police say.

The violence broke out on Monday evening, after a peaceful demonstration ended in mass robberies.

Shops, passers-by and demonstrators were robbed by a group of criminals, police say.

We can draw at least a couple lessons from this incident:

  1. Even if police have curtailed violent tactics in response to political pressure from above, an unusual level of violence can still be expected to manifest itself in the usual places – that is, in exchanges of violence and/or authority between police and criminal groups, and unfortunately by extension against favela residents. The article quoted above notes that schools in Favela da Mar were closed as police moved to clear the area. This militarized response shows that while some of Brazil’s citizens are moving to throw off their fear of Brazil’s military police units, others are likely to continue to suffer a certain level of justified apprehension. While some practices may be changed by the ongoing display of people power in the streets of Brazilian cities, others may well not.
  2. Following on from this: at any time of political flux, existing criminal structures will react opportunistically to take advantage of heightened confusion for their own gain, and there is only so much that mobilized protesters can do to provide their own security, or to entirely take over the streets for their own peaceful ends. More traditional violent actors retain the power to disrupt progress toward these goals, and will continue to pose ongoing challenges toward democratic deepening in Brazil.

All this is to say that conditions and practices of violence are rarely far from political mobilization in Brazil. Violent practices stem from multiple sources, and can occur simultaneously. A key part of democratic deepening must be to dismantle the politics of violence represented by repressive organs of the state apparatus, organized illicit actors, and the many conjunctions and grey zones between them. These violent and shadowy practices may even be heightened during a period of contentious politics, which will only add to the difficulty of rolling back the routinization of violence. Nonetheless, this represents an aspect of Brazil’s ongoing struggle for political and human rights that ultimately cannot – or should not – be ignored.

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Brazil’s protests: (English) literature review

Brazil’s evolving protests and protest movement continue to be a topic of intense interest, and every day sees not just new developments – like presidente Dilma embracing the protest movement as an impetus to constitutional reforms – but new and interesting analyses and interpretations around the web. As such, I’ve been reading furiously just to keep up; presented below are some of the more thoughtful things I’m reading. I do not attempt to offer here not too many new perspectives, as these are proliferating swiftly from the pens of writers with a great deal more experience and proximity in this arena. Rather, this is a sort of literature review of recent analyses published around the web in English.

The catalyst for this piece comes out of Brazil, from Paulista writer Vanessa Barbara. The New York Times performed a nice public service by running a piece of hers on the editorial page on Saturday. The essay chronicles Barbara’s experience attending protests with the foot soldiers of the “vinegar rebellion,” many of whom are first-time protesters and young people. Many of the protests are sloppy; some of the slogans are deliberately surreal; and all this only makes the wide-ranging mobilization more beautiful to behold. Barbara makes a compelling case that a big part of these protests is simply the act of reclaiming democratic space in a country where public political expression has remained somewhat chilled since “re-democratization” in 1985. Protesters are laying claim to the right to assemble, and “the right to be ineffective and foolish,” and to “[learn] to protest.” That assertion of basic political rights is what makes the demonstrations so heartening, and at bottom a phenomenon of democratic deepening.

As one damn thing after the other keeps happening in Brazil, analysts continue to try to chart the possible directions and political ramifications of the protest movement. The eponymous Boz blogs insightfully on Dilma’s potential game-changer of a speech pledging to push for constitutional reforms and to push forward a progressive agenda that has been stymied at the state level and in the legislature. The key quote is here:

“…Rousseff now believes these protests are an opportunity to overhaul Brazil’s dysfunctional political system. The protesters have given her a potential mechanism to go around the broken Congress and opponents in state governments and try to work with the people directly. For a president who is as tired of corruption and political gridlock as many of the protesters, it’s at least worth the attempt.”

This connects to a key democratic deficit in Brazil – lack of representativeness and tinges of authoritarianism at the local level. Brazilian local politics is characterized to a great extent by patronage politics and clientelistic arrangements which have remained resilient despite reforms, sometimes with armed and illicit actors playing a role, and murky campaign finances. Vested interests run rampant over the accountability agenda that the protest movement demands. Dilma’s “political jujitsu” may offer a chance to dismantle authoritarian vestiges that have remained in place since the military dictatorship and long before.

At the same time, Rio Gringa has a great piece up charting the “hopes and fears” of Brazilians who are watching the protest movement, and invested in it. She finds fear that the protest movement will be appropriated by right-wing elements and by conservative opponents of the current government; to me this echoes what has occurred with anti-corruption protests in another BRIC country that I follow, India. Right-wing appropriation is surely a common threat in movements targeting progressive but hapless governments in this global protest era. Indeed, this is a risk with almost any nascent social movement – these are never monolithic, and the Brazilian version seems particularly diffuse. Indeed, the hopes that Rio Gringa points out are related to this heterogeneity and diversity within the movement, as progressive forces have pledged to mobilize and push back against rightist currents. If this continues, Brazil may indeed wind up with a progressive and politicized youth movement that “knows how to protest.” This would also surely strengthen Dilma’s hand in pushing forward a progressive agenda.

The great political science blog The Monkey Cage has put up a couple guest pieces on Brazil. One of them, from the redoubtable Brazil expert David Samuels, focuses on “a growing disconnect between taxation and representation.” It’s a solid piece, with Samuels concluding that the protests are essentially a middle class-drive tax revolt:

“As Brazilians move into or climb up the middle class, they inevitably pay more in taxes – yet they also inevitably grow increasingly aware that they do not get their money’s worth. One commonly hears Brazilians complain that they pay “1st world taxes” – about 36% of GDP – but receive “3rd world services” in return. The protests thus represent growing frustration that established political parties are unwilling to implement reforms on both sides of the fiscal coin – to improve public services (particularly healthcare, education, and public safety) and reduce corruption.”

This is great stuff, and it gets right to the heart of Brazilian grievances. Yet to my eye (and as I ended up arguing in the comments section of Samuels’ piece a couple days ago) it lacks the amplitude of analysis that a sharper focus on accountability might bring to the piece. Indeed, the very title – “Brazil is a Stable and Growing Democracy – And We’re Not Going to Take It Any More!!!” – threatens to obscure more than it illuminates via its characterization of a “stable and growing democracy.” This paradigm does not miss – Samuels is too fine a scholar for that surely – but at any rate overlooks the democratic deficits, and the gap between elections and accountability, that are an integral feature of Brazil’s low-intensity democracy.

Greg Michener at Observing Brazil, with Chris Gaffney, tries to add some of this depth by focusing more on the missing representation piece of Samuels’ argument:

“Samuels, however, paid little attention to the question of representation, a theme which is also central to our piece. In the article, we stress how parties lack national programs and apart from parties that represent specific interests, e.g. evangelicals, they simply lack ties to the electorate.”

Michener and Gaffney are fleshing out this argument further for Al Jazeera; I’ll add an addendum when they do, for documentation’s sake. But it’s worth noting already that the nonexistent linkages that they describe is a clearly deficient environment for democratic politics. As long as elections persist as profoundly imperfect arbiters of the national policy process, and as long as mechanisms for enforcing accountability post-election are scant, Brazilians will be driven to head into the streets to demand these missing components of the democratic lived experience. Any account of the protests has to take into account the inadequacies of mere electoralism and the disjunction between taxes paid in and services received.

As explanations and predictions swirl about, interpretavistic takes that attempt to diagnose Brazilian discontent with formal democracy by reference to other signs and symbols of national portent hold more than a little allure. Enter a stellar piece by political theorist Diego von Vacano, “Political Futebol: The World Cup and Brazilian Democracy,” also up at The Monkey Cage. Von Vacano argues that discontent with Brazilian democracy parallels a discontent with Brazilian soccer. He diagnoses a profound malaise in Brazilian soccer culture, the contrast implicit between wealthy stars sporting diamond studs and the “Brazilian futebol in the 1970s and 1980s: full of creativity, eccentric characters, and politically engaged soccer stars.” In this reading, growth and wealth cannot compensate for mediocrity in the symbolic sphere.

Von Vacano gets taken to task in the comments section for stretching his argument too far and presenting an explanatory variable that can’t possibly explain the protests, but he is not presenting a medical etiology or an account of causation. Rather, he presents an etiological myth, containing interpretive power without lines of causality. In this sense, his piece pivots with plenty of jogo bonito from the demise of democratic cacophony within the soccer world to the disenchantments of formal democracy without direct accountability or a sense of connection between political elites and semi-mobilized masses:

“The mismanagement of clubs by wealthy elites runs parallel to the way governments are often seen to be mismanaged by political elites. Formal democracy prevails in almost all Latin American states, but the mass-elite tension is as ardent as ever. Soccer is the mirror of Latin American nations: it reflects deep social currents, but can sometimes be the instrument to start fires like those in Brazil this past week.”

Like the protest movement itself, the appeal of the reams of writing on Brazil’s protests lies in its diversity. We can hope that this will continue, and that debate on these correlates of democracy will contribute to an enhanced understanding of citizen engagement and accountability – that is, the marrow of a robust, inclusive, and substantive practice of democratic politics.


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Open Data, Citizen Action, and the Sumatra-Singapore Smog Crisis

(Updated around 5pm Lima time to add more hedging, more pessimism, more words.) 

I’ve recently learned for the first time about the “smog crisis” afflicting Singapore, Sumatra, and parts of Malaysia, and it makes for fascinating reading (and striking, shocking, pictures). The smog crisis, apparently, is a seasonal occurrence. It happens when companies cultivating oil palm on Sumatra burn old palms to clear the ground for replanting, and when they burn rainforest to clear the ground for new planting. This takes place in the dry season, when fires can burn uninterrupted. Also uninterrupted is the haze and smog that sits over Singapore and parts of Malyasia for weeks on end, with all the attendant health hazards and offense to the senses that one can imagine.

This season, the annual event has triggered a bit of a diplomatic shouting match between Indonesia and Singapore (amusingly parodied at Indolaysia, by the way) as Singapore demands that Indonesia do something, and Indonesia lays the blame at the feet of Singaporean companies, which allegedly are among the primary investors in Indonesian palm plantations. The Singaporean government has offered to make available satellite imagery to help identify the culprits, as land plots can be linked to owners (or their subcontractors) ordering the burning. This would, in theory, allow the prosecution of these companies be they Singaporean or no.

That last bit – the possibility for linking land ownership to enforcement of environmental protection laws – has been much on my mind since, and this (rather old) tweet has been bouncing around my head, especially the very first ask; though all are very worthy things to be demanding, it’s the most topical:

#opendata indeed! The discipline of bad actors in this context seems like a great use for this kind of data, and in theory it shouldn’t have to depend on government-to-government information-sharing through gritted teeth. This information ought to be shared around and used to combat destructive practices that have very real transnational impacts. But there’s more than one catch here, as may be obvious by the fact that the Indonesian government is not enforcing its own laws against setting fires and burning rainforest. If Singapore provides satellite data to the Indonesian government, it is unlikely that the Indonesian government will take concrete action at the local level, for reasons of profitability and patronage that are laid out nicely in this WSJ blog post. Sustained diplomatic flurry is unlikely to persist, and even if it did, it seems unlikely that edicts from Jakarta would take root in the hearts of the relevant local actors, who are bound together by bonds of money, political brokerage and clientelism.

What the release of this data ought to catalyze, though, is a robust citizen movement: by Singaporeans and Malaysians whose compatriots, as investors and stakeholders in Indonesian palm plantations, are presumably inflicting direct harm on their fellow citizens back home. And indeed, this ought to spark outrage (!) among Indonesians who are also suffering the effects of the smog, and among citizens concerned about the natural heritage being put ever further at risk by deliberate burning. A “naming and shaming” approach, carried out by activists across borders, and coupled to robust empirical findings on environmental damage and illegal practices on specific plots of land, could well be a tonic for the smog crisis. This is what data-based activism was made for: to help empower the afflicted and afflict the powerful, as it were. These powerful folks, of course, include powerful corporate actors, whose profits will be reduced if they have to operate within the boundaries of the laws that regulate what forest they can clear, and forbid burning. Using data on land use and ownership would undoubtedly be a hard fight. (Aside: this is why I get a bit prickly at the excitement surrounding open data for new corporate applications; this is great, but in lots of cases open data, tethered to robust citizen action, will curb corporate actions and profits, not augment them.)

Of course one can also envision a couple problems manifesting themselves further down the line, were such a movement to take hold. Oil palm, a personal bête noire of the agribusiness world, seems likely to persist as a deeply destructive crop that often is produced in league with illicit actors. This state of affairs indeed might fester still further if attention weren’t focused on it by the extra-negative externalities of periodic smog crises. Still, public registries of land data, coupled with registries of satellite imagery and their public release on a regular basis, could be grist to the mill of naming and shaming the most destructive companies, and this function by crusading citizens and journalists might well be one to which landholding data would continue to be well-suited. And as debates over landholding, the environment, and climate change continue to heat up in a variety of contexts, opening data and increasing transparency has a key role to play – in resolving smog crises, and well beyond.

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Do Brazil’s protests hold transformative potential for the rest of Latin America?

Walking home from the Vivanda (Peruvian equivalent of Whole Foods) last night I came across a modest commotion on Avenida Pardo: a couple dozen young people, carrying signs and blowing whistles, one pushing a stroller, and another carrying a Brazilian flag. Their signs read “We Are With You Brazil” and similar, with the referent rather evidently not the Brazilian state apparatus or nationalistic mythos, but rather the hundreds of thousands of ordinary Brazilians who are currently pouring into the streets, ostensibly to protest against a planned rise in bus fares, but in truth to articulate a much broader critique of the Brazilian political context, and to give affirmative voice to a wide range of citizenship rights.

Another set of signs moved beyond expressing solidarity with the Brazilian protesters, explicitly stating that Brazil was a model for the continent, and laying claim to the Brazilian mobilizations as a cause for “Latin American Pride.” This is modestly interesting, in the sense that a set of apparently well-off Peruvians chose to spend their Tuesday evening marching in support of a people’s movement beyond their borders. But this is not exceptional; plenty of popular uprisings in the past several years have elicited mirror demonstrations supporting them around the globe.

More interesting is to speculate if this claim of broader Latin American solidarity with the people of Brazil might be something with legs and teeth. Could this claim in fact signal the coalescence of a broader Latin American citizens’ project around the Brazilian peoples’ example? This would really be something to see, and in a region where democratic practice is characterized by low intensity citizenship, circumscribed and often merely procedural engagement in democratic life, a regional citizen project for an end to graft and a deepening of citizenship rights and civic engagement would be quite significant.

The issues sparking protest in Brazil – corruption, state violence, weak ties of accountability between citizens and the government – are present in virtually every other country in Latin America. Deep-rooted petty authoritarianisms dog this part of the world with a tenacity that has persisted through the wave of re-democratization in the 1980s. The same is true for practices of violence, which are an endemic feature of the political landscape. And the everyday practices of politics are too often conducted in the shadows, with little regard for the general welfare or for democratic processes. Democratic politics is often vibrant but it is often also superficial. Zones of un-democracy persist within procedural democracies. This patchy landscape of democracy and un-democracy, so evocatively described by Guillermo O’Donnell two decades ago, is part and parcel of the entrenched inequality of the region, of the creation and maintenance of marginalized groups, of clientelistic politics and the tyranny of selectively absent state capacity. And it holds within it dramatic accountability gaps, such that citizens across the region see little programmatic relation between votes granted and policies enacted, or taxes (or bus fares!) paid and services received.

If the grievances of Brazil find echoes across Spanish-speaking America, then it follows that Latin American citizens beyond Brazil can follow the lead of the whistle-blowing Peruvians I encountered and head into the streets to demand greater respect for their citizenship rights. If Brazilians are publicly proclaiming their denial of subservient clientelistic modes of politcal mobilization, then so can other Latin Americans. If the men and women who danced atop the High Modern temples of the State in Brasilia demand more direct relationships of accountability, then so can the denizens of Lima and Caracas, Santiago and San Salvador. If Brazilians are proclaiming in the streets that they will not shrink before the arbitrary violence of state and non-state and para-statal forces, then so, too, can other outraged citizens en marcha. In short, objective conditions for copycat mobilizations certainly exist throughout the region.

If we permit ourselves to dream, normatively, what might a new wave of Latin American “revolutions” on the contemporary Brazilian model (imagine for a moment that this could be a revolution!) look like? The new Latin American revolutions would look nothing like the “Arab Spring.” There are no despots here to overthrow, save in Cuba, and within the confines of that peculiar island inexorable economic forces are doing that good work themselves. In the rest of the region, imperfect democracies must be deepened by sustained citizen action for transparency, accountability, and inclusion. The rallying cry of these movements might be not degage – get out! – but engageopen upcommit – to robust democratic procedures that move beyond pro forma electoral democracies to genuine participatory processes, citizen empowerment and engagement in the policy process. These would be revolutions of open budgets, open Congresses, and open interior ministries and defense departments. This would mean implementing and strengthening participatory fiscal processes; it would mean citizen audits of police stations and elementary schools. These are the policy extensions of the rights that citizens are demanding as they march in Brazil, and beyond.

This may not sound like much. But to ordinary citizens of the region, whose mobilizations began with such modest requests – that a 20 cent bus fare increase not be implemented without a concomitant increase in service quality – this would be really something. For the men and women of Latin America to have a direct say, beyond the narrow bounds of the electoral calendar, in the politics of policy that govern their daily lives would be, indeed, a revolution.

It is of course too early to tell if a few sympathetic marches will turn into something more substantial, and if other South American publics will go into the streets to demand that their governments guarantee them meaningful participation in policy processes, greater accountability, freedom from corruption. While similar grievances exist across the region, local specificities will of course determine how any such mobilizations might play out, and these local specificities are more than a little different between Brazil and Peru, or Brazil and Chile, or Brazil and… pick any one you like. As I noted yesterday (unoriginally), protest movements in quite diverse countries have drawn at least rhetorical inspiration from one another, and the “Arab Spring” represented a surge of copycat demonstrations across a geographically contiguous cultural zone. But these factors by no means guarantee even sustained mobilization, let alone durable political changes and deepened democracy. As protests continue to gain momentum in Brazil, only time can tell what the longer-term effects on accountability will be, in that country and beyond.

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Brazil’s protests: demanding accountability, deepening democracy

Things are happening in Brazil almost too rapidly to keep up, but it’s imminently worth keeping up with. The images that have poured out of Brasilia, where protesters peacefully entered, then literally danced atop, government buildings including the national congress, are a breathtaking evocation of nonviolent direct action and people power. The national government, and the city governments which bear considerable responsibility in Brazil’s federal system for maintaining public order, still have a chance to address these concerns. And indeed these protests, which as Rio Gringa notes (link above) are seen as a moment for Brazilians to “[awaken] from a long stupor,” to “[stand up] to demand change,” present an opportunity for a rapidly changing Brazil to deepen democracy and embrace a new incarnation of its vibrant social movement culture.

Seen in one light, these protests were inevitable. Brazil suffers from enough of an accountability gap that citizens don’t perceive a link between higher bus fares and improved service, or between urban disruption in the leadup to the World Cup and the geopolitical and economic benefits that Brazil’s leaders hope to reap from that event. Couple this dissatisfaction with a lagging economy and the stage was set for unrest.  It’s also unsurprising that the impetus of the protests has swiftly made the leap from a narrow focus on bus fares to a broader critique of corruption and of a model of development that has seen “citizens bearing the cost of Brazil’s public improvements before seeing the benefit.” This is not dissimilar from the way that a relatively localized protest over planned demolition of a park in Istanbul rapidly turned into a national-level reaction against the naked ambition and developmentalist vulgarity of Turkey’s ruling party.

This brings me easily enough to my next point, which is the conscious emulation of other social movements. This somewhat mannered assumption of social movement zeitgeist – the claim that Brazil is about to “turn into Turkey,” the signs reading “We got off Facebook” which call to mind Egyptians’ surge into the streets following the internet shut-down in 2011, the inevitable Guy Fawkes masks – provide further evidence for a transnational repertoire of social protest, and diffusion from country to country of this repertoire in the service of a global movement for social rights and government accountability. Certainly Brazil shares enough features – rapid social change, vast geographic and social inequality, citizen insecurity, and turbulent economic shifts – with countries that have seen recent major protests (“Arab Spring” countries, and more recently India, and Turkey, and so on) to make this model of diffusion plausible, and to bear some comparisons to those models. But in contrast certainly to the Arab countries, and with less perfect contrast to the imperfect democracies listed above, Brazil’s democracy may yet emerge stronger from this period of turmoil.

While President Dilma Roussef’s claims that “The greatness of yesterday’s demonstrations were proof of the energy of our democracy” might easily be dismissed as so much political posturing, there may be something to it. In Sao Paulo, city police have reportedly already tamped down the level of repression that occurred early on. This is a precondition to establishing peaceful dialogue with protesters, and is a sign of the kind of adaptive resilience that (supposedly, ought to be) is characteristic of a mature democratic response. Contrast this with Turkey, where a leader of majoritarian mindset (himself a personal target of protesters, as Roussef is not) has had a tough time reining back in repression by personal proclivity.

Brazil’s leaders are on a tough learning curve, but there’s some initial evidence that they are learning. Now they have to go further, adapting to a non-traditional social movement, powered by emerging ICT and social media booms, and outside traditional organizing channels. Bloggings by Boz has good insight here into what this short-term calculus may entail. In the long-term, citizen movements for greater accountability, in a country with notorious levels of corruption, have the potential to revitalize democratic institutions and root out authoritarian enclaves that lie at the heart of elite bargaining over rents and spoils and power. This is much needed, as others have ably pointed out. These gains will be best achieved if protesters aiming to reshape patterns of state-citizen accountability leverage some of Brazil’s progressive, if imperfect, institutions for information and transparency. Brazil is in the process of tortuously implementing a new Freedom of Information law, which civil society and press groups have been vociferously monitoring and auditing – and utilizing! Brazil has also instituted measures to expand fiscal and budgetary transparency, another area where civil society groups are quite active and have been for years. Brazil’s protesters have the opportunity to both use the information afforded them by these institutions, and to demand the further strengthening of mechanisms for transparency and citizen oversight. None of this will be easy. But increased accountability, and maybe even a shake-up in political culture, is just what Brazil needs for 2013.

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Of hope, football, and dirty wars

The Friday before last, June 7, was a real red-letter day in Peru. I have been busy with other writing projects (about which soon) and neglected to blog about it at the time. Still, that lovely, sunny, historic day, and its aftermath are worth turning a lens upon for a moment.

First came the news that ex-president Alberto Fujimori’s request for a presidential pardon had been denied. Lest I sound hard-hearted, let me dig a little deeper. Fujimori is currently serving a 25-year sentence for an elaborate array of charges: sundry human rights violations, like running death squads and ordering kidnappings, plus abuse of power (that is, directing an extensive web of organized corruption). Fujimori has never acknowledged responsibility or wrongdoing on his part, a fact that infuriates the families of victims, of which there are many in Peru. If he had received the pardon, on health grounds that are spurious at best (Fujimori has repeatedly refused medical and psychiatric evaluations by government doctors), it would have been a slap in the face to the victims of Peru’s internal armed conflict, and to their families, and above all the families of Peru’s 15,000 disappeared. And it would have freed Fujimori to rebuild a toxic and hypnotic brand of rightist populism. As one of Peru’s premier journalists has noted, “Fujimori free is Fujimori on the campaign.” So keeping Fujimori in a roomy, well-appointed jail cell, as a sign that even heads of state cannot murder and rob with impunity the citizens that they govern, was excellent news for the country.

Next came the word that “Comrade Artemio,” a Shining Path commander who was captured last year in the Huallaga Valley, had been sentenced to life in prison. While the news about Fujimori overshadowed the news about Artemio (real name, Florindo Flores), this is also a big deal. The rebel commander and prominent drug trafficker was convicted in court, not by the closed trials with hooded judges that prevailed during the Fujimori era. And his conviction for terrorism, drug trafficking, and money laundering serves as an extra rebuke to the murderous proponents of an ideology that has fed upon and destroyed thousands upon thousands of ordinary Peruvians from the jungle and its coca fields, to the streets of Lima, to the killing zones of the southern sierra. This was an exemplary way for Comrade Artemio to become, under sanction of the law, Florindo Flores once and for all.

And then! A 1-0 victory by the Peruvian national team, reigniting hopes for a World Cup bid in 2014. Our television blasted sounds of revelry and panned across joyous scenes outside the national stadium, and later the TV shows put up banner headlines to sum up the night: Ganó Perú: renace la esperanza. Peru won; hope is reborn. It seemed to sum up the day quite nicely.

And yet.

Flores’ lawyer almost immediately promised to appeal the verdict, arguing that his client is a political prisoner. So we haven’t seen the back of “Comrade Artemio” yet, nor of his comrades who cling to relevance and drug rents in the Ene-Apurimac Valley.

On Sunday (June 9), Alberto Fujimori’s daughter, Keiko, delivered a fiery, angry interview on the television show “Cuarto Poder.” She declared that her father was innocent of wrong-doing, that his imprisonment was a political scheme, that the denial of the pardon was in contravention to the wishes of the majority of Peruvians, and that her father would inevitably be free one day. The camera cut to footage of crowds chanting for the freedom of “El Chino,” and in the background loitered the memory of Keiko’s run for the presidency in 2011, in which she finished second only to the current president. She still leads a nominal political party and keeps herself in the press (e.g., in doleful Father’s Day visits to prison). I don’t think we’ve seen the back of her, either, nor of the lingering specter of Fujimorismo and the tortured memories of Peru’s barely papered-over scars from the 1980s.

And then. On Tuesday, June 11, Peru lost 2-0 to Colombia, to face an almost unscalable deficit in the standings. The World Cup looks ever farther away.

I don’t want to suggest that soccer is a universal heuristic for history or politics. But if this sequence of events, the rebirth and descent again of all sorts of hopes, shows us anything, it is that nothing stays settled for long in these matters of power and the nation and the heart.

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“Nothing to hide”

I don’t agree with Ross Douthat that often, but I’m always happy to be reminded, and to remind others, as Douthat does in this piece, of a certain immortal phrase:

“If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know,” Google’s Eric Schmidt told an interviewer in 2009, “maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”

And of course, the Twitter feed referenced in this post’s title and Douthat’s lede is absolutely priceless.

There is a certain tension in Douthat’s piece that is perhaps under-realized by the author himself. This is between changing individual norms around privacy online, and the expanding boundaries of “sharing,” on the one hand; and the need for legal infrastructure that protects private data, and the right to not have that data cataloged, archived, analyzed, in ways that users do not contemplate when they use online platforms.

“The internet” is increasingly constructed as a public space of sorts. Rights to association, speech, and privacy in that sphere must be robustly protected, and balanced with normative evolution around that space. It’s just not clear how that balance will be worked out, and scorn for that process on the part of certain tech elite – the very people who should be thinking hardest about it – certainly doesn’t help.

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Opening data in an absolute monarchy: notes on Oman’s Open Government Data & Best Practices Symposium

No better example of the modishness of “open” can exist than holding an open government summit in an absolute monarchy. It would seem that such an event would indeed “open” itself to accusations of deliberately delicious irony, or deliberate contradiction. Yet such an event did indeed take place this past week, as Oman’s Information Technology Authority hosted an “Open Government Data & Best Practices Symposium.” A variety of experts and officials delivered presentations touting Oman’s progress in making government services available online, and in moving government datasets to an online data portal.

Let’s position this in perspective: Oman is a hereditary sultanate, ruled by the (relatively benign, and magnificently milliner-ed) Sultan Qaboos since 1970. The Sultanate only occasionally imprisons human rights activists and detains journalists and “citizen journalists.” On the other hand, the Sultan moved to invest the legislature with greater power in the wake of the 2011 Arab uprisings, though the sluggishness of reforms has drawn further protests since then, and the government even goes so far as to make some spending and budgetary information available. So, it’s not… so bad – but it’s very far from ensuring robust citizen participation in a framework of universal human rights.

So what is open government data in an absolute monarchy for? Participants at the summit pointed up a few benefits. One is better service delivery as the kingdom’s administrators crunch data, perhaps including crowdsourced data, for better management. This is certainly something that even authoritarian rulers can worry about, and it’s concomitant with Sultan Qaboos’s reputation as a somewhat enlightened despot. Another is “green ICT,” which is a worthy goal I suppose. And the third is the use of public data to leverage business opportunities and spark entrepreneurship in the kingdom. This third use shows, I fear, that all good things don’t always go together and that, as I complained yesterday, open data for entrepreneurship doesn’t necessarily guarantee that open data will be used for democratic accountability. In fact, as we see here, it can be used to bolster the capacity of an overtly authoritarian regime.

There’s also a less cynical way to look at this. That is by seeing Sultan Qaboos as a truly enlightened despot, a gradualist who wants to see his country “progress” economically, socially, and in a direction that lines up with more democratic governance. In this reading, citizens will be able to use some of the more substantial data sets on Oman’s open government portal (e.g., the lists of industrial tenants on government-leased lands) to at least hold enterprises to account. And there is in fact precedent for this sort of accountability, as Yeling Tan found in a study of environmental disclosure laws in China. If this is the case, then, while activists may not be able to call for the abdication of the monarchy, or even for an audit of the government’s reserve fund, they could call for disciplinary action against industrial polluters, or perform analysis on lease holdings to ferret out corrupt business deals. If Omani activists try to use the government’s data portal to identify corruption that touches individuals under the protection of the crown, though, things might get really interesting, and without a formal system of accountability in place, one might well doubt the future efficacy of this kind of activism. Information, delivered to the masses without protecting the write to organize and advocate around that information, does not automatically translate into power, or into social change.

At the end of the day, though, reforms have to start somewhere. That applies to open government as much as anything else, and there are worse places to start than with posting the texts of national laws online. The silver lining here is in the “best practices,” part of the symposium title: the people running the portal have pledged to adhere to these practices, including making datasets free to download, freely licensed, machine-readable, and disaggregated. All of these are good things. Let’s hope that this data perestroika will be the thin end of the wedge, eventually leading to an opening of government budgets, contracts, and military spending. But let’s also not pretend that there’s a straight line from disseminating enterprise data to democratic accountability, in Oman or anywhere else.

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