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Does Egypt offer any lessons for Fiji?

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COMMENTS

21 February 2011 12:17

Watching events in Egypt unfold over the last few weeks, I have wondered whether a similar popular protest could take place in Fiji. 

The two countries have little in common beyond the fact that the militaries of each occupy a dominant and somewhat sacred role in political life, and both also play important roles in leading and connecting their respective regions, even if very different in scale.

I have long been sceptical of the extent of popular antipathy towards Commodore Frank Bainimarama and his government and the willingness or capacity of the people of Fiji to do anything about it. But I was similarly sceptical about the capacity of the Egyptian people. So, does Commodore Bainimarama have any reason to quake in his boots, and are there any lessons for Fiji from the Egyptian experience'

Australian Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs Richard Marles said in an interview on 14 February ahead of the Pacific Islands Forum's Ministerial Contact Group meeting on Fiji that 'given the events in Egypt, it's a particularly important statement to make at this moment in time that we place an enormously high value on democracy'. The communiqué that emerged from this meeting also reiterated the region's strong interest in seeing democracy return to Fiji.

If the people of Fiji feel the same way about democratic values or become frustrated with high world food prices, and take to the streets to demand the resignation of Bainimarama, what would happen'

As in Egypt, it seems unlikely to me that the Fiji military would fire on the people. The Fiji military doesn't own any tanks, so the television images of people-friendly armed forces we saw in Cairo would not be nearly so riveting in a Fiji context. However, a reluctance to fire may not stop the army and other arms of the security forces engaging in intimidatory tactics to persuade people to go home or not to leave their homes in the first instance.

If a popular protest persisted, Commodore Bainimarama, like President Mubarak, would attempt to stare the people down and assure them that he, and he alone, can maintain stability in the country and must be allowed time to enact his reforms to build a better Fiji. 

Unlike the White House in Eygpt's case, the Australian Government would find it all but impossible to restrain from encouraging the demands of the Fiji people for democracy, and would no doubt be accused by Bainimarama of inciting violence and instability. 

As in Egypt, tourists might be deterred from taking their holidays in Fiji, which would in turn cause economic hardship for all whose livelihoods depend on it.

The eventual consequences of a Fiji popular push for democratic reform would depend on whether Bainimarama's closest advisers and allies were willing to risk their comfortable positions to side with the people and tell him to step down. Fear of personal repercussions and the absence of a credible leadership alternative suggest advisers and allies would be unlikely to take this risk. If really pushed, Bainimarama might offer a carrot, like bringing forward consultations on a new constitution or more government measures to tackle poverty.

As Sam pointed out, it is worthwhile remembering that after all the dramatic efforts of the Egyptian protestors, the military is still in control. A similar outcome might await Fiji in the event that a popular protest toppled Bainimarama, a probability that would dissuade many potential protesters.

The real lesson for Fiji from the Egypt experience is yet to be realised. If the Egyptian people can hold Field Marshal Tantawi to account for the promises of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces' Communiqué #5 — namely, to amend the constitution, put the amendments to referendum and hold parliamentary and presidential elections in six months — this will serve as an important model for other nations to follow. 

If Egypt, population 78 million and with little experience of democracy, can manage this remarkable reform in six months, Frank Bainimarama needs to explain again why he needs eight years to do the same for Fiji, population 890,000 and with quite recent experience of parliamentary democracy. Commodore Bainimarama is a proponent of looking north. If his counterpart in Cairo succeeds in establishing a genuine parliamentary democracy and maintaining a protected special role for the military in Egypt, Bainimarama might be well advised to look east for advice.

Photo by Flickr user Jaredw_1986

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