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Recently I have been following protest movements in two different parts of the world. Brazil was recently rocked by massive protests following a fare hike on public transportation to finance brand new and completely unnecessary football stadiums for the World Cup next year. Egypt saw massive protests against the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi and their inability to solve any of the problems Egypt has been facing over the past year. Those protests just reached a head and the military stepped in and removed Morsi from power. Now the exact issues that those countries face are different but they teach us some valuable lessons about the role that civil society should play in a democracy.


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The Brazilian protests started a few weeks ago when the government of São Paulo announced it was hiking public transit fares on the eve of the Confederations Cup. This was the straw that broke the camel's back with the public discontent that has been simmering against Brazil's government. In a country hit hard by the global recession, public funding for healthcare, education and transportation has been decimated but they had no problem finding billions of dollars to finance the construction of brand new "FIFA quality" stadiums and tourist-centric infrastructure to go along with it. The other major issue was corruption amongst many of their state and national politicians which is far worse than it is in the United States. You can find a pretty good summary of that problem here.

That fare hike was enough to get hundreds of thousands of protesters onto the streets all over the country. The capitol building in Brasilia was stormed and briefly taken over by protesters. There were protests that were hundreds of thousands strong taking place outside of the legendary Estádio do Maracanã. To give you some context of what that is like, imagine the people of Boston holding a massive protest against the Red Sox playing at Fenway Park or the people of Green Bay having a massive demonstration against the Packers playing at Lambeau Field. Despite being met with brutal force from the Federal Army and local law enforcement, the protests continued and even gained strength throughout the soccer tournament.

What was amazing about those protests is what happened in reaction to them. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff as well as state and local political elected officials met with the leaders of the protesters. Here is a list of specific demands that the protesters made of their government that Dilma gave in on (courtesy of Wikipedia):

Reduction in the prices of Public transport (Metro, Train and Bus) (Governments approved)
Revocation of (Bill - PEC 37) that hindered the Public Ministry to investigate (Congress approved)
Destination of petroleum royalties to Education (75%) and Health (25%) (Congress approved)
Criminalization of all forms of Corruption and Embezzlement as heinous crimes (Congress approved)
The end of Secret vote in Congress for forfeiture of office (Congress approved)
The end of all Taxes in the Public Transport (Metro, Train, Bus and Ship) (Congress approved)
National Pact to improve Education, Health, Public Transport (Government established)
National Pact to Fiscal responsibility and control of Inflation (Government established)
Implementation of federal Plebiscite to Politic reform in the country (Government established)
Revocation of (Bill - PDL 234) "Gay Cure" authorizing psychologists to treat LGBTs (Congress approved)
Two more of their demands are currently pending in their Congress:
Destination of 10% of the Brazilian GDP to Education (Congress announced)
Implementation of Free pass to the Students enrolled regularly (Congress announced)
And of all of their concrete demands only two had no specific action taken on them:
Revocation of (Bill - PEC 33) undergoing decisions of Supreme Court to Congress (No discussion)
The end of Privileged forum (No discussion)
In addition Dilma said this in a recent address to the nation:
"With regard to the World Cup, I want to clarify that the federal money spent on the stadiums is in the form of financing that will be duly repaid by the companies and governments that are exploiting these stadiums.

I would never allow these funds to come out of the federal public budget or to damage priority sectors such as health and education."

Now the Brazilian government absolutely needs to be held accountable for those promises in the future but what I've seen from the fallout of these protests looks good so far. Of the 14 specific demands from the protesters they got action taken on 12 of them while ten of them are already passed into (or removed from) federal law. What is also interesting is to keep in mind that very few people were calling for the overthrow of Dilma's government. They were calling for her government to improve their public services and not to waste money on corrupt projects and expensive new stadiums that they don't need. Dilma also has a very real political incentive to react to these protests because many of them supported her when she got elected president in 2010 and she will need their support again when she is up for reelection in 2014.


Like Brazil Egypt saw massive protests in the streets recently as well and the main motivation were actually pretty similar to Brazil. Egypt has seen a great deal of problems that have been exacerbated by the global recession and the political instability that toppled Hosni Mubarak. Since Mohamed Morsi was elected in 2012, none of Egypt's major issues like rampant sexual violence, rising unemployment and inflation, crumbling infrastructure, and unreliable access to electricity have really been effectively addressed.

In addition to that Morsi's focus seemed to be focused entirely on establishing a theocratic state more than a democratic one. In November of last year, he rammed through a hard-line Islamist constitution in a referendum widely considered illegitimate and issued a unilateral decree preventing the courts from questioning his decisions. It was then when serious demonstrations began against his presidency.

Instead of compromising with protesters, he started to double down on his positions. At least 30 protesters were disappeared in the last six months. Political moderates were fired from Morsi's cabinet and were replaced with hard-line religious fundamentalists. Throughout all of these events the protests escalated and this week there were about three million people in Tahrir Square. More protesters demonstrating in Tahrir square against Morsi than there were two years prior against Mubarak. Even as recently as June 30th when the Egyptian Armed Forces issued an ultimatum Morsi refused to bend in any significant way making defiant speech to the nation defending the "legitimacy" of his presidency and of his constitution.

Egypt's protests on the other hand seemed very similar to the protests that deposed Mubarak in 2011. Large amounts of people in Tahrir Square were explicitly calling for their leader to leave power. Like 2011, the protesters were met by counter-protesters loyal to the government and violence erupted. In both cases the military eventually stepped in and forced the president from power and took over until new elections could be held.

Similarities and Differences

Dilma and Morsi are similar in some ways. Both were political activists organizing against the military dictatorships in their respective countries. Both were incarcerated for their political activism. And both presidents, like Nelson Mandela before them, got elected president of their respective countries when they held free and fair elections.

However, the circumstances leading to their elections was far different. Dilma Rouseff was the hand picked successor of the wildly popular former president Lula da Silva. Under Lula's eight year presidency Brazil experienced a tremendous amount of economic growth and development with a corresponding increase in the social services that made Lula incredibly popular. Lula was term limited out of office in 2010 and Dilma essentially advertised her potential presidency as a third Lula term. She won a very strong plurality in the first round of the election and won the runoff by 12 points.

Morsi on the other hand only won about 25 percent of the vote in the first round of the 2012 presidential election. In the runoff he faced Ahmed Shafik who was a secular candidate but had been Mubarak's final Prime Minister before he was overthrown. Much of Egypt's electorate wasn't adequately represented in the runoff faced with either a continuation of Mubarak's style of government, or a candidate that favors overt religious fundamentalism. In the end more people sided with Morsi over the old guard but it was hardly a vote of confidence.

In there lies one of the critical differences. Unlike Dilma, Morsi was governing in a way where he cared more about implementing his party's ideology for a religious state rather than trying to tackle many of Egypt's real nonreligious problems. When people took to the streets to protest against pushing through the theocratic constitution, Morsi did not compromise or even speak with the opposition because he probably figured that many of them would never support him to begin with.

I find the real tragedy of Egypt is that the overthrow of Morsi does almost nothing to immediately fix the myriad of issues that Egypt faces. In fact in the short term, we're seeing things get far worse in front of our eyes and the situation can very easily deteriorate into an all out civil war. Egypt under a temporary military government will likely do a better job providing the public services expected of government but things look like they will get much worse before they get better. The only way Egypt will have a democratic government capable of doing all of the things expected of government will be if they elect a government committed to doing that. Morsi's biggest flaw as president was that he was more concerned with the next world more than this world.

The events in Brazil and Egypt show us some interesting lessons about politics in a democracy. In Brazil Dilma is governing in a way that will try to persuade a majority of Brazilian voters to reelect her coalition when they're up for election next year. In Egypt, Morsi was attempting to change the rules to make it so they were in line with his ideology that a majority of Egypt does not support. He was never trying to win the political support of secular voters, he was trying change the rules so that religion would always reign supreme despite the objections of most of his country. One is trying to win the democracy game fairly and the other was trying to win through cheating.

Democracy works best when the majority can govern, the rights of minorities are protected, and everyone plays by the rules. The people of Brazil had faith in their government's ability to do what they expect it to do and when the people complained the government listened. The people of Egypt had lost faith in the government as an institution, the requests made from the people in the streets went ignored, and the government itself toppled.

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