In the middle of a revolutionThe Arab Spring started with the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia in December 2011 and toppled dictatorships in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen. Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali ruled the country for 23 years, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt ruled his country for 36 years, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi reigned for 42 years and Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh controlled the country for 33 years. They were ousted, some brutally. The holy ground of the revolution of the Arab Spring is Tahrir Square in Cairo, a role now being played by Seoul’s Gwanghwamun Square. The world was thrilled by the Arab Spring, at least at the start. Anticipation was high that the Middle East was heading into an era of modern democracy and emerging from the politics of medieval times. Five years have passed since the Arab Spring excited the world, and the revolution and all of its hopes were hijacked by violence and disorder.
Egypt is perhaps the most significant case in Middle East politics. Democracy earned by the people at the cost of about 200 victims in Tahrir Square in Cairo alone was hijacked by a military coup. Another 1,000 people had to shed blood on the altar of Thermidor to resist the coup.
Mohamed Morsi was elected president in a free and fair election in Egypt after the Arab Spring. Morsi, a member of the Society of the Muslim Brothers, pushed forward policies based on Islamic fundamentalism. The people with more secular tendencies held street protests, and General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who was minister of defense and the commander of the military, staged a coup. He shed his military uniform and put on a suit, winning the presidential election with a dubious 96.9 percent of the votes.
Egypt is now under the military dictatorship of el-Sisi, although he wears a suit and tie.
Libya and Yemen are in extreme chaos due to violent confrontations among tribes, amounting to civil wars.
There is no need to look far to find an example in which a democracy achieved by the people is hijacked by the military. The student revolution on April 19, 1960 was hijacked by Major General Park Chung Hee’s military coup. After leaving the military with the rank of general, Park became the president in 1963, beating his opponent Yun Bo-seon by 156,000 votes. He ruled the country until he was assassinated by his intelligence chief in 1979.
A Seoul Spring triggered by the tragic end of the Park dictatorship ended in 1980 with Chun Doo Hwan’s military coup. Until 1987, his military dictatorship, disguised as a civilian regime, continued. Chun’s hijacking of the Seoul Spring was possible through the massacre of around 300 Gwangju protesters and residents.
The National Assembly and the Constitutional Court are carrying out a process to settle the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye and I wanted to bring up the unfortunate examples of hijacked democracies in Korea and the Middle East in order to caution that our candlelight revolution, participated in by an accumulated 7 million people, could disappear into thin air. The era of the military coup is over. Even if the Constitutional Court decides to overturn the National Assembly’s impeachment of the president, the accomplishments of the Gwanghwamun Square crowds will not disappear. Even if she wins the legal battle at the Constitutional Court, the only thing Park will maintain will be the title of a president who cannot perform her duties because she was already impeached by the people. And yet, I want to remind the Constitutional Court: Politics is the ultimate of laws, including the Constitution. And politics start from the people’s sentiments expressed in the square.
The destiny of the civil revolution depends on the next president. Only a candidate with the vision and will to implement a national overhaul is qualified to run for the post. If someone without vision or strategy wins the presidency through political engineering, all will just be a grain of wheat in a bushel of chaff.
The presidential candidates must understand that the protesters’ demand is not just for Park’s resignation, no matter how surreal the corruption and irregularities she brought to the Blue House. They demand we bid farewell to an old system that served as the bedrock for this incredible disaster. They want to end the imperial presidential system and amend the constitution to divide power. They want to end the dirty, corruption-breeding factionalism in politics. They want to reform the conglomerates, which are so tainted by deeply-rooted cozy relations with politicians and the government. They want to resolve inequality and unfairness. In other words, they want to build a new country with a new social, cultural and economic order.
Next year’s presidential election will take place amid a revolution that will decide Korea’s future. Thermidor after a revolution is not the exclusive property of the military. President Park’s adamant rejection of her relationship with Choi as a co-conspirator is a shameless act of Thermidor.
The dirty politics of the Park loyalists in the Saenuri Party and Roh Moo-hyun faction of the Minjoo Party of Korea also threaten the civil revolution.
When the next president fails to implement the agenda demanded by the protesters in the latest demonstrations, it will be a hijacking of the civil revolution by nonfeasance. The voters must also elect a new president in the 2017 election by casting ballots wisely, thinking beyond their regions, party, class and gender. They must do so with some introspection of having elected someone like Park, who has the judgment of a teenager.
JoongAng Ilbo, Dec. 23, Page 35
*The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.