Cairo, September 2012. When faced by potential challenges to their own legitimacy, elites may attempt to channel people’s discontent away from the centres of power and towards external enemies or threats. Sometimes, they go as far as appropriating the languages and practices of mass movements as part of a broader geopolitical strategy. This is not to deny that, even in authoritarian states, citizens still possess some relevant degree of “agency” and freewill. On the contrary, it is precisely their ability to threaten the political order that causes weakened elites, or weak groups within the elite, to direct popular grievances against external targets.
The last few days offered two typical examples of this tactic. In parts of the Middle East, mass protests followed the discovery of an obscure anti-Islamic film produced in the United States by a Coptic extremist of Egyptian origins. Almost simultaneously, Chinese youth were demonstrating on a strong anti-Japanese stance to support their country’s claims over the Diaoyu islands (known as Senkako to the Japanese).
Both protests are, to a large extent, hetero-directed. The anti-Islamic film, which depicts Prophet Mohammed as a whimsical, decadent and violent thug, went unknown for two years before it was unburied by Salafi preachers on the Egyptian TV. Preachers called for mass demonstrations against the US Government, guilty of having allowed the distribution of the film. Demonstrations were soon hijacked by a small group of disenfranchised youngsters who, despite waving the black banner of radical Islam, had little of no connection with the Salafi movement. In a farcical resumption of last year’s revolution, they engaged in a long fight against the police which ended up in unnecessary violence, lack of support from average Egyptians and a serious damage to the country’s image. Actual Salafists didn’t take part in the fight, and yet they managed to monopolize people’s resentments towards the movie. As a result, they positioned themselves as committed guardians of Islam against the threat of American arrogance and western freedom of speech. As protests spread throughout the Muslim world, other elite groups from other countries joined in this manipulative game. A Pakistani Minister went as far as promising monetary reward for the head of the Coptic filmmaker.
In China, the manipulation of popular protests for political goals has a longer history. In 1999, the destruction of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade by US air forces was met with violent demonstrations in China. James Sasser, the US Ambassador to Beijing, was trapped in his embassy as enraged students tried to storm the compound: as also shown in Tehran (1979) and more recently in Benghazi, with the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens, American diplomats don’t fare too well in these situations. In 1999, the Chinese reaction was the result of years of overheated patriotic rhetoric used by the Communist Party to reinforce its legitimacy. As noted by Hughes (2006), this rhetoric exposed the delicate relationship between Chinese domestic politics and foreign policies, as leaders found it increasingly challenging to respond to protesters’ “expectations for the country to ‘say no’ to the United States”. As anti-Japan protests grow over disputed islands, history seems to repeat itself. Bi Qi Ge jumps to the rather extreme conclusion that Chinese youths are “brainwashed puppets of the Communist Party”. Like in 1999, however, puppets can elude the control of their own masters, for better or worse.
In both cases, the elite groups who appropriated popular protests did so out of weakness and took high political risk. But the relationship between these two cases runs even deeper. Further protests in the Sunni-Muslim world may threaten the stability of China’s Xinjiang province, home to a large Islamic population, at a time when the Syrian civil war is damaging the relation of Beijing with most Sunni powers in the Middle East. On the other hand, rising instability in the East China Sea could relieve Middle Eastern countries of some unwanted international pressure.
One disheartening implication is that, for their own survival, extractive regimes often resort to the creation of external enemies. To some extent, this also applies to western democracies: Islamophobia and anti-immigration stances are nothing but attempts of elected elites to avoid facing responsibility for the failure of their own policies.
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Hughes, C. (2006). Chinese Nationalism in the Global Era. Routledge.