Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
9 - 15 December 1999
Issue No. 459
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

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Politics and violence

By Mohamed Sid-Ahmed

Mohamed Sid-Ahmed The political game on the eve of the new millennium seems to be dominated by a tug-of-war between diplomacy and violence. For some time following the fall of the Berlin wall and the replacement of a bipolar by a unipolar world order, it was believed that violence as an idiom of political discourse was on the wane and that conflict-resolution would henceforth rely exclusively on diplomacy. But events have since proved that this was an overly optimistic assumption, belied every day by news reports of terrorist acts which, at the end of the day, represent violence in its most extreme form.

Some glimmers of light have recently appeared in this bleak picture, however. One comes from Northern Ireland, where there are signs of a shift from violence to politics after centuries of strife. The most intense contradiction in Northern Ireland today is not between Catholics and Protestants or between Republicans and Unionists but between the proponents of violence in both camps on the one side and the advocates of a political solution on the other. The composition of the cabinet that will run the new power-sharing Northern Ireland Assembly, which includes members of the various antagonistic factions in Northern Ireland, including Sinn Fein and the hard-line Democratic Unionist Party, indicates the determination of the country's political institutions to form a common front in the face of violence.

Another comes from Turkey in the form of Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit's decision to stay execution of the death sentence passed against Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan, in an obvious attempt to improve his country's chances of joining the European Union -- which has made it clear that Turkey will not qualify for membership unless it abolishes the death penalty. Following his arrest, Ocalan -- the very personification of terrorism for successive Turkish governments -- issued a number of statements repudiating violence and calling for a political solution of the Kurdish problem. Though Ocalan's life still hangs in the balance -- the prime minister's decision granted him only a temporary reprieve -- for the first time a peaceful settlement of the dispute cannot be altogether discounted.

Yet another indication of the world's repugnance with violence is the Pinochet affair. The former Chilean dictator, the last member of a dying breed of absolute rulers whose most prominent figures were Hitler, Mussolini and Franco (Pakistan's Musharraf looks set to revive the trend) subjected his political opponents to the worst kinds of state terrorism during his years in power. Today he is called upon to face trial for the crimes of torture and genocide, while powerful personalities, including Margaret Thatcher, are pleading for his unconditional release. There is more at stake here than the fate of Augustus Pinochet who is, as his supporters rightfully point out, an old, sick and harmless man: the real question is whether the use of violence as an alternative to politics should go unpunished.

If the above examples reflect attempts to address conflict situations through the use of political rather than violent means, last week's events in Seattle prove that violence can just as easily replace politics. Some fifty to one hundred thousand demonstrators from all over the world took to the streets of Seattle to protest against the World Trade Organisation conference. Although the issues addressed by the conference were of a highly technical nature, seemingly far removed from the concerns of the man in the street, it was ordinary citizens, members of NGOs from all over the world, who used street violence to disrupt the conference. The demonstrators raised extremely pertinent slogans, like: "We are citizens, not consumers", "The rules governing the multinational corporations are not the rules of democracy", "Down with globalisation without a social dimension". The irony of it all is that market mechanisms which are supposed to remove the reasons justifying recourse to violence were themselves the source of violence in Seattle.

The Seattle demonstrations have been described as the most violent in America since the Vietnam war. Another irony is that Bill Clinton, who took part as a student in demonstrations against the Vietnam war, is now seen as responsible for the eruption of the violent demonstrations in Seattle. He has declared that he is not opposed to the right to demonstrate, but the demonstrators accuse him, despite all his rhetoric about democracy and human rights, of being on the side of the multinationals whenever critical issues are raised.

If it is true that the protagonists in some conflict situations, like Northern Ireland for example, choose to eschew violence and move their conflict to the political arena, it is equally true that this does not apply to all the protagonists in all conflict situations. Seattle is a case in point. So too is the Basque conflict, with ETA threatening to resume its campaign of terror 14 months after unilaterally declaring a truce. It is clear that politics is not always successful in overcoming the alienation and frustration that drive some parties to violence.

Nowhere is the tug-of-war between politics and violence more intense than it is in the Middle East, where the failure of politics to work out a just and equitable settlement of the Palestinian problem will almost certainly plunge the region once again into a spiral of violence. True, both the Palestinian Authority and Barak's government are in favour of declaring the creation of a Palestinian state before the end of the year 2000, albeit for very different reasons. For the Palestinians, it would be the culmination of their most basic aspiration; for the Israelis, it would be a guarantor of Israel's security.

But the Palestinian-Israeli meeting of minds is limited to the formal declaration, it does not extend to the real issues of contention between the two sides, such as Jerusalem, the settlements, final borders, water, refugees, etc. Does this mean that the declaration will be made and the establishment of a state postponed until these issues are resolved or that the state will be established and the resolution of the outstanding issues postponed indefinitely? Will a political solution along those lines put an end to violence or will it, rather, induce new flare-ups of violence?

These are all examples of the dialectical relationship between politics and violence, a relationship that remains shrouded in ambiguity on the eve of the new millennium. The collapse of the Soviet Union seemed to herald in a new unipolar world order, if not in terms of inter-state relations at least in terms of a single value system accepted by the world at large -- a system in which the values of democracy, human rights and market economy prevailed and constituted the basis for international legality. But bipolarity is still very much alive, no longer between a capitalist pole and a communist pole, but between a pole representing the so-called new world order and another rebelling against that order in a variety of ways, including violence and terrorism.

This is a problem the 21st century will be inheriting from the twentieth. Can technology help solve it? We have seen how the Internet, cellular phones and e-mail replace the traditional centralised party and trade union, structures in the Seattle demonstrations. Whether this new technology will promote accountability, transparency and democracy, in a word, politics rather than violence, remains to be seen.

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