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25 years on, Philippines offers lessons for Egypt

By Maria Ressa, Special to CNN
  • Philippines marks 25 years since people power toppled President Ferdinand Marcos
  • Since then, U.S.-style democracy has "largely failed" in the Philippines
  • Meanwhile, since its government fell in 1998, Indonesia has become a stable nation with a growing economy

Editor's note: Maria Ressa is CNN's former Jakarta bureau chief and author of "Seeds of Terror: An Eyewitness Account of Al-Qaeda's Newest Center of Operations in Southeast Asia." She worked as a journalist in Southeast Asia for nearly 25 years, most recently for ABS-CBN, and is the first Author-in-Residence at the International Centre for Political Violence & Terrorism Research (ICPVTR) in Singapore.

(CNN) -- When you live under a dictator, you follow the rules. Why? Because you're afraid -- for your job, your family, your life. Your neighbors are afraid. It creates a culture of fear and silence.

The system only changes when people find the courage to band together and challenge authority. When enough do that, they break the wall of fear. Tunisia and Egypt are the latest countries to do just that, the people winning their freedom and fanning a contagion effect across the Middle East and North Africa.

This isn't the first time it's happened, and as history has shown, deposing a dictator may be the easiest part of building a nation. No country knows this better than the birthplace of people power, the Philippines, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this week.

The 1986 people power revolt sparked pro-democracy movements across the world: Thailand, South Korea, Taiwan, Romania, Mongolia, Indonesia and many more.

1986 in the Philippines had many similarities to Egypt: Ferdinand Marcos, a U.S.-backed dictator in power for 21 years, was pushed out by more than two million people facing tanks and troops. The call to come to the streets and peacefully protest was also spread by the technology of the time -- not Facebook and Twitter -- but radio.

Euphoria infused the entire society: it was a moment of redemption. Spontaneously created, people power in the Philippines was triggered by a failed military coup; the calls of the powerful Catholic Church to help the soldiers; the journalists who risked their lives to get the message out; alternative political figures who rallied around a widow, Corazon Aquino; and the people who answered the call and came to the streets. In those moments of uncertainty, Filipinos took a stand and risked all they had.

Globally, the social movement that creates people power is driven by activists who call for passionate volunteers. They are more motivated than those who join political parties and government bureaucracies because this is an outpouring of emotion with only one general goal: depose the dictator. They are good fighting evil.

In Egypt, the protesters changed the fight against Hosni Mubarak. In the past, it was led by a political party, the Muslim Brotherhood, with clear leadership, hierarchy, structure and ideology (making it easier for government to track and control). Then the organizational framework changed when it became a social movement, largely leaderless, with no clear goals beyond demanding the end of Mubarak's regime.

Protesters broke the wall of fear and reached a tipping point quicker, amplifying their new-found courage through social media. That shift surprised the Egyptian government, creating uncertainty, volatility and the breakaway of the military which ended Mubarak's rule. Turning a social movement into a political system that delivers on the exuberance of people power is not easy. Only two nations have done it in the past 25 years: Indonesia and South Korea.

They did it by combining the revolutionary zeal of the social movement with working institutions and the experience of government bureaucracy. They did not abolish everything overnight. South Korea, where people overthrew a U.S.-backed military dictatorship, introduced reforms at a calibrated pace to create a stable democracy.

In 1998, Indonesia, which has the world's largest Muslim population, had much in common with Egypt today: a Muslim majority with a large Christian minority; strongman ruler in power for at least 30 years; a powerful military intertwined with government; an Islamist underground that was seen as a threat and also the best excuse for authoritarian rule.

Once the government was toppled, Indonesia combined reforms with a balance of its institutional past -- strengthening its political parties and systems, painstakingly building its democracy.

Thirteen years later, Indonesia is the democratic model in Southeast Asia, turning its political successes into tangible benefits for its 237 million people. Its $695 billion economy, Southeast Asia's largest, continues to grow. It is politically stable, has controlled its Islamist threat, and has a vibrant civil society. Last week, senior U.S. officials said Indonesia is "widely seen as the best example" of where Egypt could go.

Contrast that with Thailand's 1992 revolution against a military regime. It changed the government but failed to nurture its newfound democracy. Elections since then have been rituals, full of sound and fury signifying nothing. Now as it prepares for elections later this year, it faces an insurgency in the south, a border dispute with Cambodia and two different groups (red shirts and yellow shirts) staging regular protests. Their dissenters are addicted to the streets -- much like the Philippines.

People power in the Philippines became a political tool, brandished by its people and its symbol, Corazon Aquino. She led mass protests against her three successors: fighting charter change under President Fidel Ramos; successfully deposing President Joseph Estrada in a second people power uprising which bastardized its meaning because he was a democratically elected leader; helping install President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, then later calling for protests against her.

Mrs Aquino's attempts to rekindle people power and repeat her extra-constitutional triumph challenged her primary legacy -- democracy -- and further weakened the fledgling institutions she left behind.

What's clear is that American-style democracy has largely failed in the Philippines. More form than substance, it has given little back to the people who risked their lives in the streets 25 years ago. Figures from the Asian Development Bank show the Philippines is the only Southeast Asian nation to record an increase in the absolute number of poor people since 1990 (although no figures are available for Myanmar).

On World Governance indicators -- Voice and Accountability, Political Stability, Government Effectiveness, Regulatory Quality, Rule of Law and Control of Corruption -- the Philippines actually slid backwards between 1998 and 2009. A survey done in 2006 showed that only 36% of Filipinos believed Ferdinand Marcos should have been removed by people power.

His son, Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos, Jr. is now a senator and tweeted this after Hosni Mubarak stepped down: "25 years from now in 2036 -- a pretty long time -- I hope Egypt does not look back and lament that things have since gone for the worse."

Ironically, Aquino's son, Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino, III, now has the challenge of fulfilling the promise of people power (which brought his mother into power). Elected by the largest margin since 1986, he was a reluctant candidate with a hodge-podge political machinery that has yet to translate to effective governance. (One of the main problems of the Philippines remains its underdeveloped political parties, depriving politicians of the chance to practice running institutions before they actually get into power).

Still, no one doubts his good intentions. So in its birthplace, where is people power 25 years later? The daily and exhausting drama of real-life political theater and the repeated attempts to replay the now tired script of people power -- all this have only succeeded in trivializing its meaning.

By the third time, people power became a parody of itself. It prevented the painful but necessary growth of all sectors of a society that needed to learn accountability for its choices during elections and a government bureaucracy that needed to institute systems of transparency so it could be held accountable.

People power should never have become part of the regular political arsenal; it was a once-in-a-lifetime act that should have been followed by the hard work of building democratic institutions. That never happened. That is the work that, 25 years later, desperately needs to be done in the Philippines -- and the lesson Egypt should take to heart.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Maria Ressa.