Philippine People Power in Egypt: Marcos & Mubarak

Philippine People Power in Egypt: Marcos & Mubarak

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SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. —With all the troubling events in the Philippines, from the corruption cases, to acts of terrorism, to frustrations with government, the upcoming 25th anniversary of the 1986 EDSA 
[ referring to the major avenue where the Philippine People Power Revolution took place] revolt may be, for many Filipinos, an unexciting milestone.

But the world is reminding us right now why what happened that February, when Filipinos kicked out a dictator in dramatic fashion, was one heckuva freedom fiesta that is still worth celebrating.

As I write this, Egyptians are out in the streets defying yet another unpopular ruler. In Tunisia, ordinary people ousted a tyrant whose big-spending wife has been called the “Imelda Marcos of the Arab world.”

In Haiti, there’s news about Jean Claude Duvalier, the notorious Baby Doc, who was overthrown the same year Filipinos chased Marcos out of the country. (I guess we can call him “classmate ni/ of Makoy / Ferdinand Marcos.”) 

Baby Doc recently dared to return to the Caribbean country only to be promptly arrested by authorities of a country he and his father abused for many years. (According to the New York Times, his surprising move appeared to be a legal ploy to trick Swiss authorities into believing that he was not subject to prosecution in his home country and therefore deserved to have his bank account unfrozen.)

And in the United States, a federal court has ordered payments to thousands of human rights victims of the Marcos regime, yet another grim reminder of the brutality Filipinos endured in the ousted strongman’s 21-year reign.

To be sure, among Filipinos, there are two competing views of EDSA.

On the one hand, there are those who see it as a proud moment when Filipinos stood as one to bring down a greedy dictator. On the other are those who dismiss it a spectacle that did not bring about meaningful social change, especially for poor Filipinos.

Certainly, many will point to the most disturbing sign that things have not really changed much: The Marcos forces are back.

Here’s the son of the late dictator, now Philippine senator, unrepentant about Marcos’s reign of brutality, who essentially claims that the despised despot’s rule was actually a pleasant, even magnificent, period in Philippine history.

It’s particularly annoying that the spirit of mass protest and collective action, of a nation rallying together to oust a bully has largely been overshadowed by what has been the most enduring image from EDSA.

No, it’s not the image of nuns praying the rosary while kneeling in front of armored personnel carriers. Nor of people linking arms, passing flowers and food to soldiers, urging them to join the rebellion and abandon the tyrant.

Not at all.

It’s shoes. Three thousand pairs of them, the ugly symbol of rapacity and extravagance in a despicable era.

What’s mind boggling is that, while Imelda is back in the limelight in Manila, throughout the world her name is still shorthand for greed.

A London Daily Telegraph story on Leila Trabelsi, Tunisia’s deposed First Lady, the now infamous Imelda of Arabia, said this of Southeast Asia’s dominatrix of delusional demagoguery:

“Imelda, ah, Imelda, the dictator’s wife’s dictator’s wife. … Was she repentant? Quite the contrary, boasting only recently that ‘when they opened Imelda’s cupboards, they did not find skeletons. They only found beautifully made shoes.’ Manila’s favorite foot fetishist is still going strong at 81.”

And Imelda has even penetrated American pop culture consciousness. Rapper Mary J. Blige’s fetish for shades earned her the moniker the “Imelda of sunglasses.”

All these would be pretty amusing, if not for the fact that Imelda also symbolizes a dark period in our history.

There are, I agree, still many dark spots in the archipelago, from corruption to violence to poverty and political abuse. So it’s not surprising that many Filipinos may simply shrug their shoulders as they reflect on the significance of EDSA. The generally uninspired presidency of the son of EDSA’s most celebrated icon, Corazon Aquino, hasn’t helped.

But I’d argue that yes, we must continue to remember, and celebrate.

For there was one victory Filipinos won during the EDSA revolt that has, more or less, endured. And the world—the Egyptians and the Tunisians in particular—is reminding us of this right now.

Yes, grave problems remain, and Philippine democracy, still dominated by a narrow-sighted, corrupt elite, is far from perfect. (There’s no such thing as a perfect democracy anyway.)

But 25 years ago, Filipinos debunked the notion that one man can have all the answers, and that because he claims to be all-knowing, he must therefore be given absolute power indefinitely.

And this also applies to groups of would-be all-knowing, all-powerful rulers, whether it’s those with messianic claims of being the party blessed with the correct ideology, or those who dream of a utopia under an all-powerful military junta.

A quarter of a century ago, we kicked out a bully and showed the world that bullies, even the most despotic, are not invincible. Sooner or later, they fall.

In Egypt and Tunisia, that lesson resonates today.

This op-ed was originally published as " EDSA in Egypt, Marcos-style bullies under fire"