But there are major differences. We live in a democratic country, governed by the rule of law. The protesters in Wisconsin have as their civil right the freedom of speech and assembly. The main responses to these protests have been harsh words and political hyperbole. But there exists a process. It may take a long time. It may be messy. For democracy is all these things. But the safety valve exists within the system for people to express what they believe, what matters most to them, even if they disagree. The danger arises when we lose sight of this truth, and believe we are above the law, above the process.
Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya are all governed by authoritarian regimes of varying power. The protesters gathering in these countries were desperate enough to overcome fear of retaliation by their governments. In Tunisia, there was a brief crackdown. But the government was so weak, that the leaders fled. In Egypt, the military refused to follow Mubarak’s demands to crush the protests. Still, almost 400 protesters were killed, as far as we know. While some protestors did turn violent against security forces and foreign journalists, others worked to keep the protests peaceful. In the end, both governments fell.
In Libya, things are much worse. While some key government officials and military have refused to participate and have even defected to other countries, Gadhafi has used military and foreign mercenaries to enforce a violent and bloody crackdown.
It is terrible to see what is happening abroad. It reinforces how truly precious and fragile our system of government is, how hard it is to “export” it to people living in desperate circumstances, where it is easier to live under autocratic rule until it becomes unbearable. I do not know what will happen in Tunisia, Egypt, or Libya: if the new governments will indeed respect the rights of their citizens, if the protesters themselves can step into roles of a more humanitarian leadership; or if the likes of Gadhafi will stay in power or succeed. I hope that at home we are aware of what we have and that we honor it and participate in it fully. As Unitarian Universalists, we have an added religious responsibility to affirm and promote the democratic system not only in our congregations but also in our world, as well as justice, equity, and compassion in human relations. There is more than politics at stake.