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SVG, ‘dread Bills’ and Egypt

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Observing some of the placards at last week’s Opposition picket of the Government’s main Ministerial buildings, one could not but note slogans like “Kill the Bills”, “Dread Bills” etc, which brought back memories of earlier struggles against legislation in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. In particular, those placards recalled and mimicked some of 30 years ago, to be exact, when Vincentian people successfully rose up to stop the passage of two proposed bits of legislation. Those amendments to the Essential Services Act and the Public Order Act caused nation-wide reaction.{{more}} It was there and then that the term “Dread Bills” was coined.

The 2011 protests are also against amendments to legislation, to the Criminal Procedure Code and the Representation of the People Act. Incidentally, the passage of the latter has given rise to its own round of protest, objection and controversy. That is another, though related story. However, what one can say about the current controversy is that circumstances, historical and current-day, may have created favourable opportunities for the Opposition. In colloquial terms, they must be thinking that fate has dealt them a “good hand”, in card-playing terms. What a co-relation of historical factors, (the “struggle” against another set of “Bills”) while at the same time the international media is saturated with democracy struggles in other parts of the world. The events in Egypt are central to these, and again, a bit of good fortune, for Egypt has been in the local news recently, on account of an Egyptian archaeological team assisting us at the Argyle International Airport site. It is also Black History Month, and ancient Egypt must come into focus.

It is not surprising therefore, that attempts are being made, albeit crudely, to capitalize on this juxtaposition of events, ancient and modern, real and imagined. It is not just a Vincentian occurrence, for in Antigua, one leading member of the opposition Labour Party had the gall to call for the removal of the “Antiguan Mubarak”, equating that country’s Prime Minister Baldwin Spencer with Egypt’s embattled Hosni Mubarak.

That temptation is too good to be resisted since, after all, “Pharaoh” is one of the nicknames that the local Opposition have put on PM Gonsalves.

The analogies may be convenient, but they are simplistic, since significant differences exist between the supposedly correlated circumstances. Take the 1981 Bills, for instance. There is a fundamental difference between the “Bills” of today and those of 1981, when basic issues relating to freedom of thought, assembly, association etc. were involved. Today’s issues may be contentious, but they do not have the same breadth of purpose as those of 30 years ago. Then there are the contextual issues, the repressive nature of the then government, the “revolutionary” climate existing then in the Caribbean and worldwide, and the antagonism that the then Labour government had provoked in the labour and popular movements.

As for the similarity with Egypt and developments in the Arab world, that is a horse of a different colour. If developments there spur and encourage our people to stand up for their rights, then I am more than elated. The more persons prepared to defend our democratic freedoms, the better it is for the society as a whole. But Egypt and most of the Arab world are vastly different from the Caribbean. Mubarak alone has been in power for three decades, since the time we were fighting against the “Dread Bills” in 1981. Those in Tunisia, Yemen, Jordan etc. have similar tenures, and records. Did we notice that when food prices last rocketed in mid-2008, that some of the same countries, Egypt prominently, experienced “food riots”?

Making the simplistic comparisons may be convenient, but the roots of all this go deep into our perceptions of politics, our “lining up” on one side or another and hence blind-sideness to opposing views. I was a member of the Parliament-appointed Constitution Review Commission, which placed on its masthead trying to rid our country of political tribalism. Both Parliamentary parties wanted to maintain their privileges, at the expense of the people. One side sought to limit constitutional change, the other took the road of crass opportunism. We, who are in loud debate now, allowed ourselves to be hoodwinked then. Rather than “seizing the time”, as the 1970s American Black Panther leader Bobby Seale said, (this is Black history Month), we voted for Queen, Parliament and the status quo.

It is no justification for the government to pass any legislation, saying, to quote the immortal Mighty Sparrow, “we like it so”, no reason for it to be provocative whilst espousing reconciliation. The tight configuration of seats in Parliament should be reason for enhancing the quality of debate, for further educating our people politically, for the tasks of national development to be placed on a higher plane, and above all to revisit constitutional, political, electoral and local government reform. We are being led in the opposite direction.

In 1981 when the repressive Bills threatened and the official Opposition dithered, the popular movement was reminded in poetry by a then youth leader, “Don’ t let them get your mind, this time”.

CAN WE RISE ABOVE THE TRIBALISM? THIS TIME?

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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