Whatever the motivation of the powerful, the people are ever so cautiously beginning to exercise their newfound freedom. Transitional democracies are notoriously unstable – see Egypt – in part because no one knows exactly what the new rules are or who the ultimate decision-makers will be. The press is flexing its poorly toned muscles by covering some of the controversies like it never has before.
On the one hand, this means there is more civic space for organized dissent, at least at the local level. One village, for example, in Myanmar had been beleaguered for years by the military appropriating sand for its own uses that the villagers needed for theirs. With the new melody of “people power” playing in their ears, the villagers sent an anonymous protest letter to the military, which, astonishingly, stopped stealing the sand. This was not, of course, because the military had suddenly become enlightened. It was because it couldn’t know for sure that higher-ups might not heed the villagers’ wishes and punish the military’s excesses.
Of course, the usefulness of such uncertainty cannot last forever. The reason democracies are run by the rule of law is so that the people – and the military – know what the rules are and who will enforce them. Eventually the government will clarify the rules (written or unwritten), and at that point everyone will know whether the newfound intimations of democracy are fraudulent or serious.
In the meantime, the people must learn how to act democratically. I remember one Eastern European dissident saying to me after the 1989 upheavals that overthrew one communist government after another in that part of the world, “In the past, you could get fifteen years in prison for criticizing the government; ten years in prison for thinking about criticizing the government, and five years in prison for doing nothing at all. The biggest problem for me with freedom is not learning to speak freely; it is learning how to think like a free person.”
Among other things, that “thinking like a free person” means recognizing that people are all in this struggle together.