We know that the Arab Spring has triggered political tremors far beyond the Arab world. China almost immediately began cracking down on any activists or dissidents it feared would breath the words “jasmine revolution.” Concerned by seeing so many authoritarian friends in peril, Hugo Chavez has bent over backward to defend these Arab autocrats as the aggrieved parties, going so far as to call Syria’s Bashar al-Assad a “humanist.” When I was in Malaysia in February, the regime there was at pains to explain why the events in these Arab and North African one-party states did not apply to them after more than five decades in power. And now, the newest unexpected ricochet from these popular rebellions has emerged: the Kingdom of Swaziland.
For weeks, the pressure has been building in sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarchy. The government’s announcement of pay cuts last month had sent thousands of civil servants into the street in protest. And nonviolent protest organizers planned to use April 12th — the 38th anniversary of Swaziland’s banning of political parties — as a rallying point for a larger wave of demonstrations, calling for the end of the dictatorship and the establishment of a constitutional monarchy. But, in anticipation of those protests, the regime struck first, launching a wide-scale crackdown against any groups or individuals it deemed a threat.
The people of Swaziland have good cause to be unhappy. The country of 1.4 million is desperately poor, with 40 percent unemployment and nearly 70 percent of the population living on less than $1 a day. The life expectancy for men is 50 years; for women, 48. The country has the world’s AIDs infection rate. According to a recent USAID report, more than 25 percent of the population is HIV-positive. And they have little reason to believe that anyone is coming to their rescue: Their monarch, King Mswati III, has ruled since 1986. His father wore the crown for more than 60 years before him.
Each of the countries that have erupted in popular rebellion in recent weeks have had unique features. Some have been more or less repressive, some more or less economically well-off. But the broad features that have existed in the region’s autocracies — high unemployment, gross disparities of wealth, corruption, limited press freedoms and a lack of genuine political choice — are true of Swaziland as well.
And if the conditions are similar, so too has been the government’s response. On Sunday, according to sources inside the country, the police rounded up protest leaders and organizers who were detained at an unknown location. The authorities then launched a general crackdown by preemptively detaining people in the capital of Manzini who walked together in groups. The university was closed, and the officers of the Teacher Union — one of the central groups organizing demonstrations — were raided. Security forces — both army and police — have filled the streets of Manzini to intimidate any protests or rallies. The BBC reported that the only marches taking place were being led by riot police, chanting, “You will get arrested if you dare.”
Today, the crackdown continued. Police broke up a meeting of union organizers with tear gas and water cannons, and the government called for a 6 p.m. curfew.
The Arab Spring is still a young phenomenon, barely three months old. Although there is growing concern that some of its popular rebellions may wither, fail or regress, there is no question that its resonance is still being felt. Swaziland was every bit as repressive and miserable in 2010 or 2005, as it is now. But the difference appears to be the inspiration that people there have taken from events outside their borders.
The lesson here is twofold: Many people want their own version of the Arab Spring. And we have no idea where that desire will find its voice next.