SHAHIPRATAP, BANGLADESH, DEC. 10 -- The worldwide wave of democratic revolution splashed into Bangladesh last week as thousands of students and professionals took to city streets and toppled President Hussein Mohammed Ershad's authoritarian government.
But the wave was not powerful enough to reach the countryside, where a majority of Bangladeshis struggle not for civil liberties but for survival.
To many of the rural poor in whose name the democracy movement was launched, Bangladesh's recent upheaval appears at best an irrelevancy and at worst a frightening harbinger of civil turmoil. In interviews, landless laborers and subsistence farmers expressed relief that the agitation was over, distrust of those behind it and conviction that democracy would not make their lives any better.
They have reason to be pessimistic, since the opposition parties that brought down Ershad have governed Bangladesh before and have done little to break the cycle of poverty, malnutrition, disease, natural disaster, political violence and government corruption that for two decades has shaped daily life in one of the world's poorest countries.
In a thatched hut here this morning, at the weekly meeting of the Shahipratap Landless Women's Society, a private banking cooperative organized to assist the rural poor, 30 women spoke animatedly about their pressing concerns: children and relatives who are sick and dying, rising food prices, cattle theft and an acute shortage of drinkable water.
Ershad was brought down by weeks of protests, strikes and violence in Bangladesh's cities. But the rural women did not mention the democracy movement except to complain that the stir contributed to growing violence and theft in the countryside and disrupted their lives by generating higher prices as well as isolated strikes and curfews.
"We were frightened," said Musammet Majeda. "We were afraid there would be war -- we heard that people were being killed, buses and houses set on fire."
Following Ershad's resignation last Tuesday, a caretaker government headed by a Supreme Court justice has promised to hold parliamentary elections within 90 days.
"We don't care about all these changes. Since the government doesn't do anything for us, we don't much care for" those who ousted Ershad, said Sharifa, who goes by only one name. Sharifa said she has lost her house to floods and two young daughters to disease during the past 18 months.
Her themes were echoed at a second women's cooperative meeting in a nearby village, by farmers in the area and by laborers at a rural brick factory who earn about 90 cents a day by squatting in an open field and molding clay mud into blocks.
Pessimism in the countryside, where there was little significant protest during the student-led movement against Ershad, reflects the daunting challenges faced by anyone promising meaningful change in densely populated and deeply impoverished Bangladesh, a flood-prone country struggling to keep its head above water -- literally and figuratively.
The attitudes in rural areas also suggest that Bangladesh's unresolved fight for democracy is being contested almost entirely by sections of the country's relatively small middle and upper classes: university students, professionals, traders, businessmen, bureaucrats, career politicians, and the military.
The temporary alliances among these groups that forced out Ershad, a retired general and former martial-law administrator seen by urbanites as corrupt and autocratic, were forged by a surge of democratic aspirations in the capital of Dhaka and several other large cities. But since the democracy movement lacks mass support among the rural majority and involves leaders who have fought each other for two decades, even city dwellers sympathetic to the movement worry about what will come next.
While some military officers and democracy movement leaders want to try Ershad on corruption charges, the former president appears to believe he can stage a political comeback. From his heavily guarded compound, he told the BBC in a telephone interview on Sunday that he was working on his golf, writing poetry and planning a public rally for Dec. 16.
Some anticipate violence if Ershad presses his candidacy; officials of his Jatiya Dal (National Party) are in hiding or under police protection, wary of angry mobs. But if Ershad is not allowed to seek office, "There won't be peace," said Jatiya officeholder Iran Mesbauddin. Renewed unrest could spark military intervention. Some urbanites see the army's hand manipulating events.
While in power, Ershad enjoyed support from industrialized countries in the West, which contribute about $2 billion to Bangladesh annually and fund 86 percent of the country's development budget. Ershad's fervor for free markets, export industries and infrastructure projects pleased donors such as the United States and the World Bank. In August, he dispatched several thousand troops to Saudi Arabia in support of U.S. policy in the Persian Gulf.
But the United States and other Western donors grew weary of corruption and inefficiency in Ershad's government according to Western aid officials in Dhaka. Opposition leaders and urban Bangladeshis locked out of Ershad's small circle of ministers and advisers resented his government's disregard for civil rights and its eager solicitation of Western aid dollars, which they said were funneled to corrupt industrialists and cronies.
Apart from their dislike of Ershad, however, the opposition groups that came together in city streets last week appear to have little else in common. The leftist Awami League-led alliance, favored to win any new election, has advocated nationalization of industry and more government spending on the poor. The rightist Bangladesh Nationalist Party-led alliance leans toward Islam and free markets.
University students chanted for democracy during their protest movement but are split on the issues. Some acknowledged that they have a long way to go to gain the confidence of the rural majority whose cause they have championed.
"In the past, different parties talked about poverty, particularly women and children, but they were never able to deliver," said a Bangladesh Nationalist Party student leader in the rural town of Narsindi. "This time, we will try to do something."