Column: The start of something unprecedented

The second column on Egypt + Edsa. Published on February 22, 2011.

WE ALL “know” Jaime Cardinal Sin called the people to Edsa exactly 25 years ago today. But he wasn’t the first to do so, and it wasn’t Butz Aquino either, the first leader of the so-called “parliament of the streets” to bring a sizable delegation to Camp Aguinaldo, where a military breakaway group led by Juan Ponce Enrile, then the defense minister, and Fidel Ramos, then a lieutenant general and second-in-command of the Armed Forces, had retreated. It was a group of civic-spirited friends, who rushed to the AFP headquarters to show their support and, once inside, found a reporter from Radio Veritas, who put them on the air.

At around 7 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 22, Wency Reyes of Parañaque City, in response to the reporter’s question about the kind of “moral support” the people could provide the military defectors, made the following appeal. “Sa aking palagay po, kung tayo ay makakapag-raise tayo ng one million people by tomorrow morning ay magiging safe ang ating mga gentlemen na naririto ngayon.”

While by February 1986 the anti-Marcos opposition had already demonstrated its capacity to muster million-strong crowds (during the funeral of Ninoy Aquino and during Cory Aquino’s miting de avance), the scale of Reyes’ appeal in those early hours must have seemed somewhat fantastic. We can get a sense of this from the reaction of the reporter, who did not comment or ask Reyes to elaborate, and instead merely replied: “Okay, mga kaibigan. Wency Reyes of Parañaque.”

I got these details from Reyes’ own daughter, who left a comment, plus the transcript of the Veritas interview, on my Newsstand blog all of five years ago. (The occasion was the presentation of the Inquirer TV documentary “Edsa 20,” which remains available for viewing on the Internet.) I responded to Champ Reyes’ generosity in the following vein: “Your father was a brave and prescient man. Unfortunately I did not hear him that night, perhaps because he was simply ahead of his time. I mean literally. If he made the appeal at 7 p.m. or so, Ramos and Enrile were still in the middle of their presscon, Butz Aquino was still on his way to [an] ATOM [August Twenty-One Movement] birthday party, and Cardinal Sin was probably still at the Loyola House of Studies in the Loyola Heights campus of the Ateneo de Manila, at the ordination of new Jesuit priest Louie David, SJ. That makes his act all the more remarkable: While other people were still processing the information Ramos and Enrile were relaying, he had already come to the right conclusion: People power was needed to save the day.”

I looked up this first recorded appeal for people power after the Egyptian people ousted Hosni Mubarak. The overwhelming majority of the articles I’ve read and the footage I’ve seen on the 18-day revolution in Egypt had scanted any mention of EDSA 1. I would be surprised if any Egyptian had in fact thought of it during the campaign against Mubarak; for the protesters, the example of the so-called Velvet Revolutions was, quite literally, closer to home. But I expected more from political analysts and foreign correspondents; they should have seen the connection. Which brings me to that first appeal for people power: It may be that the relation of EDSA 1986 to Egypt 2011 is rather like that of Wency Reyes to Cardinal Sin.

* * *

Two distinguished writers did get the connection, and thus the historical context, right.

Writing in his New Yorker blog several days before Mubarak was ousted, George Packer paid EDSA 1986 the high compliment of a matter-of-fact reference: “In 1986, at the climax of the original People Power revolt, President Reagan sent Senator Paul Laxalt to Manila to tell Ferdinand Marcos that it was time to leave—and Marcos left. That kind of paternalism is not possible today …” Of course, Laxalt told Marcos off (“cut, and cut cleanly”) by telephone, not in person; and Marcos did not readily oblige, but took some time to assess the situation. The Americans can be credited with keeping a helicopter waiting in Malacañang Park. But at least Packer got the pioneering nature of EDSA 1986 right.

* * *

One of the world’s best political journalists—Orwell’s true successor—did not only get both context and connection, he understood the very provenance of the phrase “people power.” In a December 2009 essay for the New York Review of Books, Timothy Garton Ash discussed the future of Velvet Revolutions, in my view correctly contrasting 1989, the start of the velvet wave in Europe, and 1789, the archetypal French Revolution.

His summary of the antecedents of an unprecedented phenomenon makes for bracing reading.

“Semantically, the Czechoslovak revolution may have been the first to be called ‘velvet,’ but Central Europe in 1989 did not spirit this model out of the ether. Relevant earlier history includes not just Central Europe’s own learning process through the failed emancipation attempts of 1953 (East Germany), 1956 (Hungary), 1968 (Czechoslovakia), 1970-1971 and 1980-1981 (Poland), but also the mobilization to unseat General Pinochet in Chile, where the 1988 plebiscite preceded Central Europe?s 1989; the toppling of the Marcoses in the Philippines in 1983-1986, which gave us the wonderful Filipino-English term ‘people power’; and the ‘revolution of the carnations’ in Portugal in 1974-1975, arguably the first ‘velvet revolution’ in post-war Europe; and all the way back to the seminal example of Gandhi in India.”

I especially like the way the author of the modern classic, “Uses of Adversity,” dates people power, Philippine style: to the thousand days between Ninoy Aquino’s assassination and Marcos’ ignominious, final flight.

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