Corruption, not protests, has destabilised the country

The right to protest may be sacrosanct; but to bring about the necessary changes this country needs, a political movement will have to be built on the foundations of activism

The right to protest is sacrosanct. So are acts of non-violent direct action like the one organised by Moviment Graffitti on Monday, when the left-wing activists occupied the customer care office in Castille, to press home the message that it cannot be business as usual as long as long as Muscat remains in office.

We therefore firmly disagree with Labour MEP Alex Agius Saliba when described the activists as “extremists” bent on “destabilising the country”.

Agius Saliba urged steps to be taken to “put an end to this madness”, adding that the “country cannot be ruled by a few people who set themselves above the law.”

Dangerously, he also equated “civil disobedience” with “anarchy”, ignoring the vital role civil disobedience had in the history of democratic societies: a tradition dating back to the Chartists and the Suffragettes, and including towering figures like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

Apart from the implications on freedom of expression, Agius Saliba completely ignores the context, which justifies acts of civil disobedience as long as these remain non-violent. 

The context is one in which the country’s institutions have been vandalised, not by activists staging a peaceful sit-in protest, but by powerful criminals and their political allies.  

These include accountants setting up secret offshore secret companies for those in power; a leading businessman and energy mogul allegedly conniving with criminals to kill a journalist; a chief of staff in the office of the Prime Minister implicated both in corruption and possibly in actively obstructing justice; and a Prime Minister who allowed all this to happen under his watch.  

It is the assassination of a journalist and the corruption, which took root in Castille, that has destabilised the country, not a protest.  It is this abnormal situation which has robbed us of our normality.

It is even more disturbing that Robert Abela – a contender for the Labour leadership and possible future Prime Minister – has added his voice against legitimate protests, dismissing them as an act of provocation.  

Abela has gone on record saying that while he “tolerated” peaceful protest, but he would not tolerate anyone who was violent and tried to “destroy” the country: adding that he “will not tolerate anyone going beyond the limits,” while claiming that the “purpose of ongoing civil society protests is provocation.”  

His choice of words is revealing.  In a democratic society protests are an integral part of democratic life, not something to be “tolerated”. Neither is it clear what exactly he means by “going beyond limits.”   While he is right in saying that violence is never justified, all protests organised so far – including the occupation of a side entrance of Castille by Graffitti activists – have been peaceful and well within the norms of civic protest as understood in a European liberal democratic context.  

It is a far cry from what happens in major European countries on occasions like G7 summits, or during last year’s Gilets Jaunes riots in France.

But while we are concerned by declarations which seem to question the right to protest, the handling of protests by police and security forces has largely been exemplary and carried out in a way which avoided an escalation of tension.  

In this sense protesters should direct their anger at those in power, and not against the police who are carrying out their duties in ensuring their safety.  

This does not mean that one should not question certain decisions, such as that of locking Castille’s side door to cut off the media from the protestors and not allowing protestors to attend to their basic biological needs.   

But even in such cases one cannot blame the officers executing the orders.  In this sense the Graffitti activists also showed maturity, gained from experience, by sticking to their political message and avoiding confrontation with the army officers.

As regards the mass protests demanding Muscat’s immediate resignation, it is inevitable that in a tribal and bipartisan society like Malta these attract people whose only agenda is to denigrate the rival tribe.  

Yet these protests are also attracting hundreds of non-partisan people who feel a sense of urgency, which led them to put a peg on their nose, and march alongside people with whom they have passionately disagreed in the past and are probably bound to disagree with again in the future.  

On Sunday, Andre Callus’s hard-hitting speech denouncing both Joseph Muscat and the incestuous relationship between business and politics, was a refreshing change from the usual litany of anti-Labour spiel and vague patriotism and moralising. Through their active participation in mass demonstration, non-partisans are ensuring that these protests do not degenerate in to an anti-Labour crusade.  

Hopefully, apart from ensuring justice for Daphne Caruana Galizia, this civic awakening will also translate into a non-partisan movement for radical constitutional and legal changes aimed at erecting a firewall between big business and politics while ensuring greater checks and balance on those in power.

The right to protest may be sacrosanct; but on its own it will not bring about the necessary changes this country needs. For that, a dedicated, new political movement will have to be built on the foundations of activism.

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