I first visited Egypt 30 years ago in 1981 to do research for my master’s thesis which was later published in my first book “The Bats of Egypt”, tells human rights activist Mazin Qumsiyeh, a Palestinian. I visited Egypt twice since then and I recall vividly police abuse of their own people and yet the Egyptians I encountered mocked and joked about dictatorship. We tried at least from a distance to support our Egyptian brothers and sisters as they struggle for freedom. Arabs everywhere (yes even here in occupied Palestine) are talking about a transformation and about revolution. But all such transformations carry pain. Over 200 Egyptians were killed, thousands injured, and there is much destruction. Yet in a nation of 85 million people this is still a relatively peaceful transformation. While dealing with the present is critical we must also at this juncture start to look post dictatorship in the Arab world and plan the future.
I recall vividly a talk by a self-described “Liberal Zionist” (an oxymoron) at Duke University on 1 March 198l; at 77 year old he had no inhibitions in saying “Zionists do not want democracy in the Arab world.” He explained that if Egypt was a democracy, it would not have signed a peace deal with Israel since the sentiments of the Arab people does not accept such arrangements that could be done with someone like President Sadat or King Hussein. On this point he was absolutely correct but in the long run such short-sighted perspective is self-destructive.
As I watched last night Hosni Mubarak make his (hopefully last) speech, I was very much reminded of the last speech of the Shah of Iran, Marcos of the Philippines, Bin Ali of Tunisia. They all claimed after so many years of torturing their own people that they now want to “reform”. The US funded and supported the brutal Mubarak regime for over 30 years even as plenty of evidence from human rights organizations documented its abuse of its own citizens.
This is also the same police who, on the instruction of the Mubarak dictatorship, beat international activists trying to provide humanitarian relief to besieged Gaza. Mubarak then went on to for the first time appoint a vice president (his intelligence chief and ex-army buddy Omar Suleiman) and appoint another army officer as prime minister. It is now recognized that
his reign is ending and a new era is beginning.
It is rather amusing that the brutal dictator of “Saudi” Arabia (a country named after a ruling family!) called to support Mubarak and stated that the demonstrators are hooligans and criminals. Anyone who knows anything about Egypt knows that this amazing and inspiring mostly nonviolent revolution is a true expression of the will of the Egyptian people regardless of their political or religious persuasions (leftist, Muslim Brotherhood, Nasserite Arab Nationalist, Christians, Muslims, etc).
In other news in brief for those who don’t keep up with internet news or those who watch mainly the (supine) Western Media:
– Large demonstrations by Egyptians and human rights defenders at Egyptian embassies around the world all demanding democracy
– Israeli embassy in Cairo essentially emptied (an apartheid state embassy in the largest Arab country is an abomination)
– Israeli pundits very worried about how Egypt might look after Mubarak.
– There are many signs that the Egyptian military (like the Tunisian military) may be critical in this struggle. Already there are instances where the demonstrators were protected from the Egyptian police by the Egyptian military.
– A number of human rights groups and Egyptian community representatives abroad all called for ending the Egyptian police brutality. By contrast EU and US government officials are making feeble statements to hedge their bets and at best call for “peaceful” actions from “all sides”. Slowly they were forced to modify their rhetoric to talk about “change” but must finally call
on their puppet Mubarak to leave power and insist that he and his sons and family return the billions stolen from the Egyptian people.
-A number of religious and civil organizations in Egypt broke their silence to support the ouster of the “last Pharaoh”
-The dictatorship cutting of web and mobile phone services and banning reporting by groups like Al-Jazeera did little to stem the tide of protest because people are living it daily in their homes and on the streets and they are not being incited from outside.
– Protests spread to Jordan and Yemen (two other Western supported governments). There are now plans for large protests in Syria and other countries.
– On the Palestinian Authority TV news, they noted that Mahmoud Abbas called Mubarak and stated his support for stability of Egypt. Other news outlets stated that he fully supports the Mubarak regime. Hamas then came in to say that they support the Egyptian people. Sadly, I think all rational human beings know which horse to bet on in this struggle between people and a western-supported dictator who accomplished nothing for his people and instead enriched his family (his sons are billionaires in a country in which tens of millions of people live on less than $1 a day).
I wrote seven months ago that “The political leadership in the fragmented Arab countries and Palestinian authority have convinced themselves that they have no option but to endlessly try to talk to politicians from Tel Aviv and Washington (the latter also Israeli occupied territory) hoping for some ‘gestures’ ..I know most politicians like to feel 100% safe (mostly for their
position of power) and are afraid of any change. But I wish they would realize that daring politicians make the history books and those who hang around trying to protect their seats will be forgotten. Cowardice is never a virtue.” And then I concluded that “In the demonstrations yesterday, a child in Gaza was carrying a sign that says ‘we demand freedom’ and a child
in Cairo that says ‘children in Egypt and in Gaza want the siege lifted’.
That is our future – not elderly politicians meeting to do media damage control with empty words.”
But make no mistake about it: no power transformation happens without a period of unrest, instability, and pain. I believe in these difficult periods, humans are tested. Some are weak and may even try to use the situations to make some quick personal profit. Others are of strong and
decent character and this shows in their watching for their neighbors and their community. I have seen countless pictures and heard countless stories of acts that can only be described as heroic (e.g. people protecting the national museum in Cairo or their neighbors’ houses). Intellectuals are stepping forward to articulate rational scenarios for the future. People helping other people. So I think we will weather the transition. As to what the future holds. Clearly, the era of ignoring the masses is gone. It will not be easy since we have a legacy of decades of poor education (one that does not emphasize civic and individual responsibility etc). Getting
rid of dictators is not enough. Building a civic participatory society is not easy (Europe’s enlightenment did not come just from removing a few dictators).
People’s expectation raised for change will dash against the reality that it will take decades to create systems of governance, accountability, economic justice, etc to allow for unleashing the great potential in the Arab world. And there is great potential (natural resources, water, educated
hard-working middle class etc). It is critical that people begin to chart this future honestly and pragmatically. Slogans will not work. We the people must take responsibility for our own lives and for our communities. We need to take time to educate children in a very, very different way than we were educated. The beginnings may be simple. For example, in many Arab countries, people were thinking that as long as the country is not theirs (ruled by dictators), they can only watch over their own personal space and literally dump trash in the public space. In the new era, they have to learn that public space is theirs too. Order and respect for fellow citizens and for the country will have to be taught very early to our children. This is but one example for laying a brick in the road to real freedom and real prosperity. The bricks though are many and they will have to be fashioned and laid by the people. It is very hard work but it is the only way forward.
Mazin Qumsiyeh, PhD