Monday, February 14, 2011

Walk like an EGYPTIAN

"If there is no struggle, there is no progress...
Power concedes nothing without a demand.
It never did and never will."
- Frederick Douglass

On February 9, 2011 while 111 million Americans huddled around their TV sets taking part in the annual great American orgy called the "Superbowl", a continent away 80 million Egyptians were taking part in a different kind of Superbowl. Having spilled into the streets in record numbers for almost two weeks, they were involved in a battle of will against their decrepit leaders to relinquish their oppressive hold on power. They were determined not to die out in a whimper as their Iranian counterparts had in 2009.

While America, the chief sponsor of Hosni Mubarak and his army for the last thirty years stood on the fence, the people of Egypt were unrelenting. Television images sent a clear signal, there was no turning back. It was a moment that needed to be seized and anyone with any humanity could relate to the need for urgency without any ambiguity. Anyone with any moral conscience was one with the people on the street. People power was unequivocally on display. The draw was so strong that people from around the world, who could get away with it, flew into Cairo to be one with this Arab once in a lifetime "Woodstock"/ "Berlin Wall" moment. I for one, having not being able to physically be there, was virtually and psychologically transported to be one with the young and the old, the religious and secular, the male and the female, as they swept, sweat and slept in Tahrir Square, not allowing anything to shake their resolve.

There was a moment, when there was trepidation that the movement would lose momentum. There was doubt if the people would prevail the chess game that was being played by Mubarak and his honchos. Then there was a sudden burst of energy and on February 11th, Egypt was changed for ever. The euphoria was palpable through the radio and television screens all around the world as the dictator flew for cover. In a largely bloodless uprising, the people of Egypt, for the moment, had freed their nation of a criminal regime. As the gargantuan portraits and posters of the dictator came down, the jubilation spread through the streets of Cairo and beyond. So did the doubts of what would happen next, as the military took control.

Western journalists who had been plunging themselves into this story the moment the crowds gathered at Tahrir Square were also jubilant. Their high wire act of reporting from the scene had paid off and they somehow felt they had contributed to the demolition of the regime as well. Unlike their governments, in their professionally narcissistic delusional world, they may have felt one with the Egyptians by taking a beating, but there should be no mistake this was an Egyptian narrative and it is only they who deserved any credit.

When there is a moment in history of this nature, in an attempt to simplify it and understand the mechanics of such a feat, the world always looks for a poster child, such as a Mandela, a Gandhi or a King. In this case there was none and an explanation as to how such a mass uprising would come to pass, was puzzling even to the CIA. And so they called it the "Facebook" revolution, the "Internet" revolution and for a moment the Google boy Wael Ghonim revolution. While they may have all helped in sparking and fueling the movement, all revolutions happen because there is a ripe climate for it, and that climate gets worse because of an El Niño effect. For those who did not know that a climate of high unemployment, poverty, corruption and political repression was brewing for thirty years in Egypt they had to be in a coma. The El Niño this time was sparked by a 26 year old man who set himself ablaze in Tunisia, out of utter desperation. His desperation was very similar to those of countless others in the Arab world. And so the "contagion", as those in power and those who support these repressive regimes called it spread, leading to a Tsunami.

The big western democracies like the United States, United Kingdom and France have always had a double standard when truly pushing for democracy in the Middle East and Africa. They justify their support for the status-quo of repressive despicable regimes, as making calculated choices for opting for stability over democracy. The underlying arrogance that the Arabs and Africans are not evolved enough to enjoy the fruits of democracy and are not ready to handle freedom unless negotiated by the west, is also a deep seeded belief. In 1947 when India rose up against the British and demanded freedom, the western media painted a very bleak future for the fledgling nation. It almost assured that the Indians would not be able to handle their new found freedom without a total implosion. Similar predictions about Egypt were and are being made by some. Then of course there is the dreaded issue of oil and military bases which can never be taken out of any equation where there is conflict. As we see the price of oil shoot up these past few weeks, the short sighted foreign policies of propping up despotic regimes are exposed. During the height of the protests when Tony Blair still called for Mubarak to stay in power and hoped for an orderly transition to democracy, it was a blatant representation of that hypocrisy. When change of this nature is set in motion, there are only two outcomes. Brutality or benevolence. We saw some of both in Egypt, and to the world's surprise the benevolent means of protest espoused by Gandhi and King seemed to have borne fruit.

When in a surprise move Mubarak left Cairo for his luxurious residence built with looted money in the resort town of Sharm-El Sheik it was over. It caught many by surprise as he was known to be a stubborn man. With that launched speculation and fear mongering about the Muslim Brotherhood and other right wing Islamic groups hijacking the situation. Whether that will actually happen, one would have to wait and see. Egypt is not Iran, even if it is, if that is what the people want, then that is what will happen. It is their democratic choice that must be respected, if it happens in a transparent manner. But for once in many decades a fissure seems to have opened that could actually lead to real peace in Palestine and some real solutions for the middle east could emerge. With the sweeping winds of change, the morally corrupt Israeli and Palestinian leadership will have to heed to the demands of the people they have become so accustomed to oppress. Israel maintained its silence when the people over its borders rose up to over throw their dictator, as the dictator was Israel's friend. The only democracy in the region could not find it in its heart to support people power for fear of a collapse of a fraudulent peace treaty that oppresses a million people in Gaza and maintains a superficial balance. So much for a nation that was built out of the worst oppression unleashed on humanity. They decided to be the Switzerland to Germany, out of fear and prejudice, that has been at the core of all policy for the region.

In the euphoric crowd in Cairo, a man carried a sign which read "Two down twenty to go". Wishful thinking maybe, but already the so called "contagion" seems to be rapidly spreading. Bahrain, Libya, Algeria, Yemen, Iran, Jordan and even Iraq have all seen protests spawn as a direct reaction to Egypt and Tunisia. As the television channels Al Aribiya and Al Jazeera and online social networks add oxygen to the flame by showing the brutality of those in power, an "if they can, we can" attitude seems to be gathering momentum. This thirst for change is so infectious and liberating that fear has gripped regimes as far as China, forcing them to censor all their media. And for America, a migraine is developing as the Obama administration contends with how to frame its rhetoric without blatantly exposing its duplicity on issues of global power and influence, which it calls "interests".

How far and how fast this fresh oxygen will spread only time will tell. If the democracies of the world, who pride themselves for their history and openness, do not overtly recognize and encourage what lies at the heart of this yearning for freedom, they will come across as hypocrites. This moment that shatters all Muslim stereotypes of terrorism, long beards and crazy clerics, must be seized. Here is a moment to truly win "hearts and minds", and if we fail, we would have failed all those who brought us to this moment, which we in free nations today so joyously take for granted.

To walk like an Egyptian was to walk like a Russian, Frenchman, Chilean, Indian, Filipino, Cuban and all those who one day realized freedom for all was as essential as a breath of fresh air. Like those before them, the Egyptians got what they deserved, will they get what they want? Only time will tell. It is what it is.