2.10.2011

forum on revolution in egypt: "all we know is we are going to get our freedom"


Last Tuesday, I attended an IS forum entitled "Egypt and Tunisia: From Resistance to Revolution". There were two speakers: Dr. Mohammed Shokr, of the Egyptian National Association for Change and the Canadian-Egypt Solidarity Campaign, and my friend James Clark, a leader of the anti-war and civil liberties movements in Toronto, and a participant of the Cairo International Peace Conference for the past three years.

It was a fascinating and inspiring evening; the following is my summary of what I heard. (My own thoughts and comments are in italics and parentheses.) I hope you will consider downloading, printing and signing this petition calling on the the Canadian Parliament to stand with the people of Egypt.

* * * *

Dr. Shokr prefaced his remarks by noting that the mainstream media has consistently failed to provide a proper context for the people's revolution in Egypt, while ignoring many important news stories. He said that many radio and television broadcasters in Egypt have recently resigned and joined the revolution, in protest of the biased coverage emanating from Egypt's state-run media. He sees this as a crumbling of a huge pillar of the system and believes it will be "only a few more days until the entire system collapses".

Shokr touched on six principal points (making it very easy to take notes!):

1. This is a revolution. If you look up the word revolution in the dictionary, there is no qualification "only if it succeeds", and if it does not, it is an uprising. Perhaps if it does not succeed, then you can call it a failed revolution – but there is no doubt that it is a revolution.

However, this is not a revolution of any one party, and certainly not a revolution led by the Muslim Brotherhood (a group on which the Western media is fixated), although members of that organization are participating. It is a giant collective comprised of all segments of the population, especially young people. (The median age in Egypt is 24.)


2. This cross-section of the Egyptian people - having finally broken through the barrier of fear they have lived under for so many years - are not fighting with each other. While there are some divisions - unanimity is impossible in a group of several million people! - they are united in their desire to oust Mubarak and create a democratic society.

There should be no mistake: the violence and looting is coming from one only group of people: secret police and other thugs hired by the Mubarak government. Numerous credible reports have made this indisputable. Several reports from the Guardian's Jack Shenker, who was detained and beaten by plainclothes policemen while covering the demonstrations have received a lot of attention, but his story is far from unique. A search for "undercover police violence egypt" should keep you busy for awhile.

3. Shokr repeated several popularly-held myths about the Arab people: “Arabs are not ready for democracy,” “Arabs don't want democracy,” “Islam is inherently anti-democratic”. These are all false notions, promoted by the West and employed for various agendas, especially since 9/11.

Millions of Egyptians gathered in the street does not equal "mob rule". There are no democratic institutions in Egypt. There are no official channels through which Egyptians can express their desires and frustrations. The elections are fixed; their outcome is known in advance. The only way Egyptians can exercise some form of democracy is to go into the streets and yell. What you are seeing in Egypt are people expressing themselves in the only way available to them. A few hours before the meeting, Shokr had spoken to his son who was in Tahrir Square; he said the overriding feeling is one of fun. All kinds of people, from all different faiths and walks of life, are playing games, talking, praying, enjoying themselves, enjoying their freedom.


(Isn't this an inherent need in all of us? Isn't it intrinsically human, to want to be free? To be able to walk where you like, to speak your thoughts, to enjoy life - to live without fear? The desire for human freedom is not something specific to one religion or one part of our planet.)

4. Stability. US and Canadian government officials go on about "stability", and how the protesters are a threat to that "stability". (The obvious question: stable for whom?) Shokr, who was trained as an engineer, he said that if a system can withstand a "perturbation", then it is stable. If a perturbation makes the system crack, crumble or explode, then the system is inherently unstable. Here, then, is proof that the Mubarak regime is unstable: a few young people began a group on Facebook . . . and that has blossomed into full scale revolution.

5. Hypocrisy. Canada, the US and other Western nations bray on about "freedom and democracy" while offering support for a brutal dictator. Stephen Harper still stands squarely alongside Mubarak even as a huge cry for democracy echoes around the world. Harper's lip service to democracy and equality is obvious, of course, but there is also the implication that some people are not "ready for democracy". The US supported Mubarak as long as he followed the rules for their tolerance of dictators. (Shokr said he would get back to this point, his "catalog," as he called it of what a dictator must do in exchange for US support, but he never did. I was sorry because I wanted to hear his thoughts.)

6. The Future. What will happen when Mubarak leaves? Shokr was honest: "I don't know." This uncertainty is not because Egyptians aren't ready for democracy, but because Mubarak's regime eliminated the people's spirit of participation and engagement. All the people know is will be free, but they will build the road even as they walk it. The West says this situation is dangerous, and we must know what will replace Mubarak before he leave. To this Shokr said simply (and to applause): "It is not your business."

Dr. Shokr said one thing with great certainty: "All we know is we are going to get our freedom."

Dr. Shokr wrapped up by emphasizing that this is a revolution of youth, with no political affiliation, no agenda except overthrowing a dictatorship and establishing a democracy. They have formed the Coalition of Youth for Change. The vice-president, Mubarak’s second in command, says the regime will stay, but without the people’s consent, it will not. "They cannot use force anymore. They are too exposed to the world."


James Clark began by pointing out the remarkable speed, strength and momentum of these events. On December 17, a man named Mohammed Boazizi, after years of intense harassment by the police, set himself on fire in Tunisia. His death sparked a revolt that deposed a dictator of 23 years, and in short order has led to huge protests across the Arab world, in Jordan, Yemen, Algeria, the Sudan, and in the Palestinian territories.

Clark then identified and demolished five myths being perpetuated by the mainstream media.

Myth #1: Social networking media like Facebook and Twitter caused this.

Social media has played a role in helping people communicate and organize, but the majority of people in Egypt do not have private access to the internet or own personal communication devices. In fact, the biggest demonstrations came after Mubarak shut off access to the internet throughout the country. It is the material conditions that Egyptians have been living under that led to this revolt.

Myth #2: Mubarak’s downfall will create a power vacuum, which the Muslim Brotherhood will fill.

This myth propagated to create a sense of fear, to make people in the West believe that they are better off if Egypt does not have democracy. The Muslim Brotherhood is not the only force creating change in Egypt; it is not even a majority or dominant organization. The mainstream media can only recognize a top-down model of leadership, a ruling elite calling the shots, and what is happening in Egypt is the exact opposite. (Shokr later added that the Muslim Brotherhood has been much more of a follower than a leader in the revolution.)

Myth #3: There is "total chaos" in Egypt right now - rioting, looting, vigilantism - and order must be restored.

This, too, is an attempt to discredit and undermine the revolution. Claiming that "order" or "stability" must be "restored" is nothing more than a wish for the return of the dictatorship.

By all reports, there is a huge amount of self-organization going on all over Egypt, a camaraderie and solidarity that cuts across all supposed divisions. There have been joint masses and prayers with Christians and Muslims, especially after Coptic churches were attacked. While Muslims have knelt to pray, Christians have linked arms and formed circles of protection around them. There are security forces led by women, some wearing hijabs or niqabs, some not. People are sharing all of their resources, sharing food, sharing skills.

In Tahrir Square, there's a lost-and-found table piled high with wallets - with money and ID - that people have returned. A barber set up shop: "Revolution Salon: Free Haircuts". An engineer managed to cut into a lamppost, and a line of people were waiting to charge cell phones. In smaller cities and towns, people are intent on making sure everyone has food, and that disabled and elderly people are taken care of. And everywhere people are discussing, discussing, discussing – what do they want to see happen, what are their dreams, what needs to be done – organizing committees to share ideas and tackle problems as they arise.


Myth #4: This was a completely spontaneous action, it came “out of nowhere” because there is no democratic tradition in the Arab world.

This is an outright lie. In 2003, tens of thousands of Egyptians demonstrated against the US-led invasion and destruction of Iraq; Mubarak had to open sports stadiums to give protesters a place to go. There is Egyptian movement for change known as "Kafiyah," which means "enough", a broad coalition of opposition forces. In 2005, judges went on strike to protest the rigged elections, and in 2008, there was a wave of worker-led strikes calling for both economic and political reform.

It's difficult to organize and sustain opposition where doing so may mean torture or death. But just because Western media hasn't been paying attention to the resistance doesn't mean it doesn't exist.


Myth #5: The revolution is already losing momentum, it is just a blip on the world stage, and everything will return to normal soon.

In one sense, of course, the revolution will lose momentum. It is not possible to sustain massive daily demonstrations forever, nor would one want to. But on the day of this talk, the largest gathering yet was reported – three million people in Tahrir Square, and eight million people demonstrating throughout the nation.

There have been strikes in all sectors of society: in addition to the journalists mentioned above, university professors went on strike, civil workers were offered a 15% pay raise - but struck anyway, and there is talk of a strike by Suez Canal workers.

Clark emphasized that the Egyptian revolution is not only an opportunity to get rid of Mubarak and overhaul the Egyptian political system, it is an opportunity to dismantle the entire "architecture of imperialism". No matter what happens with this revolution, a generation of Egyptians people have been emboldened, inspired, energized, radicalized - forever changed. Their eyes have been opened to what can be done when enough people work towards one goal. That bell cannot be unrung.

The revolution has made incredible gains that were absolutely unthinkable even two months ago. At the Cairo peace conference in 2005, Clark told us, no one dared utter the word "Mubarak" in public for fear of the undercover secret police. People had their limbs broken for simply putting up a poster.

Now, demonstrators have listed their demands on a banner 10 stories high and Mubarak has been hung in effigy in the square.


Mubarak has been in power for nearly 30 years - with the support of the most powerful countries on earth, yet he is on the brink of being driven from power. The people have done this. They are doing it. They will not be stopped.

The Seven Demands of the Egyptian People

1. Mubarak must go.

2. The government must be dissolved and fair elections held.

3. Interim government must include representatives of all opposition forces.

4. There must be a new constitution.

5. The emergency laws – imposed in 1981 after assassination of Anwar Sadat and now enshrined in law – must be lifted.

6. There must be accountability for government violence.

7. Mubarak must not be given immunity.

* * * *

Here are a few highlights from the Q&A period.

* One of the most powerful lessons people learn from these experiences is that they don't have to rely on an elite to change things - not a political elite, a religious elite or a military elite. They can organize themselves. This movement is not only anti-Mubarak, it is pro-democracy.

* “What is next?” is the wrong question. No one knows what will happen next week, let alone in six months or two years. Revolutions are messy; they do not happen linearly; they do not follow a prepared script. The first step is getting rid of the current regime. After that, the people will debate and arrive at answers as issues arise.

* What if another group sets up a dictatorial regime? Well, the people rose up and overthrew a tyrant of 30 years. They'll know what to do about a tyrant of three weeks.


(Hundreds of pictures, many of them amazing, can be found here, here, and here.)

* * * *

Dr. Shokr specifically addressed the commonly-heard argument: "This will be like Iran in 1979", used to create a sense of fear. This assumes that all Arabs are the same, and that Arab culture is monolithic. It as if people cannot conceive of an Arab culture establishing a form of democracy. If it's a revolution in an Arab country, the results will necessarily be dark and dangerous.

But Dr. Shokr reminded us: the median age in Egypt is 24. Most of these young people are unaffiliated with any political party or specific movement. Egypt in 2011 is not Iran in 1979. And why would it be? Unless we see all "those people" as the same.

(This reminds me of when people talk about “Africa” as if it is one big place with one culture and identity, or “the Muslim world”, as if there is some other world out there where Muslims live, separate from the world non-Muslims live in.)

* * * *

I encourage you to read this petition to Canada's politicians and parties, and if you agree, to download it, print it, sign it and if you can, circulate it. Send it to your Member of Parliament. Tell them: I stand with the Egyptian people. I stand with justice, democracy and freedom.

Many thanks to Allan for helping me write this post. Many photo credits here.

22 comments:

impudent strumpet said...

This might be #LeastImportantThing, but do we know why the median age in Egypt is so young? (e.g. Are they dying young? Do they have a lot of babies?)

laura k said...

I wondered that, too. Perhaps a commenter will know. I'll ask James, too, maybe he knows.

M@ said...

Excellent piece. I love how Freedom and Democracy are what we're all fighting for, what we are sending our Troops out to defend and work for and everything else... then, when some folks start demanding some actual freedom, and actual democracy, well, they just aren't ready for it yet.

This might be the purest form of democracy seen in the modern world, where millions (!) of people are making their intentions known, and the tiny minority in power is refusing to hear them. It's going to end soon, I think, and not well for the people currently in charge.

To which I say, awesome.

Kim_in_TO said...

Thanks for this post! Despite being there, I didn't take notes, and there was so much I'd wanted to remember.

My entry into political activism had me fighting for justice for the 24 muslim students falsely accused of terrorism in Toronto in 2004. One of the people I met and worked with in that group of activists was Dr. Shokr's son (currently in Tahrir Square, as you noted). Here, I've been watching videos and looking at pictures of this revolution, and wondering how it might feel if I actually knew someone who was there, taking part in the protests. To find out that I do know someone there doesn't change my hopes or desires for a positive outcome for the Egyptian people, but it does give me an emotional investment that wasn't there before. I don't know him well - can't even call him a friend, really. But I'm very concerned for him. Mubarak has shown he's not rational, and I don't have higher hopes for Suleiman. We know this isn't over by a long shot.

It almost makes me want to pray, but I'm not religious. I will continue to hope for the best...

Dan said...

Great post! Very informative. MSM seems to be really trying to pushing the muslim brotherhood bit, good for some clarification. General consensus among my friends tends to be for the protestors though, so I don't think the whole 'fear the brotherhood' angle is working too well, at least here in Alberta.

Regarding the young age in Egypt from the other comments, I'd imagine it has to do with development. Countries which are developing tend to have a large youth base to work with, many factors cause it like high birthrates, mixed with a lower average age of death [the technical word eludes me here!]. I can't say for sure, but I would imagine that would be the cause of Egypt being so young.

Here's hoping the pressure gets to high and he steps down, would hate to see this devolve into a civil war.

Cheers!

laura k said...

This might be the purest form of democracy seen in the modern world

What he said. It's so powerful.

It almost makes me want to pray, but I'm not religious.

I know just how you feel. Everything inside you strains with hope, like you're trying mentally to stand beside them all, to be in the crowd with them... and also protect them, somehow.

That's great that you know Dr Shokr's son - it lets you personalize this in a different way. I know that's how our friends who have been in the Cairo Peace Conference feel.

laura k said...

I just noticed a few nice details from my notebook that were omitted from the post, so I added this paragraph:

In Tahrir Square, there's a lost-and-found table piled high with wallets - with money and ID - that people have returned. A barber set up shop: "Revolution Salon: Free Haircuts". An engineer managed to cut into a lamppost, and a line of people were waiting to charge cell phones.

laura k said...

General consensus among my friends tends to be for the protestors though, so I don't think the whole 'fear the brotherhood' angle is working too well, at least here in Alberta.

That's good to hear. I think the longer the protests continue, the less that angle will work. Although among USians who only watch US media... that's another story. The Canadian MSM is still worlds better than the US MSM.

Thank you for the feedback on the post, Dan (and others), much appreciated.

laura k said...

Two of my favourite lines from Facebook:

Mubarak. Dude. Egyptians INVENTED writing on the wall. You really should learn to read it.

(Lisbeth W)

Uninstalling dictator ... 99% complete ███████████████████████████░ -ERROR-The program "Uninstall Dictator" has stopped responding.

Please press the reset button and begin protesting in the streets.


(Wendy G)

Amy said...

Great post---very informative and insightful.

I am very frightened for the Egyptian people after yesterday's raised and then dashed hopes. I wish I could understand how the media was reporting that Mubarak was planning to resign, only to have him come out and defiantly refuse to do so. Did he manipulate the media? Did he change his mind? Was it simply miscommunication? I assume we will never really know.

laura k said...

A report that the dictator is leaving, then he doesn't leave (YET), does not seem that unusual to me. Can you imagine how difficult it must be to get verifiable facts, as opposed to rumours, in a situation like this?

It is only a matter of time, I think.

laura k said...

And thank you! :)

Ofer said...

Thanks for this post, Laura. I've been following up a lot on the revolution, and also hold hopes for the future there.
A few notes:
There should be no mistake: the violence and looting is coming from one only group of people: secret police and other thugs hired by the Mubarak government.
I find this very hard to believe. In any society anywhere there are criminals, thugs, poor people who resort to stealing to be able to eat, etc. A time when the police is not in the streets and there's some confusion and disorder and different priorities than on the day-to-day is a good time to take advantage. This is quite a minor point, since it doesn't mean a lot in the grand scale of things, and I have no doubt that a lot (and probably most) of the looting and violence are in fact done by agent provocateurs, etc.

...and in short order has led to huge protests across the Arab world, in Jordan, Yemen, Algeria, the Sudan, and in the Palestinian territories.

Unless it was very under-reported (which isn't very likely), the last bit is not true. There were very minor protests in the Palestinian Territories, and both the PA and Hamas didn't allow people to protest in support of the revolution in Egypt. There's the regular Friday protests in many places, but those have been going on for years.

This assumes that all Arabs are the same, and that Arab culture is monolithic

I was very surprised by this comment, since Iranians are not Arabs (well, 3% of them are...). If anything, it should be Muslims there instead of Arabs. Unless it was meant as a kind of mock: not only do those people think that all Arabs are the same, they don't even know that Iranians are not Arabs...

Ofer said...

In the Israeli media (well, the Israeli media I read- there's a lot of worry and fear-mongering, a huge emphasis on what it means for Israel, alongside several opinion pieces that are hopeful but careful (plus a lot of self-conscious pieces about how this isn't about Israel, etc.). I think the fears are somewhat grounded: I assume that a democratic Egypt would be much more critical of Israel, and the already lukewarm relations and peace might suffer or collapse. Of course, this might be a good or bad thing depending on your views- I personally believe that a "peaceful" but very critical government in Egypt might help push the government here into peace negotiations and maybe finally ending the occupation (which might be a fantasy, but hey, one can hope).

But again, this isn't about Israel... :-)

laura k said...

Thanks for your comments, Ofer.

This is quite a minor point, since it doesn't mean a lot in the grand scale of things, and I have no doubt that a lot (and probably most) of the looting and violence are in fact done by agent provocateurs, etc.

I agree that it's a minor point. Perhaps the original sentence would be stated as "the great majority" of the violence, rather than "all".

...and in short order has led to huge protests across the Arab world, in Jordan, Yemen, Algeria, the Sudan, and in the Palestinian territories.

Unless it was very under-reported (which isn't very likely), the last bit is not true. There were very minor protests in the Palestinian Territories, and both the PA and Hamas didn't allow people to protest in support of the revolution in Egypt.


This comes from the various communities of Palestinians, Yemeni, etc. in Canada. That's all I can say - I can verify their accuracy, except to say that I know the people who've said it to be trustworthy and not given to exaggeration.

When you say you don't know why it would be under-reported, protests are always under-reported. I take that as given.

My comment re "Arab culture" was most certainly meant to be mocking. I think most Canadians and Americans would be completely confused to hear that Iranians are not Arabs.

laura k said...

*

I can't verify their accuracy.

allan said...

I agree that it's a minor point. Perhaps the original sentence would be stated as "the great majority" of the violence, rather than "all".

I may be at fault for condensing L's notes too much -- the post could have been half as long again! -- but, of course, we cannot say that 100% of any group of people is this or that, especially when one side is deliberately in disguise. But we have seen it in protests everywhere in the world, including in Toronto last year: the cops go undercover and burn and smash things, which makes GREAT news footage and scares people not really following what is going on and tars the reputation of people with real concerns. I know we all know this.

This is not people stealing food to eat because $1 a day isn't cutting it. This is the specific violence that gets reported around the protests, crimes (and bad behaviour) that can be portrayed as related directly to the protesters.

allan said...

At the gym yesterday, the news was waiting for Mubarak to speak and the closed captioning had the anchor saying that "crazily", it was statements from the US (of all places) that seemed to have nudged Mubarak into doing this or that. (The Congressional Research Service reports that the US has given an average of $2 billion to Egypt every year since 1979, including $1.3 billion in military aid. Hmmm, maybe it is not so crazy that he listens to them.)

I was not following it a lot, but I did see the word "fear" scroll by a lot -- as in the anchor asking the on-scene reporters if they felt fear down there in the crowds, and if that fear had grown or lessened?

allan said...

Thousands of demonstrators massed at Egypt's state television building and at President Hosni Mubarak's palace in the Cairo suburbs on Friday as anti-regime protests spread across the city.

At least 3,000 people marched on Mubarak's main official residence in the upmarket Heliopolis neighbourhood, their numbers boosted by hundreds of protesters arriving minute by minute from areas further into town.

Another 2,000 demonstrators were outside the state television headquarters, on the banks of the Nile near Tahrir Square, where hundreds of thousands of people were protesting for an 18th day against Mubarak's rule. ...

***

Tens of thousands of protestors in the port city of Suez have surrounded 10 government buildings and announced that they will not leave until Mubarak steps down.

***

Amid mounting anger, the army significantly took no action to remove a group of Egyptians calling for president Hosni Mubarak's downfall outside his palace this morning.

***

Egypt's military high council has promised to lift the country's 30-year state of emergency when the "current situation has ended".

(Note to Egypt: That is not how it works.)

laura k said...

Amid mounting anger, the army significantly took no action to remove a group of Egyptians calling for president Hosni Mubarak's downfall outside his palace this morning.

YES! Significant indeed.

laura k said...

YES!!!!

Mubarak has resigned

Thank you, Egypt!

laura k said...

First reaction to Mubarak stepping down in Liberation Square