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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.)

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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.

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