And so, the seemingly impossible has happened in Egypt. After 30 years of ruling with an iron fist, Mubarak fell in only 18 days. The immoveable object met the irresistible force of people power and was crushed. The people spoke in loud voices and were listened to. But how did this happen?
As with all revolutions, there was a tipping point that coincided with a number of factors coming together. I have been reminded very much of a friend of mine over these last 3 weeks, a German girl called Claudia. Claudia was an exchange student from Leipzig, whose family had been very prominent during the Peaceful Revolution of 1989. Claudia talked very little about this till I visited her in Leipzig. One day, she insisted we visit the Stasi Museum. To be honest, I had not much of an idea who the Stasi were, or of former Iron Curtain politics, but I thought “Why not?”.
What I saw in the museum had a profound effect on me. The tiniest of interrogation rooms, stark and austere. The eerie feeling, indefinable but palpable, of the walls of the building claustrophobically caving in. Letters that were more like cobwebs because there was so much censored and cut out of them. Keep in mind that I had not seen one tortuous implement, not one waterboard; but the feeling on my chest as I walked through was of the quashing of any individuality, any hope, any liberty.
As we left the grimness of the museum and entered into the light, we walked alongside a public park. Visible above a hedgerow, with the top half of his body perfectly attired in businessman’s garb, was a man calmly masturbating in full public view. As my and Claudia’s jaws dropped simultaneously, Masturbating Man looked us dead in the eye, and then looked away, as if to say “This is my freedom, and as long as I don’t harm anyone, I can do what I bloody well please with it”.
Although I hasten to add that this attitude is not a necessary side effect of revolution (just in case any Egyptians read this and decide that military rule is preferable to random acts of public indecency), it has stayed with me. We in the West take our freedoms very much for granted; and in a way, why wouldn’t we? We are born to this privilege, and it is our expectation. It is not possible to hunger for what one already has in abundance. What the Egyptian revolution has done firstly is to make us appreciate this privilege, to appreciate our lot in life. Although the UK (like much of the world) is facing hard times, we are lucky enough to live in a society, where, although our civil liberties are slowly being eroded, they remain, for now, comparatively intact.
What for me was most heartening about the Egyptian revolution was the almost universal solidarity among the people in Tahrir Square. In the face of police brutality and torture by the army, they remained steadfast in their resolve to bring down an unfair system. They also remained for the most part conscious of each other’s humanity, and despite the naysayers in Western media and governments regarding the more “radical” elements (as if funding a killing machine to the tune of billions of dollars a year to suppress its people wasn’t radical enough) the protests were peaceful and united. One of the most moving images from the three weeks was Egyptian Christians symbolically creating a human shield around their Muslim countrymen at Friday prayers. There is no PR person alive that could have fabricated a more potent way of demonstrating the unity of purpose among Egyptians of all faiths, gender and classes as that one brave and bold statement.
There were several factors that led to this revolution being effective: the uprising in Tunisia, a highly educated yet underemployed and frustrated population, huge economic difficulties; but what made it a revolution like no other we have seen is the way the internet, and in particular Facebook was used.
This is the part that really interests me personally. I have long believed that the internet is a hugely democratizing tool, and a potential force for good – dependent as always, on how we employ it. It seems to me that I was not alone in this, as confirmed by Jim Glassman and Paul Wolfowitz on a recent episode of Newsnight. Apparently back in 2008, none other than George W.Bush sensed that another way for the States to control the ME was by funding political activists. I am hazarding an educated guess here, but I would imagine that Iran being the thorn in the side that it is in the eyes of the US, especially with regard to energy control in the region, has troubled several administrations, and so if they couldn’t do it by foul means (ie illegally invading Iraq, sending drones to kill civilians in Pakistan), maybe they would sweeten the bitter pill by using young political activists. It is a matter of record that members of the April 6 youth movement met with Condoleeza Rice in 2008, then with Hillary Clinton in 2009, and reportedly were supported by the group Movements.org to make the internet a potent tool of revolution (I will include a few links at the end of this blog that make for interesting reading about the USA’s funding of the Egyptian activists, the aforementioned Movements group, and Freedom House). The catalyst for reaching a wider demographic in Egypt was the killing of Khaled Said; and the page dedicated to him on Facebook has been described in many interviews given by civilians as such over the last month, in addition to the ousting of Ben Ali in Tunisia.
No matter who funded it, what is in no doubt is the usefulness of social networks like Facebook and Twitter in organized protesting. Reading between the lines of many different articles on many different news sites, I don’t doubt that Washington has had a hand in some of the civil unrest. What is truly interesting however, is the turn that events took; and I believe that no one, particularly the Obama administration, could have predicted it.
Why I believe the internet to be one of the greatest democratizing tools ever invented is simply because of its universality. It doesn’t matter where you are in the world: London, Cairo, Tokyo, Timbuktu; one can log on to the world wide web and see, at the push of a button, how other people, in other lands, in other cultures, live. No matter what Fox News is telling you in the USA, one can, if one chooses, log on to, let’s say, the Guardian website and gain a totally different perspective on what is happening outside your little corner of the world. Yes, like any other tool, it can be abused; but essentially I believe that it is a force for good; because it shows us that essentially, we are all human beings, with the desire to be treated as such, and to live a fulfilled and happy life. So I think, in a very generalized sense, and from my own experience of visiting North Africa, that this is one of the keys that unlocked the padlock of oppressive dictatorship in Egypt. Also: information is power, and there is no dearth of information on the internet about any subject one chooses. But what the April 6 activists chose to do with their newly acquired knowledge is very interesting indeed, as it seems they learned it, and then very firmly, but in no uncertain terms told the US to bugger off.
Why do I think this? Well, several reasons, but the main one is the complete shambles diplomatically that the USA demonstrated over that period. The administration that had promised change but has delivered none in real terms seemed perplexed when faced with an honest revolution. Firstly, no one seemed to know whom to back – the US went from backing Mubarak, to not backing him but to warning against the “evils” of the Muslim Brotherhood (who stated openly that they were not interested in running for election), to cautiously supporting the protesters, to Frank Wisner saying that Mubarak had to say, in direct contravention to what Obama and Clinton were saying at the time, to openly supporting the demonstrators and calling for Mubarak to remove himself, to then openly supporting Suleiman, and then the army in the “interim” period. The sense I get (and again, this is conjecture from what I have read) is that they hoped after getting rid of Mubarak, the army and a suitable puppet figurehead could be counted on to restore stability and “democracy”. However, from what I can see, the protesters aren’t buying this particular line of propaganda.
What will happen remains to be seen; suffice it to say, I believe it to be a hugely exciting time in ME politics, with all sorts of possibilities. Despite any funding, interference or qualms on behalf of the US/Israeli administrations, and their allies, the Egyptians seem determined to chart their own fate, and neither threats, beatings, torture or hardship is going to stop them. In the aftermath of toppling the figurehead Mubarak, they have remained firm in their quest for a civilian democracy, and such has been their fortitude that they have inspired their Arab neighbours to seek the same. This is real change, change that we can all truly believe in me in; and what it shows to me, is no matter how hard the spin doctors try to tell us otherwise, there is no politician so strong or powerful that the people, unified in a common and noble cause, cannot overcome.