Egypt for the Egyptians

January 28, 2011 § Leave a comment

Events in Tunisia over the last few weeks have sparked a mass movement of people in countries across the Middle East – Jordan, Egypt, Yemen are all suddenly plastered across the newspapers. Lebanon too is experiencing angry protests, albeit for different reasons and in a very different political context. Is this a revolution that will change the face of the Middle East?

Tahrir Square

Midan Tahrir, Cairo - copyright unknown

One thing is clear – the dictators and unelected rulers who have for so long suppressed and punished any dissent or criticism are terrified by the mass protests by people who will no longer accept the crushing status quo they have lived under for so long.

Egypt has blocked the internet and telecommunications networks in an attempt to prevent people contacting each other and coordinating demonstrations, but it has failed entirely to quell the protests of the last few days – today’s have without doubt been the biggest, still continuing well into the evening. For me, seeing this happening in Egypt is a significant indicator of the extent of built-up anger and frustration. After a few weeks in Egypt, listening to taxi drivers rant about the government and their daily struggles, only to end the sentence with ‘ma3lesh, na3mil eh?’ – ‘never mind, what can we do?’ – we started joking that change would never come to Egypt because people had no belief in their own ability to orchestrate it. That was in 2008. But there was certainly anger back then, too. I remember my epic minibus ride from Nuweiba back to Cairo, sitting in the passenger seat listening to the driver reel off a huge list of items which had gone up in price over the last year alone. It was excellent Arabic practice – but again, inevitably, the final word was ’ma3lesh!’.

Evidently what was missing then was the catalyst. Now, Tunisians have proven that, even in the Middle East, the people do have power to drive change. Last year’s food price protests in Egypt were quickly quelled when Mubarak solved the immediate problem by setting limits on the price of bread. But the protests of the last few days are not just about the ongoing problems of mass unemployment and price rises – they are the result of decades of smouldering anger amongst ordinary Egyptians at the corruption, suppression and extreme poverty that has been the result of over 3 decades of Mubarak’s rule. Tunisia, combined with the wave of dismay following Egypt’s most recent ‘election’, has spurred Egyptians into action.

But note the tone of the protests – there is anger of course, but also optimism, determination and a certainty that change must come about. The protestors – so unjustly called rioters in so many UK papers – have not come out with any thirst for violence; rather the reports are that they began marching after the Friday prayer with calls of ‘peace, peace’. Robert Fisk noted in the Independent today that, despite justifiable anger against the US for propping up Mubarak for so long, not one American flag has been burnt so far.

Of late in dictatorships propped up by Western money and support, dissent has been easy to crush – simply give it the label ‘Islamist’ or ‘terrorist’ and you’re sorted. But suddenly this is no longer possible. Tunisia’s ‘jasmine revolution’ was far from Islamist – it was a mass movement of people from all walks of life, demanding their rights in language that was blatantly non-religious. Egypt’s protests too are impossible to label as Islamist – certainly the Muslim Brotherhood are involved, but they have no ownership over these protests. This movement was organised by numerous groups, using Facebook and Twitter to spread the word and gather support from across Egyptian society. This is a movement of all Egyptians, regardless of their religious affiliations. And this is perhaps the key reason that it cannot be suppressed so easily. The regime’s current attempt to create an information blackout is proof that the widespread support for the protests – not only from across Egypt, but across the world is a real threat to its power. We can only hope that the crackdown fails and the will of the Egyptian people triumphs.

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