When I was typing the above headline Tuesday morning, I almost wrote, “Is Egypt Falling?” I had been glued to live streams on my computer of protesters in the streets of Cairo and Alexandria, as social unrest was sweeping through the Arab world’s largest and most influential country. Such is the long, sordid and seemingly irreversible nature of political oppression in the Middle East that it’s easy to lose a sense of reality. No, Egypt fell 30 years ago when Hosni Mubarak took over as a Western-supported dictator, plunging his country into three decades of stagnation and oppression. The chaos in the streets, the chanting mobs and the tear gas arcing through Cairo intersections — that’s not Egypt coming apart, that’s Egypt finally coming together. That’s Egypt rising.
I spent all Tuesday morning following Twitter feeds like an Ashton Kutcher fan, except they’re all #Egypt and @monaeltahawy and @Tharwacolamus and #Jan25.
“Jan25” refers to this past Tuesday, and as riots and protests spread through Cairo, Alexandria and elsewhere in Egypt, the fervent and long-oppressed dream of the men and women taking to the streets was that “Jan25” might become as historic as the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia earlier this month.
The Tunisian revolution was set off when a fruit vendor set himself on fire to protest government brutality and corruption. In the eight days prior to Jan. 25, at least 12 Egyptians set themselves on fire, as reported by our contributing columnist Mona Eltahawy, “out of desperation: unemployment, poverty, corruption.”
The rallying cry in Cairo is the torture and murder of 28-year-old businessman Khalid Said, who was pulled from an Internet café and publicly beaten to death by two Egyptian policemen last summer.
“The incident has woken up Egyptians to work against the systematic torture in Egypt and the 30 years running emergency law,” read one Tweet. “We need international supporters to help us stand against Police brutality in Egypt. We invite you to support our cause.”
At 10 a.m. Tuesday, Tweets went out that restaurant owners in Cairo’s main square were giving free food to the protesters.
At 10: 04 a.m., Dalia Ziada, a 29-year-old Egyptian human rights activist in Cairo, Tweeted: “What we are seeing and witnessing today in #Egypt is history in the making. God bless Egyptians #Jan25.”
At 10:06 a.m., I latched on to a remarkable live video stream on Ustream.tv, courtesy of a brave soul in a Cairo apartment. I logged in and was able to text-chat with protesters in the street. They provided me with translations (“Mubarak, go home!”), crowd counts (20,000) and locations. The Tweets kept offering ways to get around the Egyptian officials’ attempts to impose Facebook and Twitter blocks. I was moved to reach out to the Twitterers and offer what moral support I could.
A 27-year-old engineer at the protest Tweeted me back: “thank you for this words plz tell everyon in ur country that the egyption need the freedom and tell him to pray for us and supported us.”
Despite a long history of American and Israeli support for Mubarak, it should be very clear that real freedom for Egyptians would be a positive game-changer in the Middle East and the world. The standard justification for propping up corrupt, repressive secular regimes in the Arab world has always been that were they to fall, radical Islamists would take their place. That fear has castrated United States’ policy, and as of Tuesday morning, it has turned out to be a phantasm. The Tweets and posts and faces in the streets are not of the Muslim Brotherhood, but of regular, fed-up Egyptians.
A few months ago, The Jewish Journal hosted a noted Egyptian journalist as part of the Daniel Pearl Fellowship. Nasry Ahmed Esmat, 29, is an award-winning reporter and editor for Al-Ahram newspaper in Cairo. I tried reaching him Tuesday, to no avail.
But when he was here last summer, I asked Esmat about the fear-of-fundamentalists argument.
“Just have free elections,” he said. “That’s all we care about. I don’t care if you elect the devil, just so I can vote him out. I’m for democracy. We support our country, no matter who’s ruining it.”
The people who stand to benefit most from the Jan. 25 protests are the people putting their lives on the line, the young men and women who want a shot at a better life for themselves and their children.
These people are brave. They are facing an entrenched police state, a dictatorial president whose governance has been propped up by billions in American taxpayer money.
Sadly, the initial reaction from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was pitch perfect in its tone-deafness.
“Our assessment is that the Egyptian government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people,” she said.
Yes, and O.J. is still looking for Nicole’s murderer.
Many champions of democracy felt President Barack Obama fumbled badly in not voicing strong public support for the nascent Iranian democracy protesters in the wake of the June 2010 elections. Natan Sharansky told me at a breakfast meeting not long afterward that Obama’s initial strong support would have made the difference between regime change and suppression. OK, so there was a learning curve. Now our president has the opportunity for a do-ever.
Our columnist Eltahawy has been writing — praying, really — about this moment for years.
“Egypt has lived under emergency rule for each and every one of Mubarak’s four terms in power straddling 26 years,” she wrote in 2008, at the time when Pakistan’s judiciary rose up against its dictator. “ ‘Let’s hope we can learn from this in Egypt,’ my dad told me as we discussed Musharraf’s resignation. ‘It will tell our dictators, “You are not more powerful than the people.” ’ ”
Mona all but predicted the inevitability of a day like this back in February 2010, in a column that looked at the fundamental changes that social media was bringing to the Arab world.
“Like everybody else who uses the Internet, Muslims shop online and post embarrassing pictures of themselves on Facebook,” she wrote. “Undoubtedly, violent radical groups such as al-Qaeda and others have used the Internet to their advantage. That is not new, as U.S.-based monitoring groups who follow such sites will tell you. But what is new is how young people have been using the Internet to challenge authority (political, social as well as religious) in Muslim-majority countries or where Muslims live as minorities.”
The tipping point in Tunisia was when police opened fire and killed protesters. As of Tuesday morning, press time for The Journal, there were no reports of fatalities, but the situation remained raw and fluid. To all appearances, the genie looked to be well out of the bottle. Mubarak and his police state can stuff it back in for a while — and maybe by the time you read this, they will have succeeded in doing so. But freedom will out. To paraphrase Hillel, “If not now, later.”
For those of us who see a free Egypt as the key to a democratic Middle East, all we could do Tuesday is watch and wait and hope. We can add hash-mark tags to our Twitters, check in compulsively on CNN, “Like” the brave activists on Facebook. We can send letters to our president and representatives to make sure they step up and support the people of Egypt, not Mubarak.
But, really, the future is in the hands of the Egyptian people. Where, by the way, it belongs.