The View from Tahrir Square: Can the U.S. Harmonize to the New Tune of Egypt’s Freedom?
What a different Egypt I write to you from today!
The 18 days from January 25 to February 11 have changed Egypt forever. After 30 years of a brutal dictator regime, Mubarak has stepped down. And for the first time in a very long time, Egypt has a real chance at freedom, and a real chance at democracy.
I want to share with you why I believe the people have revolted now after 30 years of being silent. We have been living in tyranny under the Mubarak regime for 30 long years. During that time, Egypt, a country of 82 million people, suffered major set-backs almost on all fronts. We are plagued by an illiteracy rate of anywhere between 35 to 44 percent (depending on who you ask); and unless the “educated” go to a private school all the way, they’re getting a paper certificate but not much education. In addition to that, forty percent of Egyptians live under the poverty line of two dollars a day. The country is also plagued by a lack of good health services, and a lack of proper basic needs and sanitation services. Pollution of every type is so common place we don’t pay attention to it anymore. An increase in cancer levels, kidney failures, liver conditions, diabetes, heart conditions, and other chronic diseases has been blamed not only on pollution but largely on government corruption, which indeed plagues all sectors of society. We’ve lived with these conditions for 30 years, and only in the past five years or so have we started to speak up. Quietly at first, till these millions screamed in Tahrir Square.
Of course living in such conditions for 30 years is reason enough to revolt, but I’m arguing that what made the voices louder was the presence of the Internet, and in particular, social networks. I have been researching the Internet in the Arab world for the past decade, and during the last two or three years have focused my research on social media and political activism, and I have argued repeatedly that change would come from young Egyptian Internet users before anyone else. During the National Communication Association convention in San Francisco last November, I spoke at a panel discussion organized by the Partnership for Progress on Digital Divide and chaired by USC’s Michael Cody. I presented an analysis of how political activism is a pervasive use of the Internet in Egypt at this time, and how that sector of the society has a potential to gather momentum, unite voices, and push for change.
Let me clarify that when I say this was an Internet revolution, I don’t mean that the Internet was the only factor involved, nor do I mean that Internet users were the only ones protesting. However, I’m speaking of the main catalyst which inspired this revolution and brought about change. I’m speaking of the tool that showed every dissident voice in Egypt that he/she is not alone, but is indeed joined by at least hundreds of thousands.The January 25 revolution was not affected or pushed by a foreign agenda, contrary to what the Mubarak regime insisted on. This was not a revolution carried out by Islamist fundamentals, contrary to what Mubarak hoped everyone would believe. For years, the Mubarak regime has utilized an efficient marketing ploy when dealing with the outside world that got many, including Egyptians, to believe that it‟s either Mubarak or Al Qaeda-style, fundamentalist Islamic rule. “It’s either me, or chaos” was the line he kept repeating in his hideous speeches and interviews, including with ABC’s Christiane Amanpour.
Sure, the Muslim Brotherhood was there in Tahrir Sqaure, along with everyone else. I personally (a Muslim) helped organize a Christian mass early on in Tahrir Square, and the prayers were joined and protected by the Muslims (just like the Christians protected the Muslims while they were praying). The Muslim Brotherhood exists in Egypt, but first of all, they are nowhere near Al Qaeda in terms of their level of fundamentalism. Actually, they’ve denounced the use of violence years ago, even if we don’t believe them. Second, they are a minority. If Parliamentary elections were to be held today in Egypt, sure, the Muslim Brotherhood would win some seats (I’d think 10-15%), but they’d be nowhere near a majority. If we want democracy, this means we get to choose. One person, one vote. And from what I’ve seen on Tahrir Square, the Muslim Brotherhood is not that popular, even among the lower socio-economic and education classes.
But “it’s not radical Islam that worries the U.S., it’s independence,” said Noam Chomsky in the Guardian. Chomsky argued that Washington accepts democracy “only insofar as it conforms to strategic and economic objectives.” It therefore has to be regulated and “properly tamed” if it hits close to U.S. interests.
That has been the feeling on the streets of Cairo and throughout Egypt, particularly when U.S. reactions came a little too slow and a little too, as Philip Seib put it, “overly cautious.” I told NPR’s to the Point and Turnstyle News that the United States had to make a choice between the Egyptian government and the Egyptian people. These two were not on the same side. The Egyptian people were quite upset, with good reason, when the tear gas canisters they were bombed with all said “Made in the U.S.A.” And the American statements in support of the Egyptian people came late. Even after Obama said on February 1 that change in Egypt “must begin now” and Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said on February 2 that “‘now’ started yesterday,” the U.S. retreated back to a safer position and decided that hastening the process could lead Egypt into chaos and undermine a smooth transition to democracy. Frank Wisner’s visit to Egypt, during which he said that Mubarak had to remain in power be-cause he was indispensible to a peaceful transition did not help. And when Robert Fisk revealed in The Independent that Wisner is a consultant for a law firm that is contracted by the Egyptian government, the U.S. credibility with the Egyptian street seemed largely undermined. Throughout, the U.S. messages to the Egyptian people seemed at best confusing and confused, and at worst, slow and waiting to see where the crest of the wave will take it.
So how can the U.S. rectify the damage? Well, here is a piece of good news. Although this revolution was carried out by Egyptians of all walks of life, it was started and steered by young, educated, well traveled, and well read Internet users. Many of these have had some American education, or at least do not necessarily view the U.S. as an enemy. This means several things. First, there is a politically aware mainstream population that is now becoming vocal in Egypt after being silent for so long. They do not have hidden agendas, and are not severely politicized in a certain direction or the other. They are not fundamentalists in terms of religion or politics, and even though they’ve carried out a wonderful revolution, they’re not really revolutionists in the sense that we know from history books. But they all love Egypt very much and they will not be swayed by political pranks or taken in by nicely-packaged empty political initiatives.
The youth who organized on social networks, notably Facebook, to save their country from a dictator regime will now once again take charge to rebuild their country. And just like they were joined by all walks of life in Tahrir Square, they will be joined by all walks of life in rebuilding their country. The U.S. needs to realize that these youths could be a strategic partner that is free from predispositions and fundamentalist ideologies. There is now a healthy plethora of pages and groups on Facebook discussing how to rebuild the country, and how to move forward. There are individual initiatives, currently joined by thousands, some by tens of thousands, to eradicate illiteracy, to rebuild the economy, to revamp education. The U.S. needs to partner with these young Egyptians to help them rebuild their country, and it needs to start a new page in its foreign policy in the region, based on a partnership with a politically aware mass rather than an autocracy running a silent majority. And that’s a big difference! Diplomacy, both public and regular, will play a major role.
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