Tahrir Square, Again

Tahrir Square, February 2011

by Tom and Judith Snowdon

There is near euphoria in many circles over the wave of revolutions sweeping the Middle East. Indeed, for those of us who look to principles of peace and nonviolence as positive agents of change, in several cases there is cause for rejoicing. Here in Egypt, despite constant provocations, harassment, tear gas, beatings and even killings from the police and pro-government forces, protestors remained amazingly in control of their emotions, reigning in their natural tendencies to respond to violence with violence. Truly, they won the day with their numbers, their prayers, their determination, their organization, their self-control, their dedication to refuse violent methods – and, yes, their mobile phones and social networks.

At the core of this protest was a group who had organized a study of nonviolent strategy and of such leaders as Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. This was well documented even before the revolution began, though few imagined that so small a group could have such impact. Even after the revolution flared and triumphed in nearby Tunisia, many seasoned Egypt watchers, not to mention Egyptians themselves, predicted that nothing similar could happen in Egypt. Egyptians, it was declared, were too passive, too cowed by decades of authoritarian rule, were too much "under the thumb" of the police and internal security agencies.

At the point of writing, however, two months after Mubarak resigned and fled Cairo, this revolution is far from over. Continuing pressure from those demanding change is pushing the tenuous alliance with the military to the breaking point. Confidence about predicting the future in Egypt has been swept away like dust in the wind. Nearly every Egyptian to whom we have spoken states only one thing: that the future of Egypt is entirely uncertain. It seems that almost anything could happen in the coming months. Will we see movement to full-blown democracy – or will there be a counter-revolution by reactionary forces? Will there be a long political stalemate – or the development of a fundamentalist, Islamic state? No one is betting on the future. The stakes are very high indeed.

It would be wonderful if we could know with confidence that there will be growth towards a fully democratic country with a full range of recognized and guarded human rights, with stable political parties and a government serving the Egyptian people with integrity – the wish and hope of the thousands of protestors who even now continue assembling in Tahrir Square in order to pressure the military government to keep moving towards democracy.

Yet real liberation remains elusive. The revolution of 2011 is the third Egyptian revolt in less than a century to spring up at that same intersection where a web of Cairo streets converge. Tahrir (Liberation) Square was given the nickname by Egyptians after a revolt against British rule that led to the end of that regime in 1922. In 1952, after a revolt ended the monarchy and established a republic, the square was officially given its unofficial name. If two previous revolutions failed to bring changes sufficient to establish a stable, self-renewing system of government but fell back into one form of tyranny or another, dare we be optimistic about the third?

Conflicting forces are on the move in Egypt which would push the country in several contradictory directions. One of these forces is seen in the continuing energy which animated the revolution itself. This very visible, infectious, driving energy moves in the hearts of young people, professionals, people who are educated and informed, those have seen the world outside of Egypt, either in person or through family or personal connections. This group is Muslim, Christian and secular. Beyond their united desire to be rid of tyranny, they are quite varied in their motives.Then there are conservative and fundamentalist Islamic groups, the Muslim Brotherhood being the largest and best known. Visitors to Cairo in recent years have been startled to see the increasingly conservative attire of Muslim women, a vivid indication of growing Islamic fundamentalism in Egypt. "This is not Egypt!" one seasoned visitor and former resident of Cairo exclaimed as she looked at the head coverings and fully-veiled women in the streets. The former regime kept the political manifestations of these groups in check – often in jail. (The possibility of Islamic fundamentalists coming to power is the biggest political fear for Christians, despite leaders who urge believers to have faith and "not be afraid." It is a big issue here for the churches, especially the Coptic Orthodox, by far the largest and most visible group – and the most visible target for any discriminatory acts.)

These two groups, the revolutionaries and the fundamentalists, are vying for power in a new Egypt. The former favors a civil society, a "secular" state with large freedoms for the Egyptian people. The latter has a varying vision of a conservative, Islamic state, with other groups tolerated at best and a conservative version of Sharia law in place.

As well as all of this, there is the fear that the old regime, having held Egypt in its grip these past 30 years, will regroup and, by showing a metamorphosed face to the people, regain power using the same powerful connections and the same well-rehearsed, underhanded tactics; new branding, new tag-line, but the same tyranny.

Ultimately more important than these social and political groups, however, are the people – mostly poor, often uneducated, from smaller towns and cities and the countryside – who form the vast majority of Egyptian society. They are utterly inexperienced politically. If there is to be a democracy, ultimately it is these people who must learn what it means to hear and weigh political opinions, to discern what constitutes public corruption and public service and to cast a ballot based on one's own interpretation of these and many other things. It will not be easy. It is on this political inexperience that tyranny grows as local leaders play on divisions and fears, including religiously based fears, to ensure that their wills are followed.

The much-lauded internet which served as a catalyst for the revolution is accessed by only 17 percent of the population. On the United Nations' comparative index of human development in 169 countries, Egypt stands at position 101. Spending on human development languishes in Egypt. Adult literacy sits at 66 percent – lower for women. The average years of schooling is 6.5. The education system depends largely on memorization of facts to prepare for exams. Training in critical thinking, exploration of ideas and the use of varying learning techniques are all sorely lacking in Egyptian schools. Public school teachers often withhold curriculum from the students to force them to study in private lessons taught by the same teachers in the evening, private lessons for which the students must pay in order to boost the extremely low government salaries of the teachers.

It is these neglected people who must build the new Egypt – and not only by their hard labor for minimal wages. They must learn how to participate in a civil society which values participation, tolerates and even values social and religious differences, encourages debate, accepts the decisions of the majority and rejects the tyranny of privileged elites.

None of this way of living and being has been fostered in Egypt. If this revolution is not to lose itself under the weight of these deficiencies, like the two previous revolutions, there is much work to be done in the coming months and years.

Literacy and education are the two main roads to a stable and democratic Egypt, though a myriad of other needs also present themselves. In a society where such a large percentage of people practice their religious faith, the religious values of faith over fear and love over intolerance must be the themes of many thousands of prayers and sermons. Community discussion forums about local problems, conflict mediation workshops, trauma healing for victims of abuse, community courses on democratic rights, responsibilities and practices – these are places to start the work of equipping people able to rebuild the country.

Thankfully, these are all doable. Local mosques and churches, even if they don't host such events, can still encourage and help support them. Schools, colleges and other domestic and foreign non-governmental organizations can all become involved in creative and engaging projects along the same lines. It is much less glamorous than a revolution, but it has the potential to be more enduring. Once the eyes of the world media have moved on to more dramatic events elsewhere, it is these actions which may prevent the need for Tahrir Square to be used once again to overthrow tyranny.

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Longtime OPF members Tom and Judith Snowdon live in Cairo, Egypt, where they work for the Mennonite Central Committee. The MCC partners with local churches (Coptic Orthodox, Presbyterian and Anglican) on peace-building and development projects.

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M.L. King on the Nile:

Conventional wisdom assumes that nonviolent action can work only in societies that are lawful and democratic, but the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia show that nonviolent civil resistance can succeed in even the most oppressive systems and against ruthless regimes that do not hesitate to torture and kill their opponents. During the protests in Egypt, hundreds of demonstrators were killed, most at the hands of security forces and pro-Mubarak thugs. Yet people continued to pour into the streets day after day to demand their freedom. The victory of the protesters was virtually total, and was all the more amazing because it was so unexpected and seemingly spontaneous. ... The demonstrated power of nonviolent resistance in the heart of the Arab and Muslim world helps to undermine the central narrative of Al Qaeda. Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri claim that terrorist violence is necessary to bring down autocratic Arab governments. If these regimes can be transformed instead through peaceful democratic means, the appeal of Al Qaeda diminishes. As Mohamed ElBaradei said, "If we get Egypt right, it could be the best medicine to get rid of radicalism."

photo: a comic book introduction to nonviolence originally published by the Fellowship of Reconciliation in 1956, republished in an Arabic edition in 2009 by the American Islamic Congress

❖ IN COMMUNION / Pascha/ Spring 2011/ Issue 60