Support protesters for Egyptian stability, political freedom



Column by James Chapman. E-mail [email protected].

On Dec. 30, I departed Cairo, Egypt, after spending four months studying abroad there. On Jan. 25, less than a month later, Cairo erupted in a series of demonstrations and protests against the governmental system in Egypt and the country’s political Sphinx, the 30-year president, Hosni Mubarak.

In my November Kernel column, I predicted, “A self-generated movement for democracy, not imposed from the outside, harnessing the power of new communication technologies and Egypt’s large youth population to protest the government will eventually effect change.”

While this prediction certainly seems to hold true in light of recent events, if anyone had asked me if Egypt would erupt in popular revolt less than a month after I left, I could have never agreed to such a drastic statement. Yet, here we are.

We are witnessing a grassroots movement initially organized online, through social media, and using other new communication technologies, such as mobile phones, for a fair governmental system. Egyptians are taking their futures into their own hands, asserting a right to self-determination rarely seen in their society. They are fighting for political and social freedom, and they are dying for a chance at democracy.

This movement is significant and different from past protests for its ability to unite all of Egypt’s varied opposition movements and parties together without a clear leader. Such is the power of online social media: enabled to mobilize and organize like never before, these protests quickly grew from Facebook events organized by the youth to real world marches with the vast support of the Egyptian people.

Outside of the catalyzing effects of these new technologies, a confluence of events led to demonstrations of this magnitude being possible at this moment. The Egyptian people were on edge, and aghast, at the series of church bombings and attacks on Christians in the previous weeks. Then, following the collapse of the government of Tunisia after popular protests were organized online, Egyptians found themselves emboldened and inspired to attempt a similar ousting of their president.

When the protests began, I stayed in constant communication with my friends at Cairo University through Facebook. One friend told me, “People here are demonstrating against our government and president in very huge numbers in order to change the whole regime in Egypt,” and another told me, “We are protesting for the sake of liberty and freedom and we do not want this president and we do not want this totalitarian regime.”

Within a day, the messages had changed slightly to a more sober tone: “People are still standing here, thank God, in spite of the aggressive police attacks.”

In one of the most insidious moves of the Egyptian government to date, my friends in Cairo suddenly found themselves with no means to communicate. The government, responding to the protests continuing to be organized online, simply shut off the Internet (and mobile phone services too, for good measure). For a week, there was a blackout of any information coming from my contacts in Cairo. Then, on the morning of Feb. 2, after the people had achieved substantive concessions from Mubarak, I woke up to the following message, “Well, we did it 🙂 That’s all that I can say!”

I can’t overemphasize how empowering this movement is for a people who have been repressed and kept under oppressive emergency laws for the past 30 years. Nor can I overstate the outright hatred for Mubarak and the government system overall when speaking with average Egyptians.

For years, the United States operated with a goal of spreading freedom and democracy throughout the world, especially in the Middle East. Well, this is how we should do it: by supporting people desiring freedom and standing behind an organic movement for democracy.

We must continue to support voices of political moderation and continue to empower all people in this region to reach their potential.

Our government, nevertheless, has been rather timid in its response to this uprising, seeking to cling to Mubarak as an ally in the region (an ally to which we give $2 billion in taxpayer money every year to agree with us), although this timidity has morphed into stronger support for the Egyptian people over time. Realize, though, that U.S. support of Mubarak and similar regimes engenders the very extremism we are seeking to eradicate. The U.S. policy of authoritarian stability has been advantageous to U.S. interests, and fittingly, American policymakers remain frozen in their fear that political change will bring instability, which may place U.S. interests in jeopardy.

But for those who champion stability, how stable has the region been recently? When some claim that supporting Mubarak is in our national security interests because he is an ally in the region, they are playing to our worst instincts and fear mongering based on assumptions that are simply unfounded in reality. They also are forgetting that Mubarak’s rule in Egypt begets the frustrations and economic, political and social conditions that produce extremism and terrorism.

Poor and frustrated, some in Egypt seek refuge in an extreme version of Islam that advocates violent acts against the West. Therefore, those who continue to support Mubarak’s regime not only loose their moral and ethical legitimacy but also are advocating for conditions directly counter to the national security interests of the U.S.

Lastly, perhaps the event with the greatest long-term promise was Mohamed ElBaradei’s return to Egypt in the midst of the protests. I wrote briefly about ElBaradei’s potential to lead a new Egyptian wave of democracy in my previous article, but I have also been critical of him for operating largely outside of Egypt, only interacting with normal Egyptians through online social media — rarely in person, on the street.

Nevertheless, he was an electrifying presence when he arrived, and he served as one central figurehead uniting all the various movements and parties engaging in protests in opposition to the regime. Even the Muslim Brotherhood has shown a willingness to unite with ElBaradei in democracy, as it did with ElBaradei’s call to boycott the parliamentary election I witnessed while in Egypt. This spontaneously generated opposition movement, one not predicated on religion, is calling for a true democratic revolution in Egypt, and it seems to be earning the support of a wide variety of societal actors in Egypt, a promising sign for its stability in the future.

Since Jan. 25, the world has been inspired by hope and passion in Cairo, and it has borne witness to the expression of a fury that has smoldered under the surface of Egyptian society for decades.

The U.S., and each of us, must find ourselves supporting the Egyptian people as they throw off the vestiges of an oppressive dictatorship and display commendable courage in the face of government thugs on horses and the army, in tanks, deployed against its own people. The hundreds of thousands of people who gather in Tahrir Square each day in Cairo simply are seeking the same opportunities and freedoms that we enjoy in a free and open society.

Who are we as a people if we do not support our fellow man and woman as they move past years of disrespect, no opportunities, and humiliation; grasp, head-on, a brighter, more hopeful future; and awaken each day to more promising lives?