Monday, February 14, 2011

The Poetry of Tahrir Square

In the mere span of 18 days one of the most entrenched dictatorships in the Islamic world fell to what was essentially the power of peaceful protest. Though more than 300 people died mostly in the early days of the revolt, those were almost entirely due to police actions. The military did not attempt to put down the protest by force. Thus, the military established some semblance of good will in the eyes of the Egyptian people and is now in charge of the transition to democracy. The fact this happened at all is remarkable, but the fact it happened in the traditionally violent Middle East is truly amazing.

Mark Shields summed it up nicely on Friday evening’s PBS News Hour: “Joyful, ecstatic. It's bottom-up. This wasn't orchestrated from the top, no artillery, no carpet bombing, no IEDs, unlike Iraq, no body-counts, just a remarkable, remarkable, historic achievement. And I think that it puts a brand-new face for those outside of the Middle East on Islam. I mean, this is -- al-Qaida hates what happened, is happening right now in Egypt. I mean, this is an achievement of such signal proportion, you can't -- look, this is a, what, 90 percent Islamic nation. And you look at Muslim faith, and you look at that right now, and you say, wait a minute, how different can they be? They crave democracy, self-determination. Secular, better for their future. I mean, just a remarkable, remarkable moment, and encouraging.”

Protests by workers, in fact, continue in Egypt today. Some residual activists remain in Tahrir Square, though the massive throngs are gone and the military is trying to restore things to normalcy. Hopefully, that will happen and elections can take place without further violence. But, there is every reason for caution here. Hosni Mubarak was the focal point of the dissent, but that is no guarantee that the military will continue to restrain itself if the activists don't allow time for reforms to move forward.

The future is anything but certain, of course. But, that should not diminish the poetic moment of Tahrir Square is that there was no singular organized movement. There was no opposition figurehead. There were no political parties, nor specific political agendas beyond the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak. This was democracy is its most pristine form, without a flashy, plastic electoral process. It was a spontaneous wellspring of participation, inspired in part by the recent experience in Tunisia, but chiefly motivated by decades of corruption and economic stagnation.

This is perhaps the dawn of the Egyptian equivalence to America’s 1960’s Youth Movement. The Islamic world, particularly in Arab countries, is predominantly young. What we are witnessing is a revolution by a generation very comfortable with social networking technology feeding on the frustrations of their parents as well as themselves. Yet, the comparisons with the 1960’s should not go too far. I am unsure as to whether there is a precise equivalent to the fall of Hosni Mubarak during my lifetime. I expected far more violence and I was happily surprised by the depth and commitment to peace and maintaining order by all factions (except for Mubarak’s police forces, of course).

As beautiful as it is to witness the pure democratic display of power in the face of potentially far more deadly forces inside Egypt, who boasts one of the largest armies in the world, there is a flip-side to all this. Because there were no opposition parties, no specific leaders of the political uprising, no clear venue for the protesters to organize themselves, it will now be all the more difficult to move from political ideals to political policy.

The Islamic Brotherhood is one of the more organized members of the former opposition movement. Subdued and outlawed under Mubarak’s rule, they now can potentially emerge as the primary force to be reckoned with. Hopefully, this will not be the case. The last thing Egypt needs is to polarizing effects of radical Islam.

But, there is reason for hope here. Egypt is not Iraq or Afghanistan. It is a much more sophisticated culture, indeed the very cradle of western civilization after Babylonia and Sumer. Here are the great pyramids, massive architectural achievements of their age. In Egypt was the world’s first great library, a place of learning and discussion and ideas. The first great western empire before being eclipsed by Greece and Rome.

Egypt, as a state of mind, has a rich past to draw upon and a vibrant diversity in its populous. That diversity means the democracy will likely be messy but, it also means that it is unlikely to be ruled by extremists at least to begin with. Instead, the most likely path is that Egypt will find a coalition of non-radicals. There is every reason to hope that more moderate voices will be heard in the coming days out of Egypt and that there is middle ground from which to rule because the protest never escalated to full-blown violent revolution. Peace allows for moderation in a way that violence never does.

As for the rest of the Arab-Islamic world, other countries seem to be caught up in this uprising brought about predominantly by young, mostly non-radical, Muslims. What has happened in Tunisia and Egypt is now a possibility in Jordan, Yemen, Algeria, Bahrain, and other countries. It is difficult to define the cause of this political and cultural upheaval in precise terms. The best word I can use for it is karma. This is the karma of the Islamic world moving forward in a completely unorchestrated, grass roots inspiration. It is fascinating to behold and shows the power of popular frustration in an era of social networking.

This is anti-Tiananmen Square. But, of course, this isn’t China. There is no worship of society as a whole the way the Chinese worldview expresses itself so steeped in the tenets of Confucianism. Conformity to social norms is part of the Chinese cultural DNA which makes things like individual expression much more frowned upon than in the Islamic world. Still, it could have turned out far more bloody than it did.

The Egyptian military could have cracked down on the protesters. My guess is that they didn’t because the Egyptian military doesn’t want to upset the delicate alliance with the United States and jeopardize the continued flow of $1.3 billion in US military aid to that country annually. Perhaps in this regard, the United States influenced events by simply acting as a governor on military leaders anxious not to squash the protesters, show a lot of bloodshed and violence, and risk the tether of assistance from their greatest financial ally.

When you find a society in the Middle East that chooses to minimize violence, that chooses peaceful protest over brutal confrontation, that chooses spontaneity over repression, collective awareness over car bombings and beheadings, then you have suddenly opened up all sorts of possibilities for the future of the region. What happened in Egypt is almost miraculous. It will take a miracle to guide the entire region through the troubled times ahead. Let Egypt lead through these times. Let Egypt reclaim its former guiding light to civilization.

To all the many people I spoke with over the past few weeks that have proclaimed that "Iran is behind all this" I would just like to say you couldn’t be more wrong. The peace proves the lack of Iranian or any extremist involvement. Iranians are Persians. Egyptians are Arabs. This is not the historic basis for cooperation and it only proves how shallowly the sheltered citizens of America can be with their tendency to reduce the world to black and white caricatures of reality. Human expression is always more complicated, always defies simplification.

The Egyptian transition, ironically, might just turn out to be the thing most feared by the tyrannical regime in Iran. Tehran seems to have its place in the Islamic Karma hit parade. You recall the violence there after the last Iranian con-job of elections. I’m not sure the Iranian regime will come out so well the next time elections are held. Of course, Iran is a society ruled by religious clerics whereas Egypt is much more sophisticated and modern. Nevertheless, if a dictator can peacefully fall anywhere in the Middle East there is hope for the toppling of any and every governing institution in the region.

Wouldn’t it be ironic if the fall of Iran began in Egypt? And the transformation of the Muslim world became the death knell to al Qaeda? The last place any of us looked for answers to the problem was among the peoples where the problem supposedly manifest itself. Sure, Egypt is not Iran nor is it Pakistan nor Saudi Arabia. So, I don’t want to overly simplify things. But, if transformational democracy is possible in Egypt who’s to say what the next gravity-defying feat of the Middle East might be?

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