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“When an individual is protesting society’s refusal to acknowledge his dignity as a human being, his very act of protest confers dignity on him.”
– Bayard Rustin (1912-1987)
“You are fighting the battle of Arab dignity … with your voices, blood and steadfastness; the dignity of the Arab human being that was humiliated by some rulers of the Arab world for decades.”
– Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah in an address to Egyptians protestors, 7 February 2011
Volumes will be written about the affront which led the young Tunisian street vendor, Muhammad Bouazizi, to set himself on fire. And volumes will be written about the brutal beating, torture and death of the young Egyptian programmer, Khalid Sa’id, at the hands of police. Volumes will be written, because they inspired revolution.
Demands for an end to the humiliation and cruelty from which they suffered and paid for with their lives is the driving force behind the current Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings.
When Bouazizi’s small fruit and vegetable cart—which supported his family and provided for a sister’s university education—was confiscated by regime elements on the pretext of operating without a permit, it represented all the socioeconomic and political ills embodied in the decades-long rule of Zainul Abidine Ben Ali.
Bouazizi had no important family connections to invoke or bribe to offer. A female municipal officer proceeded to publicly humiliate him by insulting his family, slapping and spitting in his face and overturning his cart. He was beaten on the street by her and two associates. Seeking redress with authorities at the local government headquarters, they refused to hear his case.
Less than an hour later that December day, he doused himself in gasoline and lit a match. The rest is history in the making.
When Sai’id acquired a video of police officers in Alexandria dividing a seized cache of narcotics between them and posted it on the internet, detectives savagely assaulted him in public. A cover-up which alleged he died from asphyxiation after swallowing a marijuana packet attempted to sully the reputation and justify the death of an otherwise upstanding 28-year-old.
Bouazizi and Sa’id were deprived of the most basic dignities, as citizens and human beings. Their deaths symbolized the indignation of youth; at corruption, nepotism, unemployment, poverty, lack of educational opportunities, unchecked authority and judicial inequity in the Tunisian and Egyptian kleptocracies.
It is no surprise that young Egyptians are at the forefront of their country’s quest to rid themselves of an oppressive regime that has dragged the people’s dignity through the mud.
“In this revolution, all Egyptians are taking part … but the major and strongest element in this revolution remains the youth. That’s why we can say that we’re before a complete revolution,” said Nasrallah in a televised speech Monday hailing the demonstrators.
Enduring 30 years of Emergency Law, depriving fellow Arabs in Gaza refuge from Israeli attack, upholding an illegal embargo on the impoverished territory, serving as an outpost for rendition and torture; the pride and self-respect of Egyptians has been duly tested by an unelected regime concerned more with the interests of Washington and Tel Aviv than Cairo.
Protestors in Tahrir Square are chanting “Out, out” and “Invalid, invalid” after Mubarak’s name and that of each senior official is announced.
The response from Mubarak was a series of proposals for constitution reforms, accessory amendments, committee investigations, electoral reviews and pay hikes for state workers. Last night’s patronizing speech did not go much further.
But the call coming from the streets of Egypt was no longer about reform, but resignation.
“We look forward to the day that you bring back to Egypt its leading and historic position in the life of our nation and the region,” remarked Nasrallah. “It has always been said that Egypt is the mother of the world. This is right and you who are there; you are the great people who can, with your will and solidarity, change the face of the world.”
In 2009, Human Rights Watch issued a report on the systematic discrimination and hostility faced by Saudi Arabia’s Shia citizens, titled “Denied Dignity.”
Today, Egyptians and Tunisians give them and all the oppressed hope, for they have shown that dignity can be revived and restored.
RANNIE AMIRI is an independent Middle East commentator.