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Colman McCarthy, a former Washington Post writer and founder of the Center for Teaching Peace, must be very happy with the news from Egypt. For twenty-five years, McCarthy has been persuading high schools and colleges to adopt peace studies in their curriculum (for more information, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org). Now he has another example of a largely non-violent revolution—led by young people of all backgrounds—successfully ousting a dictatorial regime.
The moral power of non-violence against tyrants is ridiculed by the militaristic mind. Tell that to Ghandi and Mandela and to U.S. civil rights leaders. Those who say these are exceptions due to the relative lower brutality of what they were up against should read the history. Those entrenched regimes were plenty brutal over the years. But when non-violent protests became organized and disciplined enough to reach critical mass, brutality only strengthened and enlarged the uprisings.
Hosni Mubarak’s inadvertent gift to the January 25 Revolution was that he united the protestors beyond class, religious and ideological lines. His regular oppression over the years led to the April 6, 2008 Youth movement, and organized labor strikes at textile mills. An auspicious spark came with the Tunisian upheaval of December.
The shaming jolt of immolations in Egypt to overcome widespread fear and reticence to join with others in those frightening early rallies in Cairo’s Tahrir Square can scarcely be exaggerated.
The 18 days that shook Egypt will make for fascinating study. The self-discipline and power of mutual self-respect with others locked arm-in-arm tested the regime and the protestors.
First came the security police with tear gas, rubber bullets, concussion grenades and water cannons. The resisters held. Then three days later, the police were pulled back and replaced by the respected and familiar Army (Egypt has a draft). The soldiers mostly kept a kind of neutral order, but some soldiers showed their support for the demonstrators by allowing them to decorate the tanks with flowers and freedom signs.
February 2 and 3 brought the ominous pro-Mubarak plain-clothesmen into the Square. That drew new resolve among the crowds that vastly outnumbered what they saw as the government’s thugs. The protestors held. From then on, bolstered by demonstrations in Alexandria—Egypt’s second largest city—Suez and other Metropolitan centers, the momentum swung decisively in favor of the rebels whose ranks swelled with each day.
Certainly, Al-Jazeera television countered the state-run television to inform the people, almost by the minute about what was transpiring in the streets. Certainly the Internet kept the protestors in touch with one another, though the government briefly shut it down along with the mobile phone networks.
But far from most cameras, residents organized Cairo’s vast neighborhoods to defend and supply themselves. They were the real glue, the real depth that convinced the regime that it was all over.
The fall of Mubarak led to the assumption of power by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces which suspended the disliked constitution, dissolved the rubber-stamp Parliament, and announced “free and fair” elections with multi-party candidates in six months. They pledged to remove the despised “emergency law,” allowing arrests without charges or trial, and promised immunity for the protestors whom they described as “honest people who refused the corruption and demanded reforms.”
Now comes the hard part. Three “cultures” are presently the best organized—the military, commercial and religious groups. Least established is the civic culture that is now, in its revelry and formative stage, the toast of the nation.
But it is the civic—political culture at the urban neighborhood and village levels that will shape the future democratic processes and structures to avert falling back into a military-oligarchic concentration of power—one backed by the same old U.S. support for authoritarian stability over democracy. “Much of the old regime remains” wrote author of Middle-East revolutionary movements, David Porter.
As the New York Times columnist—Nicholas D. Kristof, wrote from Cairo where he once was a university student: “We tie ourselves in knots when we act as if democracy is good for the United States and Israel but not for the Arab world. For far too long, we’ve treated the Arab world as just an oil field.”
The peril for the protestors in the critical next six months is how to keep the momentum of unity going behind a broad universal agenda that would lead to the election without opening up rending sectarian divisions.
In 1990 I was in Moscow as a guest of the Soviet Union’s U.S. and Canada Institute just before Boris Yeltsin replaced Mikhail Gorbachev. The audiences were overjoyed at the looming prospect of democracy replacing Soviet dictatorship. I cautioned that there would be a large vacuum, should this occur, and joy and relief should not supplant the creation of civic institutions, independent judiciaries and prosecutors and the broadest possible civic participation by the people. Otherwise, the vacuum would be filled with forces not to their liking.
Sure enough, authoritarian practices and the corrupt give-away of Russia’s massive natural resources to a dozen oligarchs filled the vacuum.
The Egyptian resistance—politically savvy from dealing with years of repression—is anything but naïve. They know what they have to do and by when, taking nothing for granted. This wariness, they have made clear, includes not taking for granted Washington’s sudden praise of their unfolding quest for what President Obama called a “genuine democracy.”
Wouldn’t it be a surprising change were the Obama administration to stand resolutely with the workers and the peasants in this ancient land of 80 million?
RALPH NADER is the author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!, a novel.