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Egypt: Toppling Stereotypes and Dictators

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A lot can happen in a month. When Egypt saw in the New Year with a suicide bomb attack that killed 24 Coptic Christians at a midnight mass, the symbolism was as clear as it was ominous. This is only the beginning.

For those of us who hail from the Muslim Middle East, whether we are religious or not, the escalating violence and intolerance that culminated in that attack, were a source of shame and grief.

With every death, the line between moderate and radical seemed to blur. How much longer could we implore not to be judged by the most extreme amongst us, when it appeared the extremists were leaving the moderate voices drowning in a sea of intimidation and fear?

For decades, Arabs have been offered a false choice: secular despotism or radical Islamism. For those of us who believed the Middle East deserved better, the future was looking bleak indeed. The circle seemed never-ending: the dictators held onto power by invoking the radicals causing the oppressed population to seek solace in religious-based organisations as the only organised opposition. The increasing persecution of Christian minorities and growing influence of fundamentalists were signalling an unstoppable march towards Islamism.

But that was before the death of Mohammed Bouazizi, the young Tunisian graduate who set himself on fire in a desperate protest against the authoritarian regime that made his life impossible.

If only he could have known what his death has done for the Arab world, both in the Middle East and those of us in the Diaspora. His act of desperation set off an unprecedented wave of protests across the region that finally put to rest the stereotype of the lazy, passive Arab. For decades, Arabs have been told they needed a ‘strong man’ in power to fight off the radical waiting in the wings.

Iran was the bogeyman, the warning of what would happen if the secular dictators lost their grip on power. Treating their citizens as if they neither longer for, nor deserved democracy, these strongmen have had the support of the West who, despite their professed love for freedom, decided that a ‘stable’ Middle East was preferable to a free one.

But the Middle East was never stable so much as stagnant, and such stagnancy can never last. In 18 days, the people of Egypt, led by the web-savvy youth have not only toppled the strongest dictator in the region, they have toppled stereotypes about Arabs themselves.

Hungry for freedom and yearning for a representative government they have changed the face of the Middle East forever.

 

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Written by Ruby

February 14, 2011 at 12:11 am

Egypt, Israel and Omelas

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There is a short story, The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, by American science fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin that tells a faintly familiar tale.

Omelas is a Utopia. A warm, prosperous city of festivals, ringing with the sound of music and the laughter of children. The citizens are joyous. Negative emotions like guilt do not exist.

But Omelas harbours a dark secret, one on which its entire existence is predicated; the music, laughter, art and architecture all depend on one abominable thing. That a child, feeble-minded and with a body of festering sores, be kept locked up in a dark basement forever. To release the child, in fact to even speak one kind word would immediately destroy the city and it would never be able to rebuild.

The inhabitants know about the child. Upon being informed of its existence, many demand to see it whilst others, “are content just to know it’s there.” But they all accept that in order for them to thrive, the child must suffer.

I was recently introduced to this story by a journalist and blogger, Yuval Ben-Ami, who seeing in Omelas his own home of Israel, writes:

“Even as a teenager I knew that there were people whose lives were controlled by my nation’s army, and who didn’t even get running water in their houses. I knew that there were people imprisoned for years without fair trials. I knew…Israel was an Omelas, prosperous and happy while keeping children in a basement.”

But now, the revolution underway in Egypt has revealed an even greater extent of suffering. The intensity of the uprising has taken everyone by surprise, not least the Egyptians who protested with the exhilaration of those who have finally found their voice after years of being gagged, and whose exhilaration has just turned to dismay as pro-Mubarak supporters strike back.

The world watches on, not entirely sure what to make of it. Early reports out of the United States spoke of ‘chaos’ and ‘disorder,’ prompting New York based Egyptian columnist Mona Eltahawy to implore the media stop referring to it as such and call it what it is instead: an uprising, a revolt, an revolution. “Egyptians want to fix Egypt, they don’t want to destroy Egypt,” she told CNN.

Whilst some developments have been decidedly ugly, it was clearly a peaceful uprising until pro-Mubarak supporters struck back, opening fire and beating pro-democracy demonstrators. This has prompted calls from US President Barack Obama and British PM David Cameron for a peaceful and immediate transition.

However, this wasn’t the west’s initial reaction. US vice-President Biden, who stressed Mubarak’s status as a US ally as well as his “normalizing relationship…with Israel” declared that he would “not refer to (Mubarak) as a dictator,” best sums up America’s first response.

Clearly, the media, as they so often do, took their cues from the official, government perspective. So why was the west, and America, in particular so afraid of this revolution? So unwillingly to accept that after decades of despotic regimes the ‘Arab Street’ had finally had enough?

Could it be that, like the fictional city of Omelas, the status of Israel, as ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’ depends upon the misery and suffering of Arabs?

In the early days of the protests, Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that the Israeli government had sent messages to its allies, including the United States, to support Mubarak. To prioritise stability over the possibility of an Egyptian democracy.

For decades America, has been propping up the authoritarian regimes of the Middle East, whilst simultaneously portraying itself as a champion for worldwide democracy. Israel was deemed worthy of support, its survival imperative because it was a democracy. But what we weren’t told was that in order for Israelis to enjoy their democracy, millions of Arabs must be denied theirs.

Incredibly, Arabs have been blamed for the lack of democracy that was forced on them. For years, given a false choice of secular authoritarianism or religious fundamentalism, the world had come to believe that Arabs and democracy just don’t mix, because of course, “they hate us for our freedom.”

But this revolution has given us insight into the breathtaking hypocrisy that has underlined America’s relationship with the Middle East. As Ben-Ami writes, “Is this Jewish state such a fragile fantasy, that an entire region of the world must be kept imprisoned in order for it to thrive?”

Since the uprising began on Jan 25, Al Jazeera has reported a 2000 percent increase in hits to its English language website. Most tellingly, 60 percent of these hits are coming from the United States. Americans, disheartened by the coverage of their own media, and concerned by their government’s military and financial support for a dictator who denied his citizens the very rights Americans claim to be exporting to the world, are turning to the Middle East itself for answers.

In Omelas, not everyone was willing to accept the suffering of the child. They were “the ones who walk away.” No one knew where they were going, but once they knew the truth, they could no longer live in Omelas.

We don’t know what lies ahead for Egypt. But now that we all know the truth, its not enough for some of us to merely walk away.

It’s time to let the child out of the basement.

Written by Ruby

February 8, 2011 at 2:38 am