Thursday, July 04, 2013

Redefining Political Realities

I haven't written anything in my blog for a very long time. To be honest, life in Egypt has had a fluidity lately that most people only encounter while white water rafting.  It's pretty hard to comment on something that is changed the very next day. But the past few days have been amazing. The demonstrations called by Tamarod surpassed everyone's expectations and the political response has been no less astonishing than the events of 2011. To be quite honest, I did not expect the popular outpouring that brought millions of Egyptians out into the streets. In my old, jaded mind set, a petition is something someone does to make him/herself feel better about something that they aren't really going to do anything about. Egyptians have redefined the concept of petition, very  largely because they don't generally use them and felt free to define it in a new way.

I've been doing a lot of thinking over the past couple of days. I get notices, often a half dozen a day, on FB and in email, to sign this petition or that one to save the spotted orangutan that is being hunted to extinction in Afghanistan or to tell politicians that Americans really don't want ground plastic in their corn flakes and some of them I take the trouble to sign and pass on and others I don't. Have I ever really had the sense that a petition would change my world? Not really. Maybe someone would read it but most likely not.

But in Egypt, we just removed a president who was delusional, irresponsible, unresponsive, and incompetent (pretty good reasons to get rid of him) by petition. Yes, it wasn't an army coup that did it, it was a petition. Over 20 million Egyptians signed a petition saying that they could not tolerate Mohamed Morsi any more. The army came in only to say to Morsi's followers, many of whom are just as delusional as he is, that the people REALLY have spoken and we will NOT have a blood bath here. The issues of whether or not this was a military coup are, in my mind, secondary and complicated and they don't really speak to what has happened. They may, in fact probably will, be very important in the days to come as the military and the people try to build a constitution and a means of ensuring both political change and stability that doesn't necessarily mean bringing millions of Egyptians out into the streets. But right now I want to talk about what happened here because I think too many people are seeing it through the lenses of predetermined labels and thought.

When I was a little girl, I clearly remember dreaming that if I were walking along a sidewalk in San Diego I could fly simply by picking one foot off the ground, and then picking the other foot up at the same time. I would then float along the sidewalk at roughly the same speed as if I were walking and at the same altitude. I must have been afraid of heights even then because I don't remember any soaring above clouds or anything. Then one night in my dream I was doing this and someone walked up to me, I can't recall who, looked at me flying along the sidewalk and said, "Don't you know that you can't do that?" and BOOM, I was on the sidewalk and never flew in my dreams the same way. I could only do it until someone told me it was impossible. I never forgot that dream because I always had a sneaky feeling that if I could convince myself that I could fly it would work again. So far, in sixty years, it hasn't so perhaps some real innocence is what is needed and this innocence speaks volumes in understanding Egyptians' approach to politics.

Egyptians don't really use petitions. Tamarod was the first real grassroots petition I've seen here. Upper class Egyptians are prone to the same petition signing online, but "normal" working class Egyptians haven't really been exposed to petitions. When I first heard of Tamarod, I was intrigued but not impressed. I thought, terrific for the minority who understand petitions, but what about all the poor, the farmers, the workers? As the Tamarod movement grew, these kids who were running it did the smart thing. They moved the petitions into cigarette kiosks, small grocery stores, and Egyptians by the millions who had been allowed no other voice suddenly found an outlet for their frustrations and they signed it in droves....and they passed the petition on. And, even more important, having taken this massive step of actually signing a piece of paper saying that they wanted a voice in their government, they came out at the end of June to back that statement up with the presence of their bodies in the streets. I'm willing to bet that at least 80% of the people who signed Tamarod came out into the streets at one point...and remember that there were 22 million of them.

Do you think it would work in France, the US or China? I don't know but I think that my dream speaks to that. In 2011, thousands of Egyptians went out to protest police brutality on Police Day. They encountered police brutality, which didn't surprise them, in a really brutal form, which did surprise and anger them, and they basically decided that it was ENOUGH!  No one went out in January to bring down the Mubarak regime and everyone was quite astonished when they did. It was probably the first time in Egyptian history (hieroglyphics don't have much to say about popular uprisings) that the Egyptian people brought down a government by simple force of will (combined to be sure with some Machiavellian maneuvering on the part of the Egyptian military). We and the rest of the world were stunned and like a dog that has finally caught a car after chasing it for so long, frankly we didn't know what to do with the country.  Reality in the form of referendums, elections and the incompetence of the people elected who had no experience at all with the nuts and bolts of governance, set in. Expectations that the Muslim Brothers who had always been the first on hand with help for the poor or disaster-struck would be able to handle governing were pretty much shot down by the time the presidential elections came around and Morsi squeaked in more by virtue of people NOT voting for his opponent than by anything else. Many Egyptians boycotted the elections hoping that large numbers of people NOT voting would be noticed....but they weren't really. People don't notice something that should happen but doesn't. What they notice is something that shouldn't happen but does.

So when Tamarod was organised and the more worldly of us sort of looked at it and thought "Cute. Nice try, kids. A petition never changed anything." the rest of Egypt was learning to fly because no one had ever told them that it wouldn't work. This was one of those things that had never been done, so why wouldn't it work? And it did work. It worked because the signers put their heart, souls and bodies into their action. And this morning, whether we see peace or fighting, whether the army deals with us honestly or not, whether Mubarak's weasels try taking over the government or not, this morning is the result.

At this point, I suspect that there are a lot of governmental types all over the world viewing Egypt very suspiciously. A country that has a terrible literacy rate, has one of the worst school systems in the world, has carefully taught its population to follow orders, that has a huge population of poor people who barely manage to survive, and that has no experience in that exalted form of political activity, democracy, has toppled two leaders in two years. Doing it once can be dismissed as a fluke, but doing it twice could mean that these people have actually figured something important out. I think that Egypt's complete inexperience in political matters has actually worked to its advantage because there are young people out there who come up with a simple idea like Tamarod and try it, not knowing that it isn't supposed to work. And as long as no one believes that it isn't supposed to will work. Ignorance can be bliss.

copyright 2013 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani