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Egyptian Revolution on Farewell Friday

I heard this quote from one of the Egyptian protesters on Friday 11 February 2011, the day of liberation for all Egyptians: ‘Pharaoh has let his people go.’ On this day in 1990 Nelson Mandela became a free man, after 27 years of imprisonment. And, today was meant to be a day of remembrance for the martyrs of Egypt. This is now simultaneously a deeply symbolic and very real day of freedom.

In December 2004, I interviewed Saad Eddin Ibrahim, the Egyptian human rights activist and sociology professor at the American University in Cairo, at the Ibn Khaldun Centre for Development. I asked him what role the United States should play in encouraging positive changes in Egypt and the Middle East, to which he responded: 

One, to avoid support for dictators, even if they are still appear as friends, and to demand that for this support to continue, the dictator must have a roadmap for democracy; and to guide, aid, trade, technology to the implementation of various steps of this order. So the roadmap they can create for themselves, but to put the entire schedule with every step. The other is to encourage the forces of civil society, and leave these forces to do the work themselves, without being heavy-handed, without threats to use force. Thirdly, that this could be done, if Europeans can take a higher profile in pushing the democratic envelope, because there is less suspicion about the Europeans, and they are no longer perceived as ‘colonial powers,’ which they were. But that has been a long time, and now Europe means neighbours, Europe means culture, Europe means understanding our problems and so on; so the neighbourhood policy seems to have the neighbourhood respected, seemed to have replaced the old suspicions of the Europeans as colonial, imperialistic powers. So if America is truly interested, it can rely on the good word of the Europeans to push the democratic card.

I asked him to address the role of the Muslim Brotherhood, and this was his response:

The organized Islamic movement symbolized as the Muslim Brotherhood, as of March 2004, are also declaring something that’s not much different from the rest of the opposition, as wanting a democracy and there are no qualms about it anymore, on the record they don’t talk about it as Shura or Islamic governments. They are lining up with the opposition as well as civil society, but they also reject anything that comes from the West.

During our chat, we talked quite a bit about the phenomenon of globalization. It is crystal clear now that information technology, like Facebook and Twitter, and global news networks has played a pivotal role in facilitating the nonviolent revolution in Egypt. Here is what Dr. Ibrahim said in 2004 about globalization and democracy, and his admiration for the Indian model:

Well, I’ve read a lot about India. My latest article is called Democracy on Indian Elephants. It was in response to people who debated with me over the last two years against democracy. Again, rejecting democracy because they think democracy is coming on the wings of the phantom planes, or tanks, and frankly I realized that these are fascist, anti-democratic forces looking for any excuse to reject democracy, and using America and the West as an excuse for rejecting democracy. 

So I said, ‘all right, fine, let’s not have democracy on American tanks or planes. How about Indian elephants?’ And then I expounded on the recent elections in India… here is a country that gained its independence roughly around the same time that most Arab countries gained their independence, but they have had a sustainable democracy since 1947, and comparing the advances of India – slow but cumulative – and, again, just like an elephant: heavy, slow-paced, but determined. And I was using that analogy first when someone said, ‘oh you submit to democracy when you saw American planes.’ I said, ‘all right, you don’t want that, how about an Arab camel, or an Arabian horse?’ He said, ‘Oh, you’re being sarcastic.’ I said, ‘What about a donkey?’ He said, ‘What do you mean by donkey?’ So when the Indian election took place, and I recalled that debate. And I said, well, they said I was being sarcastic when I said [democracy on] an Arabian camel or horse, or whatever, now I have one more vehicle to bring democracy on, and that is the Indian elephant. 

Actually, Mona Makram Ebeid wrote an article two or three days ago using the same analogy, talking about Indian democracy.

There is a lot of admiration for the Indian experiment, and I have had several occasions to write about it. But to get to your point about globalization, how the two countries have dealt with it, Indians were very pragmatic in responding to globalization, and I think they have benefited immensely from it. Look at Bangalore, which is an IT world centre, and the revenues that India earns from its software industry are in the billions of dollars, and that’s the figure now, because it’s always multiplying, every time I hear about it, it’s double what it was a year before, or two years before. So, that is a good example of instead of fighting a hopeless battle against globalization ala Seattle – No, try to harness globalization for your benefit, and again India is a good example, and that is my message to my fellow Arabs and fellow Egyptians, whenever they talk about globalization as ‘equivalent to Americanization, to Westernization,’ I say no, there is more to it than that. And, it is a roaring river anyhow, so you can ride it or drown in it, but it will continue to flow and flow more forcefully with every minute.

Today’s historic events in Tahrir Square compelled me to pull out these notes and transcripts from my interviews in Cairo nearly seven years ago. In many ways, Dr. Ibrahim’s words reverberate in Tahrir Square today.

In a remarkable statement foreshadowing events to come, Mustafa Al-Sayyid, Political Science professor at the American University in Cairo, who I also interviewed in December 2004, said the following in response to my question about how globalization is affecting Egypt’s national security:

… Access to the media: people are becoming better informed because they don’t rely on government-supported newspapers or radio or television, they can watch Arab and foreign television satellite stations, and they can also get access to the Internet to other sources of news.  

Also I think another impact of globalization is the techniques of protest movements in Egypt. Protest movements in Egypt do use the Internet now as a way of communicating and mobilizing their supporters. These are different ways through which globalization is felt in Egypt.

The images from Tahrir Square today, on ‘Farewell Friday,’ will remain forever imprinted in many people’s minds, including mine. As an American of Indian descent and a Gandhian proud of nonviolent civil disobedience, which has been an equally powerful force in American history with the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, today’s achievement is profoundly meaningful. At the personal level it reaffirms Mahatma Gandhi’s principles and convictions about the inevitability of the fall of tyrants in the face of nonviolent masses determined to shape their own destiny. At the professional level, as a political scientist and Middle Eastern Studies scholar, today’s achievement conveys this critical lesson: The overthrow of Hosni Mubarak by the largest Arab population in the region shatters all theories about the unwillingness and inability of Arabs to eliminate authoritarianism and embrace home-grown democracy.

Mahatma Gandhi said, ‘Be the change that you want to see in the world.’ The Egyptian revolution of 2011 could not provide a better example of this proverb. He also said, ‘Interdependence is and ought to be as much the ideal of man as self-sufficiency. Man is a social being.’ Did he have Facebook in mind when he said that? Someone tweeted on BBC News online: ‘Behind every Arab revolution is a Facebook page.’

Dr. Hayat Alvi is an Associate Professor at the US Naval War College, Newport, Rhode Island and the views expressed are her own. Email.

As part of its editorial policy, the MEI@ND standardizes spelling and date formats to make the text uniformly accessible and stylistically consistent. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views/positions of the MEI@ND Editor, MEI@ND: P R Kumaraswamy