Talking about revolution: The domino effect

Published: January 31, 2011

The Cairo I remember is so different from the fearless one it is today. PHOTO: AFP

Strolling down the streets of Cairo, I notice the elegant mansions lining the banks of the river Nile and the well-heeled Egyptians in cafes. But the rows of slums and crowds of animated, ragged beggars running alongside asking for “baksheesh” were hard to miss.

The yawning gap between the disempowered and the prosperous is all too evident in this bustling and colourful city.

But the Cairo I remember from a long ago visit hardly bears any resemblance to the pulsating and fearless Cairo of today. Crowds roaring back at low-flying fighter jets in an effort to intimidate; valiant protestors forcing police back as they advance, step by step; bloodied bodies amid wailing mourners; a remarkable human chain being formed around the National Museum in order to ward off attempts to loot priceless artefacts; louder and louder chants for President Hosni Mubarak to step down, for an end to corruption.

Despite Mubarak’s appointing new vice president and prime minister, as the protests swell, Egyptians have not been appeased; is it not the same as having old wine in new bottles?

Les Miserables of the Middle East

The young people marching for bread in the streets and slums of Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Jordan and Algiers are not fighting the terror of unemployment with ideology. They do not need one. Bleak unemployment and backbreaking corruption is the ideology for these ‘les misérables’.

The scourge decimating the Arab world is socio-economic marginalisation. North Africa and the Middle East have the highest percentage of young people in the world. 60 per cent of the regions’ people are under 30.  With the unemployment rate at 10 per cent or more, North Africa and the Middle East also have the highest regional rate of joblessness in the world. For the region’s young people, it’s four times that.

Some political scientists warn of the dark side of the “youth bulge.” A study by Population Action International asserted that 80 per cent of the world’s conflicts between 1970 and 1999 started in countries where 60 per cent of the population was under 30. Arab leaders could have harnessed the skilled, eager, and educated labour force flooding on to the market, but chose to ignore it.

Should I become a thief?

Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi was 10 years old when he became the main provider for his family, selling fresh produce in the local market. He was 17 when he quit school to work full time so that his younger brothers and sisters could stay in school. He was used to the daily humiliating treatment meted out to him by government officials, but he snapped one morning when a policewoman who tormented him for bribes confiscated his fruit, depriving him of the 5 dinar (or $3) he hoped to make for his family that day. The policewoman slapped him when he tried to take them back.  Bouazizi fell to the ground crying,

“Should I become a thief? Should I die?”

Bouazizi pushed his empty fruit cart to the front gates of the provincial office and doused himself with one and a half liters of gasoline. Then he pulled out a match and struck it, igniting not only himself, but the frustrations of Arab youth everywhere.  Students, teachers, the unemployed and lawyers joined forces in Tunisia, braving torture and arrest, asking for freedom and employment. Boauazizi’s act of protest gave rise to a revolt that would ultimately end President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali’s 23 year rule.

Walk like an Egyptian

Events in Tunisia may have inspired the largest street protests ever to challenge Mubarak’s three decades in power, but the anger fueling these protests is not new. The grievances are economic, social, historic and deeply personal. Egyptians, like Tunisians, often speak of their dignity, which many say has been wounded by Mubarak’s monopoly on power, his iron-fisted approach to security, and festering corruption.

Egypt has a population of 80 million, out of which 40 per cent live on less than $2 a day, or less. Ramadan Mohamed, a law graduate selling sunglasses in Cairo said:

“I have to pay 150 pounds a day to bribe police officers to let me sell on this pavement. How can I be this educated and not find proper work?”

On January 25, tens of thousands of young Egyptians took to the streets in the largest challenge to President Mubarak’s regime in a generation. People from all walks of life faced off against riot police armed with shields, batons, and seemingly endless supplies of tear gas. “Despite the tear gas and the beatings, we just kept coming, wave after wave of us. When some of us would tire, others would head in. We gave each other courage,” said one protestor.

Instead of the Arab world’s usual suspects – bearded Islamists or jaded leftists – it is young, valiant and determined people, angry at the lack of economic opportunity, who are risking their lives going up against police forces.  There is a great sense of pride that this is a leaderless movement organised by the people. This popular revolt was not organised by opposition movements, though they have now joined the protesters in Cairo. When some members of the Muslim brotherhood began chanting “Allah-o-Akbar” they were drowned out by much louder chants of “Muslim, Christian, we are all Egyptian!”

Iman Satori, an American blogger, married to an Egyptian noted:

“This revolution is not about Islamists. It is not about the price of gas…this is a revolution of hungry people.”

Role of social networking

Tunisian protesters took to the streets with “a rock in one hand, a cell phone in the other.” Since the day of the self-immolation of the street vendor that triggered riots causing the Tunisian leadership to flee the country, family members and friends used social media to share the news of what was happening in Sidi Bouzid with international media. Locals fought to get news of what was happening out, and succeeded.

“We could protest for two years here, but without videos no one would take any notice of us.”

Tunisia’s 3.6 million internet users – a third of the population- were able to follow news of the uprising on social media thanks to a solid core of activists. Tunisian protesters relied on Facebook to communicate with each other. Facebook, unlike most video sharing sites, was not included in Tunisia’s online censorship.

Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social networking sites have played a vital role in Egypt’s revolutionary movement too, enabling demonstrators to keep in touch and to organise rallies. Egyptian authorities have gone to the extent of blocking internet access and revoking Al Jazeera Network’s licence to broadcast from the country. Nevertheless, the social media is now a powerful weapon in the hands of people marching for reform and asking for freedom from despots.

An inspiring video showing the Egyptian peoples’ disenchantment with the regime is currently doing the rounds of the cyber world. A protestor highlights the demands of the people: “We will not be silenced, whether you’re a Christian, whether you’re a Mulsim, whether you’re an atheist, you will demand your goddamn rights, and we will have our rights, one way or the other!”

Western double standards vis a vis the Middle East

The West has for long observed a double standard in relations with most Arab countries, turning a blind eye to internal repression and stagnation, so long as the appearance of internal stability was preserved and the oil routes remained secure.

As demands for change reverberate further and further from Tunisia and Egypt, the hypocrisy separating the West’s words and deeds is tangible. Even though the US is in favour of democratic reform, it is also the primary benefactor of the Egyptian regime, which, in turn, has reliably supported American regional priorities. The first Arab nation to sign a peace treaty with Israel, Egypt is the largest recipient of US assistance, including $1.3 billion in annual military aid, after Iraq, Afghanistan, and Israel.  In other words, if the Egyptian army ever decides to shoot into a crowd of unarmed protestors, it will be shooting with hardware provided by the United States.

It would have been far easier for the West to take a negative stand if the protests had been mounted in the name of fundamentalist Islam rather than in pursuit of elementary political and economic change.

As Robert Fisk noted,

“It was deeply amusing to Egyptians that Obama – in Cairo itself, after his election – had urged Arabs to grasp freedom and democracy. These aspirations disappeared entirely when he gave his tacit if uncomfortable support to the Egyptian president. The problem is the usual one: the lines of power and the lines of morality in Washington fail to intersect when US presidents have to deal with the Middle East. Moral leadership in America ceases to exist when the Arab and Israeli worlds have to be confronted.”

Jon B Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, says, “Any future government of Egypt, whether it’s a continuation of the current military rule, or some sort of blend, or some sort of opposition group, is going to be less compliant with the United States than the Mubarak government has been for 30 years.”

In other words, the US is stuck between the devil and deep blue sea.

The domino effect

The winds of change sweeping across the region have impacted other well entrenched regimes too. China has blocked the word “Egypt” from the country’s popular Twitter-like service, while coverage of the political turmoil has been tightly restricted in state media. A search for “Egypt” on the Sina microblogging service brings up a message saying, “According to relevant laws, regulations and policies, the search results are not shown”.

Saudi King Abdullah was swift to condemn “intruders” who were “tampering with Egypt’s security and stability… in the name of freedom of expression.”

Freedom of expression and Saudi Arabia… isn’t that an oxymoron, Your Highness?

Can such a revolution take place in Pakistan? Do we also not yearn for dignity, respect and human rights? What is heartening about the Egyptian protests has been the appearance of not party flags of every hue and colour, but just one flag – the Egyptian national flag. It speaks volumes of the way people from all walks of life have united. Judges have also joined the protestors in Tahrir Square. “We are all Egyptians!” is their chant.
In Pakistan, the polarisation and lawlessness renting asunder our social fabric make it difficult for all the warring groups to unite under one banner. Is it possible for us all to be Pakistanis, and not just Punjabis, Pathans, Baloch, Sindhis and Muhajirs? Pride and nationalism in the true essence of the word, and not the frenzied bellows, hollow slogans and misguided ideology peddled by bellicose leaders bent on exploiting ethnic divides and vested interests.

As human rights activist Ghada Shabandar puts it:

“Egyptians are sick and tired of being corrupted, and when you live on 300 pounds ($51) a month, you have one of two options, you either become a beggar or a thief. The people sent a message: ‘We are not beggars and we do not want to become thieves.’ ”

Teetering on the brink of our slippery precipice, which option will we choose?

Maheen Usmani

Maheen Usmani

A freelance writer who has covered subjects ranging from socio-political issues to women's rights to counter terrorism, sports, travel, culture and music. Maheen tweets @MaheenUsmani twitter.com/MaheenUsmani

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Aninda Chowdhury

    Amazing article Maheen !!

    Guess what ! Saudi Arabia will be the last country in the Arab region to face this … while the mighty China will also see protests eventually which will mark the end of the non-democratic Communist rule.

    US will continue to be in profits but not on its terms but as per the conditions laid by the emerging economies (as per observations from WEF, Davos). Recommend

  • http://aacounterterror.wordpress.com Anas Abbas

    An extremely well written piece that covered this uprising comprehensively.

    The best thing about this blog has been the writer’s continuous attempt to mention that the uprising in Egypt or in Tunisia for that matter has nothing to do with any particular ideology or religion.

    Unemployment and corruption are the core issues deriving people towards revolution.

    Well Done Maheen.Recommend

  • Mahine Rizvi Ahmad

    Maheen…this is the best piece you have ever written! You captured the feelings and emotions of the Egyptian people with so much emotion and dignity. I have hope that one day people in Pakistan will come together to fight for dignity, humanity and religious tolerance. Till then one can only look at Egypt and Tunisia and dream. And then get back to Facebook and Twitter (and writers like you to your blogs and columns) and inspire people, like you just did to me. The pen (and in this case the keyboard) is truly mightier than the sword.Recommend

  • http://aamjanata.com Vidyut

    Fantastic article!

    It also explores the western duplicity about the Arab region extremely well.Recommend

  • tahira mussarat hussain

    well written maheen.Recommend

  • Mohsin Abbas

    Very well written Maheen. I have become a fan of your writing. Great work :)Recommend

  • parvez

    Brilliant stuff, could not stop reading.
    As for Pakistan you have been very perceptive in saying that our problem is that we lack both pride and nationalism. Our leaders civilian and military have engineered and nurtured this fragmentation because they have been schooled in the ways of divide and rule. This most probably will finally lead to anarchy and chaos.Recommend

  • kashif Jan

    Excellent Maheen – you keep getting A*Recommend

  • Sabeen Syed

    TWO THUMBS UP!!Recommend

  • F. Alam

    A very impressive account of what has happened, what is happening and what is about to happen in the Arab world. I would request the author to write more often.

    These protests underscore the power of anger of the public. The day a Million unarmed Arabs march towards Israel, that would be the end of Israeli occupation.

    Egyptians have also sent a practical lesson to Al Qaeeda: to bring a change, it is important to convince people to take action rather than resorting to a bombing campaign!!!!Recommend

  • http://grsalam.wordpress.com Ghausia

    Oh sure, Veena Malik-centric blogs get over a hundred comments, but God forbid a blog about something relevant would actually get that many comments. Maheen, this was absolutely brilliant, I love how you’ve covered different points in an organized manner instead of just focusing on whether a revolution of this sort can come to Pakistan, or the unity of the Egyptians, or the Arab uprising, etc. Really loved this.Recommend

  • Shahid

    Maheen, One again a nice article. Please write more often.Recommend

  • Hassan

    Excellent…and yes in Pakistan we too shall rise its a matter of time only!!!!Recommend

  • Ch Allah Daad

    I disagree, this is no revolution, its a chaos created by jobless and street gangs, which will end in new era of dictatorship or rise of extremism, Arab culture and democracy are two repulsive forces and will stay that way.Recommend

  • Samuel Niaz

    We can never unite under 1 flag. There will always be differences on this line of ethnicity, religion and economic status.Recommend

  • Sheeraz Nasim Khan

    Dear Maheen,

    A very impressive article! Hats-off to you! The article gives us a lot of insight to the current scenario in Eygt and facts are presented so well enough to keep us in perspective. It gives us Pakistani’s a direction in finding our lost social and morale fiber. We must question ourselves with what is our ideology? What is our contribution to Pakistani Society?
    Personally I think we have spoken enough, it is time to act and bring the plaguing tyrants down to justice. Remember no can or will change Pakistan but us Pakistanis. The choice is ours! Recommend

  • Ashmeet singh sidhu

    Brilliant and insightful blog Maheen.Grt Work.Recommend

  • Tazeen Rehman

    What is happening evokes thoughts of when is it going to be this way in Pakistan. I can say we are on the brink, waiting to take the plunge. One event which may seem insignificant can trigger the blaze. How long can it continue to simmer.
    Excellent article!!Recommend

  • Safiya Aftab

    Lets be careful of what we wish for – as Shaw said, revolutions shift the burden of tyranny to another shoulder. We have an elected government – what is wrong with voting them out?Recommend

  • Sharifa Hajra

    Very well written Maheen! I too would like to see something similar happening in Pakistan, sometime I hope the Pak people too would rise up and say ‘We are not beggars and we do not want to become thieves.’ ” Recommend

  • Rachel Hasan

    Maheen, no doubt a fantastic article. Comprehensive yet very informative!! Recommend

  • http://islamabad Maryam

    nice write up!Recommend

  • Saad

    Very well written… gr8 piece of writing.. Thumbs Up !!!Recommend

  • bushra haroon

    vVery well done Maheen.Recommend

  • bushra haroon

    Very well done Maheen.We desperately need to develop a vision towards the existing state of affairs and ofcourse need to develop our dignity.Recommend

  • Kamran Iqbal

    ‎@ Maheen…Just read your article. Its amazing and thought provoking and a need of time as it brilliantly touches the conscious of many of us. It also have incisiveness to cover how different are we from our Arab brothers, and how different seems to be our point of threshold to wake up.

    Additionally and apparently, it seems that there’s no depth of event, natural or man-made that is able to successfully bring about change or a shift in our consciousness, a place where many have already burned themselves in front of press and government building before. If any public revolution comes to Pakistan, it will be bloodier than that of Egypt or Tunisia. Mainly, because 1- our grievances are vulnerable to be misused by ethnocentrically driven politics and we have a habit of responding back emotionally as compared to rationally 2- Quite a large part of our masses have weapons (small pistols, TT to Klashinkovs) in their homes (protected by political parties) and there’s a large infiltration of unlicensned arms since Afghan days and from Darra area which makes scenario even worse, 3- Our people are immune to many degree of bloody protests as compared to Egyptians and Tunisians. When we come out on streets, we rarely talk together as Pakistanis, but as Sindhis, Baluchis, Punjabis, Pukhtoons or Mohajirs and what not. It will be very difficult for people to become benefactor to such a revolution because its they, the people, who will be at the receiving end of things. Change of regime is going to do very little to solve Pakistan’s problem and system cannot be changed in the matter of days regardless anyone comes out for protest or not.

    Egyptian & Tunisian Revolution is a hallmark of collective consciousness of masses in action. Lets hope our revolution comes with many enlightened people coming together as a team to bring change in lives of people.Recommend

  • Sadaf Baig

    Very articulate Maheen. Well said.Recommend

  • http://www.pakspectatogooutr.com Sana Saleem

    Fantastic Piece ! This article of yours will help in developing a vision towards the existing state of affairs.Recommend

  • http://amnamela.wordpress.com Amna Mela
  • Ali

    The elite in Pakistan care as little for the masses as the Tunisian ruler Ben Ali or Mubarak of Egypt. Wrenching power from their hands and making them follow the law is going to be very difficult. in theory democracy is a good way of doing it but democracy in Pakistan has delivered us the same old elite corrupt rulers.
    The democratic government has had years to reform the economy, educate the masses, make the rich land lords and feudal elite pay their taxes but in virtually every department they have failed.
    How much longer do the masses have to suffer und serfdom? Children will go to sleep hungry and freezing across Pakistan in the open air, yet the elite of Pakistan jet around the world. They siphon of government money for luxuries such as land cruisers, private lodgings, tunnels and their Swiss bank accounts. But the poor continue to starve to death.
    No sign of a revolution here.Recommend

  • Danyal Rizvi

    Crafted, not just written! I have been able to grasp so much about the crisis through this one piece that it puts days of being glued to the TV to shame. Brilliant Maheen, simply brilliant!Recommend

  • Guinevere David

    A very well written article Maheen. I love your write-ups. This one is really comprehensive with good comparisns and details of the Arab world. The world’s eyes are on the Egyptian revolution which was so organized and peaceful till now. As for Pakistan, yes we are waiting for a change, if not a revolution.Recommend

  • http://drchaman.wordpress.com Chaman Lal

    Well writtenRecommend

  • Yarjan Mohammad Hasni Baloch

    Nice Article!

    I liked the last few lines the most, “Egyptians are sick and tired of being corrupted, and when you live on 300 pounds ($51) a month, you have one of two options, you either become a beggar or a thief. The people sent a message: ‘We are not beggars and we do not want to become thieves.’”

    However these few lines raised some questions in my mind. If we compare the inflation rates in Pakistan and Egypt and what most of Pakistani people earn a day or a month then $51/month is a far better amount than what a poor Pakistani earn. If we compare the suicides that people have done out of hunger in Pakistan and Egypt then we are much worse than Egypt.

    From this should I conclude that Pakistanis are beggars and they don’t have any problem in becoming thieves?

    And Yes, this gives me an answer why all Pakistani people are against the freedom movement in Balochistan. Because Balochistan is the only place where people are not accepting the cruelty of the army, the establishment and the government. They are not with the flow and every single Baloch want freedom from Pakistan.Recommend

  • CHAMP MALIK

    Its ‘your majesty’ not ‘your higness’ when referring to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. Do some research before you write. Use the proper title. A King(or even a Queen) isnt an HH or even an HRH. Its usually HM.Recommend