Why Egypt’s Uprising Remains Important: My Model UN Address
On Sunday, March 21st I gave the closing address to the High School Conference of Miami University’s Model UN. This conference brought four region high school Model UN clubs together to participate in a simulation of United Nations activities. I spoke after the final session, just before the conference was dismissed. I was a last minute replacement, so parts of this are cobbled together from blog posts or earlier speeches. And I was asked to pitch it to high school students–I was told that in some previous years the offerings, though excellent in scholarship, left the poor delegates glassy eyed (I was told I hit the right tone, but then, I was a volunteer so what else could they say?)
Here is the text of my address:
There is a scene in the brilliant Egyptian comedy film Irhab wal Kabab (Terrorism and Barbecue) in which an old man on a crowded Cairo bus, who has been griping about all the frustrations Egyptians must put up with, is told by a young man that he sounds like the fizzing of a Coke bottle. The man retorts that even Coke bottles explode once in awhile when you shake them up enough. That’s what the Egyptian Revolution against colonialism, of which he was apart, was all about. So what, he asks the younger generation on the bus, is their excuse?
Many observers of the Middle East have asked the same question. Egyptian apathy was a byword. But then, on January 25, 2011, the Coke bottle finally exploded. Protesters marched into Tahrir Square in unprecedented numbers. Although repeatedly forced out by police, they returned again and again, ultimately staking out a symbolic space in the center of Cairo and declaring that it belonged to the people, not the state. After 18 days, nearly 300 deaths, and over 1,000 injuries from clashes with police, hired thugs, and counter-protesters, President Hosni Mubarak resigned, and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces formed an interim government.
Yesterday, less than two months since the beginning of the uprising, Egyptians participated in the first serious attempt at free and fair elections in their history. Egypt has been pushed out of the headlines by great tragedies—the bloodbath in Libya and the unprecedented catastrophe in Japan—yet it remains an important story to follow, because the ultimate fate of Egypt’s uprising will have consequences for the entire Middle East.
There were many reasons for the uprising. Egyptians were basically demonstrating for an honest government – one that would improve education, repair failing infrastructure, work to reduce poverty and inflation, stop doing the bidding of the US and Israel in Palestine, stop rigging elections, stop torturing people in police stations, and end the Emergency Law that gives them impunity for every action.
But Egypt has engaged in a number of strikes, riots and protests, from the Bread Riots of 1981 to the pro-Democracy marches of 2005, what some called “the year of protests.” 2008 was marked by public marches and protests in Cairo and Alexandria, as was 2010. , Joel Beinin, my former colleague at the American University in Cairo who tracks labor movements in Egypt, claims that there have been approximately 3,300 protests in Egypt since 2000.
Why did the protests of Jan. 25, 2011 succeed where so many others have failed? What made the Coke bottle, so often shaken only to fizzle out, finally explode?
I believe the year 2010 was a landmark year for social and political unrest because of three events that became powerful symbols of everything that was wrong with the Egyptian government.
First, on Jan. 6, 2010 Egyptian security forces clashed with Palestinians at the Gaza border. The Palestinians were demonstrating against Egypt’s enforcement of the Israeli blockade against the region. Because of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, many Egyptians have called on their government to open its one border with Gaza, at Rafah. The government had refused, except to let some medical supplies pass through. To see Egyptian security forces using violence against other Arabs was a graphic illustration of the fact that the Mubarak regime was more responsive to the U.S. and Israel than to the demands of its own people.
Six months later, on June 6, 2010 businessman and blogger Khaled Said was dragged from a cybercafe, beaten, and thrown into the back of a police car. A few days later his broken body was released to his parents. Khaled Said’s murder became a symbol to many Egyptians of the power of the police to brutalize citizens with impunity, even those who were educated, affluent and technologically sophisticated.
In the Fall elections, the government rejected all monitoring by international observers, NGOs and even the Egyptian judiciary, arresting any monitors who came to the polling booths. The government engaged in blatant ballot stuffing, running an election widely agreed in every sector of society to be a complete sham.
Social media played a crucial role in mobilizing these symbols among a very special body of Egyptians: the young, college-educated underemployed. Egypt’s growing wealth disparities, and the failure of the integration of the economy into the global capitalist world system to produce the promised jobs and public prosperity, created a significant demographic in which some 90 percent of Egypt’s 14 percent unemployed were under 30 years old, and a disproportionate number of its 40 percent underemployed were college educated. This demographic encompassed Westernized cosmopolitans, the Muslim Brotherhood youth movement, university student organizations and many more. This is the tech-savvy youth collectively called “shabab al-Facebook” by older generations of Egyptians.
The Internet gave these young Egyptians a view of the Gaza clashes unobtainable through state television. Disaffected government employees posted videos taken by cell phone of fellow poll workers stuffing ballot boxes to YouTube. The Facebook page Kullana Khaled Said became a rallying point for calls to revolution. Blogs became important sites for commenting on media, both domestic and foreign. Streams of Twitters pointed people to this site and that site, in an ever growing web of discontent.
This mediated discontent did not go unnoticed by the Egyptian government. The loose network of leaders of the uprising who were able to use social media not only to communicate to one another but to misdirect government monitors. Twenty marches were planned using social media but a 21st was organized in complete social media blackout. The marchers who made it through police cordons to Tahrir Square on January 25th were from one of Cairo’s poorest districts. Rallying them had been done by word-of-mouth and distribution of pamphlets, and coordination was accomplished through borrowed cell phones to avoid phone taps.
It is becoming increasingly apparent how carefully planned the uprising was by a cadre of smart young leaders. They had participated in the major protests in 2005 and 2008, and lesser protests such as those last year following the police murder of Khaled Said, and learned lessons from these. They knew how to best utilize social media like Facebook and Twitter, and when to drop off the grid altogether so state security would not know what they were doing.
Egyptian apathy has been a byword in the Middle East. As calls went out by Twitter, text message, Facebook, pamphlets and the grapevine for a protest on Jan. 25, the response was beyond anything anyone could have expected. But Tunisia’s success in ousting its U.S.-backed strongman made it suddenly seem plausible that Egyptians could do the same.
As prodemocracy uprisings like the one in Europe sweep across the world, the United States and the international community stand at an important crossroads. It is a crossroads at which Western Europe and the US has found itself again and again in the second half of the twentieth century and the first decades of the 21st. It is the difficult choice between following our values and following our interests.
By interests I mean here strategic U.S. interests as defined by the political realists who have dominated U.S. foreign policy since the Cold War. “Interests” in the realist perspective, are defined purely in economic and political terms. The formula is simple, although the working out of it is not: we want political stability in every country where we have economic interests, at any cost.
This has led the US into murky terrain many times in its history: a country blessed with great freedom at home supports dictators, trains terrorists, and engages in torture abroad. And nowhere has this terrain been murkier than in the Middle East, where global economic interests in oil are concentrated. Even the Iraq War was ultimately intended to create a stable, pro-Western democracy in the heart of the Middle East, although it hasn’t quite turned out that way.
If European and North American countries are serving their national interests, why do their politicians so often try to claim that our policies are benefiting the people of the countries in which we are supporting stability? Why not just admit that we are supporting a ruthless, brutal, self-serving dictator who is grinding his people into poverty because he is our ruthless, brutal, self-serving dictator, and he delivers the economic stability and political cooperation we need?
It is because we are democracies in the US and Western Europe that our politicians often feel they must often put a positive spin on these things. They worry that voters might choose to vote principles over pocketbook, to reject government decisions to engage in interventionist wars and give billions in military aid to tyrants who use these tools to suppress their own people.
It is so much easier to ease our consciences by insisting that the people we are spending billions to help oppress are just not ready for democracy, decade after decade after decade. If they protest aggressively against dictatorship, we say it is proof they are too violent, and not ready for democracy. If they wait stolidly for things to change, we say it is proof that they do not desire democracy—even though every public opinion poll in the Middle East in the past twenty years has shown that they do.
And let’s be blunt: the emergence of full participatory democracy in the oil producing countries of the world will not always serve the interests of North American and European states. People in a free, democratic Egypt will vote to follow their national interests, and sometimes to follow their values and principles. And those won’t always coincide with our interests or those of our allies, or the other major powers in the world.
But there is also a possibility that doing the right thing might actually be in our national interests, over the long run.
Consider Iran. If we had not engaged in a covert operation to topple the secular democratic revolution of 1958—because we feared it would become communist—and returned to the throne a despised dictator , the revolution of 1979 might never have happened, and the whole history of the Middle East might be different.
Consider Afghanistan. We gave that country $1 billion a year for almost ten years so they could fight the Soviets but when they won we cut off the funds—leaving that country with no working economy, with no functioning government, with cities and roads in ruins but with the highest number of weapons per person of any country in the world. If we had done the right thing, and put another billion a year into that country for five more years to build an economy and functioning government, 9/11 almost certainly would not have happened, and we would not be mired in an expensive war there now.
Egypt may stand right now on a razor’s edge, between liberal democracy and a silent coup that returns the same political and military elite to power, with minor cosmetic changes. The world community—and particularly the US—is in a position to help decide that choice by taking a firm stand in favor of democracy, and warning that military aid is tied to democratic reform.
There is an old European saying, “As Egypt goes, so goes the Middle East.” Certainly other governments throughout the United States are watching the democratic reforms in Egypt—and the bloody suppression of dissent in Libya—as they decide how to deal with their own prodemocratic movements.
I will admit I have a bias. This is an exciting period for me personally. I lived and taught in Egypt for five years and have returned many times since. My children grew up there and have returned almost every year. We have friends and colleagues at every level of society. It is also an exciting period for me professionally. The Middle East I have known and studied for 20 years is going to be substantively different over the next 20 years, and there will be much for me to learn and do as a scholar of the region.
But this should also be a very exciting time for you, as high school students, because what happens over the next few years in that region will have a huge impact on the global world in which you will live and work for decades to come.