Smashing Through Fear in Egypt
NEW YORK CITY -- As the people of my homeland, Egypt, stage a popular uprising against the 30-year dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak, the White Stripes keep singing in my head: "I'm gonna fight 'em off /A seven-nation army couldn't hold me back!"
I don't know if Jack and Meg of the White Stripes are watching the breathtaking developments taking place in my country. However, their thumping, pumping "Seven Nation Army" is a perfect anthem for the defiance and adrenaline-fueled determination that must be propelling the tens of thousands of courageous, protesting Egyptians.
And against what odds!
On Thursday, an increasingly rattled regime did everything it could to stifle that courage by imposing an information lockdown. It actually shutdown the Internet? Who does that? I'll tell you who: the Burmese junta during the Monk's Uprising in 2007.
It was young people, who so nimbly move between the "real" and "virtual" worlds, who called for the protests, which began on Jan. 25. But their rallying cry brought together Egyptians of all ages and backgrounds.
It was, of course, Tunisia that unleashed their imagination and inspired them to think "No More!" After all, Tunisians managed in 29 days to end the rule of Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali, their dictator of 23 years. Why not, Egyptians asked.
While protests in both Tunisia and Egypt have focused on the corruption of their respective dictators and the ensuing unemployment and poverty, there are two demands that fuel the mass protests: freedom and dignity.
Think of that as we consider the days and ways ahead.
Even after Ben Ali fled, Tunisians continued to protest to get rid of his cronies from the interim government. And they're succeeding. They've written a great manual for leaderless uprisings - as both Tunisia and Egypt are experiencing. When people want to know who's in charge, and when people keep trying to ring the Islamists' alarm bell, the people answer: "We're in charge."
The thousands of Egyptians braving the brutality of Mubarak's security apparatus are having none of it. It's about freedom and dignity for them, not about the dictator and the Islamists. It's the West that's hung up on that. And it's hung up on it because for decades the West has sided with "stability" - which has come at the cost of the freedom and dignity of Egyptians, Tunisians and other Arabs.
Egyptians want to decide for themselves who should rule them. If they don't like emerging alternatives, those alternatives have been put on notice by the sight of tens of thousands of people whose imagination has been unleashed from fear and who dare say, "We deserve more."
I got two phone calls from Cairo under information lockdown. The first was from an activist with the Muslim Brotherhood who wanted me to know the regime was imposing a blackout so it could shoot and arrest with impunity.
The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest opposition group, supported the protest symbolically at first, without calling for its members to join as a movement. Still, many Muslim Brothers joined as individuals. But the activist who called me said the movement had been embarrassed into joining due to the momentum of the protests.
The Muslim Brotherhood certainly has some support in Egypt - estimates put it at 20 to 35 per cent - and as Egyptians who have been systematically targeted by the regime, jailed and tortured, of course its members would protest. In fact, the Mubarak regime was trying to make it seem like the Brotherhood was driving the protest, which it most certainly wasn't. That was just the Mubarak regime trying to frighten its allies into silence.
The regime has so far rounded up more than 1,000 people - from all backgrounds, not just the Brotherhood. It's a regime that represses all opposition.
That first caller and I hold very different political views. I am liberal and secular. But when the Mubarak regime jailed him, I wrote a column defending him; he has published my columns against the Brotherhood on a website he runs.
My politics are much more similar to those of the second caller, a human rights defender who is a member of liberal and feminist groups. He represents those young activists who have used social media with such agility against Mubarak's regime. The activist called to tell me that protesters were concerned their defiance of a Mubarak-imposed curfew would be met with even more brutal violence.
So, essentially, both calls from Egypt voiced the same concern.
One of the main demands of the protests is an end to Mubarak's rule. In presidential elections later this year, he was expected to seek a sixth term in office. I would sincerely love to see Mubarak go, and if he does, those Egyptians who smashed through fear must be the ones to decide who they want to replace him.
They don't want a Mubarak-lite. They will not sacrifice their freedom and dignity so Western allies can feel better about Egypt - which means a future government must reflect all those Egyptians out there, day after day.
Future leaders be warned: a seven-nation army won't hold them back.
© 2011 Toronto Star