The winds of change are blowing across the globe. What triggers such change, and when it will strike, is something that no one can predict.
Last Jan. 18, a courageous young woman in Egypt took a dangerous step. Asmaa Mahfouz was 25 years old, part of the April 6 Youth Movement, with thousands of young people engaging online in debate on the future of their country. They formed in 2008 to demonstrate solidarity with workers in the industrial city of Mahalla, Egypt. Then, in December 2010, a young man in Tunisia, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire to protest the frustration of a generation. His death sparked the uprising in Tunisia that toppled the long-reigning dictator, President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.
Similar acts of protest spread to Egypt, where at least four men attempted self-immolation. One, Ahmed Hashem el-Sayed of Alexandria, died. Asmaa Mahfouz was outraged and posted a video online, staring directly into the camera, her head covered, but not her face. She identified herself and called for people to join her on Jan. 25 in Tahrir Square. She said (translated from Arabic): “I’m making this video to give you one simple message: We want to go down to Tahrir Square on January 25. If we still have honor and want to live in dignity on this land, we have to go down on January 25. We’ll go down and demand our rights, our fundamental human rights. … I won’t even talk about any political rights. We just want our human rights and nothing else. This entire government is corrupt—a corrupt president and a corrupt security force. These self-immolators were not afraid of death but were afraid of security forces. Can you imagine that?”
Nine months later, Asmaa Mahfouz was giving a teach-in at Occupy Wall Street. Standing on steps above the crowd Monday night, she had a huge smile on her face as she looked out on a sea of faces. After she finished, I asked her what gave her strength. She answered with characteristic humility, speaking English: “I can’t believe it when I saw a million people join in the Tahrir Square. I’m not more brave, because I saw my colleagues, Egyptian, were going towards the policemen, when they just pushing us, and they died for all of us. So they are the one who are really brave and really strong. … I saw people, really, died in front of me, because they were protecting me and protecting others. So, they were the most brave, bravest men.”
I asked how it felt to be in the United States, which had for so long supported the Mubarak regime in Egypt. She replied: “While they giving money and power and support to Mubarak regime, our people, Egyptian people, can success against all of this, against the U.S. power. So, the power to the people, not for the U.S. bullets or bombs or money or anything. The power to the people. So that I am here to be in solidarity and support the Wall Street Occupy protesters, to say them ‘the power to the people,’ and to keep it on and on, and they will success in the end.”
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The Egyptian revolution has not been without consequences for her. Last August, she was arrested by the Egyptian military. As my colleague Sharif Abdel Kouddous reported from Cairo, Asmaa sent two controversial tweets that prompted the arrest by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the military government that has ruled Egypt since Mubarak’s fall.
Her arrest provoked a worldwide response, with groups ranging from the Muslim Brotherhood to Amnesty International condemning it. She was released, but, as Sharif noted at the time, Asmaa was only one of 12,000 civilians arrested since the revolution.
The arrests are happening here in the U.S. now, at many of the protest sites across the country. As Asmaa was preparing to head back to Egypt, hundreds of riot police descended on Occupy Oakland, firing beanbag rounds and tear gas. The University of New Mexico is threatening to evict the encampment there, which is called “(Un)occupy Albuquerque” to highlight that the land there is occupied native land.
Asmaa Mahfouz is running for a seat in the Egyptian Parliament, and maybe someday, she says, the presidency. When I asked her what she had to say to President Barack Obama, who had given his speech to the Muslim world in Cairo, she replied: “You promised the people that you are the change and ‘yes, we can.’ So we are here from the Wall Street Occupy, and we are saying the same word: ‘yes, we can.’ We can make the freedom, and we can get our freedom, even if it’s from you.”
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.