People power in Egypt – the year-long struggle

– Lin Abdul Rahman, Opinion Editor

On January 25, 2011, the air in Medan Tahrir was ebullient and heavy with hope. Millions of Egyptians congregated there – and in many other public spaces across Egypt – with one deceptively simple goal: to demand Hosni Mubarak’s resignation through country-wide peaceful resistance. And they succeeded.

After days of enduring rubber bullets, tear gas canisters, live rounds and attacks by Mubarak’s machete-wielding thugs on horseback and camels, the Egyptian people finally loosened Mubarak’s 30-year death grip on the country. As a victorious roar swept across the square, people all over Egypt and all over the world joined in the triumphant celebration as though the heavy weight of dictatorship had been lifted off the world’s collective shoulders.

Egypt’s Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) was put in charge as an interim government – it had gained popular support by refusing to obey Mubarak’s orders to brutally clamp down on protesters – and was set to hand over power following Egypt’s democratic election later that year.

There was a minor disagreement between the Muslim brotherhood and political parties that were less than organized to face an election in such short notice. Despite that, an election was carried out and Egyptians hit the polls. The country’s future was as yet unclear but it was full of promises and optimism nonetheless.

Now, one year later, Tahrir Square is again occupied by protesters. This time, they are demanding the resignation of Husssein Tantawi, the head of the military council. Staffed with many of Mubarak’s former thugs, SCAF has in effectively revived Mubarak’s strong-arm tactics of forcing civil compliance.

Egyptian protesters are once again fending off rubber bullets, tear gas canisters and thugs in uniform. Protesters are still being beaten and harassed, bloggers are still being aggressively silenced with intimidation and arbitrary detention. One journalist remarked that the media is now operating under much harsher conditions than when Mubarak was in power. Most recently, Al Jazeera’s bureau in Cairo was shut down by SCAF after being accused of operating and reporting on live events without a license.

Egyptians now have legitimate fears that the military council will interfere with the country’s new constitution, thereby boosting its power and effectively turning Egypt back into an autocratic regime under the guise of democracy.

Egypt’s current predicament is a far-cry from the optimistic forecasts made by the political intelligentsia a year ago. Tahrir Square – now the 21st century’s proverbial symbol of people power – is once again the site of resistance and continued struggle. Whatever happened to the potential and promises that came with Egypt’s return to democracy? If this sterling example of good’s triumph over evil is unable to fulfill its democratic ideals, is there hope for other democratic aspirants like Syria and Libya?

As bleak as the situation is in Egypt, the answer to that question is a resounding “yes.” The country is labouring to shape for itself a genuinely democratic state in which its members can live a fully dignified life – something that was unattainable during Mubarak’s rule. This development alone is a sign of hope and of progress.

Although there may be seemingly insurmountable roadblocks in Egypt’s road towards becoming a democratic state, they are no excuse to throw in the towel and surrender. After all, struggles and resistance are the hallmark of revolutions. From the 1989 Velvet Revolution which tore down the Berlin Wall to the currently on-going Occupy movement, history has shown that our rights as citizens in a democratic state is gained and expanded through battles fought and won.

The reality is that no government has ever willingly conceded power; and when people are prevented by formal authority from living a dignified life, resistance is the only way. As Mahatma Ghandi presciently put it, “The choice is no longer between violence and non-violence. It is either non-violence or non-existence.” So in order to peacefully exist, resist we must.

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