Tahrir, the US, and Democracy

A lot has happened since my last entry, and it seems that we’re going to need a lot more than wishes on rainy days to keep Egypt peaceful through the upcoming elections.  For those who haven’t been following, protests started in Tahrir this past Thursday, and have continued  up to today, becoming increasingly violent from Saturday on. Yesterday on my way home from a conference I passed near Tahrir, and saw lines of army vehicles on their way into the square, and lines of ambulances waiting outside. I knew, even before getting home and seeing the news, that things had gotten bad. Most recent body count that I can find is 35 for this weekend, with about 1700 injured (including at least 2 who lost their eyes).

I came home to the news of escalating violence after attending a conference on Sustainable Development in North Africa during the day. The conference was fantastic, filled with passionate people trying to help their countries. I met attendees from Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Ethiopia, Ghana, and Sudan.  I couldn’t help feeling, with the juxtaposition of the conference and the news, that I was seeing both the absolute best and the absolute worst to be found in Egypt, all in the space of 24 hours. The disconnect made me dizzy.

At the conference, a young man from Ethiopia asked me why I wasn’t in Tahrir, joining the protesters in their struggles. “You’re an American,” he said. “America is the seat of democracy in the world. You should be there, fighting for democracy.”

He was nonplussed when I responded. It wasn’t my country, I said, it wasn’t my fight. I do development work. Aren’t we at a conference for Sustainable Development? I’m trying to build things for when the fighting’s over.

“But it is your fight,” he insisted.  I should be there, helping. As though my very American-ness, if present, would be the key to reversing the military dictatorship and restoring peace, harmony, and citizen rule. The fact that I am Very White, Very Female, Very Non-Arabic-Speaking, Very Obviously Out of Place, and would be Very Much Alone in the midst of tanks and live bullets didn’t seem to occur to him. Or simply might not be relevant, if my Democratic American-ness had the power to trump all.

In a way, it was nice to hear the confidence and esteem in which this young man seemed to hold the US, despite the political vagaries of the last decade. But it also made me acutely conscious of how the US has failed to uphold its own standards of First Amendment rights, and very acutely aware of how badly the US police was handling the Occupy movement. At the same time that I had been posting news about Tahrir Square on facebook, my US-based compatriots were posting pictures and news from various Occupy encampments that had turned violent—most recently, pictures of students at UC Davis being sprayed with tear gas, which look remarkably similar to pictures of police attacking protestors at Tahrir.

One of these two pictures comes from “the seat of world democracy.” The other comes from a military dictatorship. Can you tell which is which?

Tear gas in Tahrir
Tear Gas at UC Davis

As though reading my mind, he asked me, “what is this I am seeing on the news from the US? This Occupy thing?” He charged ahead before I could start to explain the movement. (For the record, it’s very difficult to explain OWS to people from developing countries. Materially, most of the 99%ers still have a lot more than the average person from the developing world.). He asked me, with genuine confusion, whether it was true that police were attacking peaceful protesters in America. In his view of the US as the seat of world democracy, pictures like the one above have no place. He was struggling to find a context in his mind for something that shouldn’t exist.

Sadly, I couldn’t answer his question. I don’t  know why First Amendment rights in the US, guaranteeing “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances,” are being violated. I don’t know why my country, which has claimed since the Constitution was written to hold a moral high ground with regards to citizen’s rights, has suddenly decided that its citizens are such fearsome creatures as to be tear gassed, shot with rubber bullets, and beaten because they happen to be camping out to make a political point. Egypt has the excuse of being a post-revolutionary state without a government. The US has no such excuse.

So I couldn’t answer, when my new friend asked me all of these pointed, awkward questions. Fortunately, he didn’t expect for me to have all the answers. He just expected me to find them out.

“When you meet President Obama, please ask him these questions for me.”

I will, friend. If and when I meet Obama, I most definitely will.

 

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