Traditionally, Middle East regimes projected a standard picture to the world: either they remained in power or the “extremists” will take over. That cliché is finally obsolete.
In January 2011 a new unpredictable force emerged to dominate the scene and confuse the wisest politicians worldwide: the power of youth, traditionally thought to be lethargic and apolitical. The Arab world has more than 50% of the population under age 30, and they were mostly invisible, until something finally snapped. The heat erupted in Tunisia and now it’s scorching Egypt and Yemen.
I’m getting constant eyewitness reports. Almost everyone I know was on the streets on 25 January; people who were previously seen as too pampered to care, young professional men and women, with good jobs and postgraduate education, who live in affluent suburbs, and whose children attend expensive schools. They blogged, Tweeted and Facebooked live from the protests using smart phones, in other words, average middle class people, except under oppression; the middle class erodes to death. That’s why everyone was astonished by the sudden revival.
Such people don’t need to go to the streets to demand food and work, and they don’t blindly follow a political or spiritual leader, they are just too Egyptian to tolerate any more humiliation and oppression, and they’re more in touch with their fellow citizens –barely surviving below the poverty line- than the so-called “people’s representatives” in the parliament. Those are not a mob of hopeless, hungry thugs, they’re honourable freedom fighters. Just like the ones immortalized in every culture in books and movies.
And they’re not “extremists” either, they’re Muslims, Christians, atheists, liberals and leftists, but they’re all demonstrating together as Egyptians who have a right to dream of a better Egypt for themselves and their children.
The protests included young artists, musicians, actors, sports stars and writers. Their previous aversion to politics is a natural result of fear, and of distrust to everyone on the political scene. Even those who claimed to be saviours such as Nobel Prize winner Dr. ElBaradei, who has just confessed his surprise to the New York Times: “Frankly, I didn’t think the people were ready.” He said.
Well, of course you didn’t sir, you’re too far away to notice! While politicians enjoyed their comfortable bubbles, the action started online, the only space that still belonged to the people to shout their frustrations and describe their dreams. Eventually those dreams took physical shape, and the typical response was to try to censor social media, rather than respect those educated voice with the vision and the manpower to make the difference.
Everything at the protests was unexpected and thought provoking: Muslims marched alongside Christians, framed in the media as potential sectarian enemies. The elderly and the kids came too and many walked fearlessly to greet the riot police as fellow Egyptians. Those were the same people who carried the injured cops to nearby ambulances when the violence started, and the same ones who cheered as some cops removed their uniforms and joined the march, “because we’re all Egyptian” said a comment on Facebook.
This was the first time in decades the Egyptian flags were sold on street corners for a reason other than cheering in a football match. And the first time the throngs of families were chanting together mantras of freedom, democracy and decent living, basic rights of any free human alive in the 21st century. Yet the batons and tear gas saw to it that they paid for their peaceful chants with precious blood and tears. But, what else is freedom made of but blood and tears?