Sunday, January 26, 2014

A window on Egyptian hope

Last night I downloaded the Oscar-nominated documentary The Square. Though the title refers to a place -- Cairo's grand Tahrir Square -- this is a film about characters. Director Jehane Noujaim follows three men from very different backgrounds from the inception of the 2011 Egyptian protests that overthrew a dictator, across subsequent betrayal by the military, into a period of elected Muslim Brotherhood rule, and on to the current army regime that expelled the governing Islamists.

None of these regimes had much use for the young revolutionaries. Ahmed, Khalid, and Magdy are warm, smart, brave and attractive individuals. They struggle, risk their lives in fights with the army and among factions, grow and change. Magdy, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, holds convictions that we're most likely to find foreign, but he is nonetheless a mature and sympathetic figure. Yes, there are even women among these insurrectionists -- though not as prominently followed. This is a hopeful film.

Here's Ahmed's conclusion about Egypt's dramatic events of still murky import:

"The leaders are on top, and is always the people on the bottom that are dying and suffering – it doesn't matter who they are, christian, salafi, brotherhood, revolutionary, we are all Egyptian. … the revolution is a voice."

Maybe. Yesterday 49 people were killed in Egypt (presumably mostly by the army but perhaps some also by armed Islamists) on the anniversary of the beginning of the uprisings.

I would strongly recommend seeing this -- the film is Netflix-funded, presumably in the hope of collecting the caché of an Oscar.
I belong to a small cohort of United States citizens who have lived anything remotely like what these men experienced in the Tahrir Square battles. Berkeley in the '60s, for some, had some of the flavor of the Square: episodic eruptions of mass demands for a different university, a different nation and culture, one that didn't wage war on the Vietnamese, one where voices of all races and opinions were respected and valued, even one where building a garden was more valued than a parking lot. We confronted authorities who used their nightsticks freely; we were tear gassed by helicopters; we were arrested and beaten and some were even shot. I know. A man running next to me was hit by shot from Ronald Reagan's armed goon squad (aka Alameda Country Sheriffs) while we fled during one protest. He was luckily not seriously wounded. That day one bystander died.

This was not like the civil rights struggles in the South in which the authorities were more violent, the protesters more organized and disciplined, and both sides were more deeply rooted in their communities. Perhaps the events most like the countercultural student eruptions of the 60s in more recent United States experience were the Battle of Seattle in 1999 and other WTO protests in which an anti-globalization coalition sought to advance the radical notion that "another world is possible."

Obviously none of this tracks exactly with what has taken place and is continuing in Egypt. But there are recognizable similarities to the 60s campus protests -- we too were under-informed, idealistic young people who had a better idea, up against real injustices and entrenched ways of doing things, all viewed askance by uninvolved bystanders wondering why make such a fuss and risk such disruptions.

The movie, The Square, presents some young Egyptians who insist that the breakthrough in the definition of what is possible created by ousting Mubarak and subsequent authoritarians means Egypt can never go back to the closed society of the preceding 30 years. The Egyptian army seems to be settling in for another round of dictatorship. But extrapolating from the experience of my 60s cohort, the protesters have some reason to hope, if not for all they intend when they chant "freedom," at least for a somewhat better society.

For though the insurrectionists of the '60s mostly failed to institutionalize the peace, equity, justice and freedom we sought and which many of us still work for, there's no question we have won the culture war. Oh, I know, retrograde forces -- grumpy old white people mostly -- are still trying to put the genie back in the bottle, but there's no turning back the sexual revolution, women's empowerment, and gay liberation. My goodness, this country seems at long last likely to decriminalize marijuana.

Maybe the hopes of the Egyptians aren't so crazy after all.

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