Freeing the Oppressed Mind: The Psychological Aftermath of the 2011 Popular Revolution
By Shadi Bushra, published February, 2011
Today, Egypt’s sha’b (the collective “people”) have united to throw out a dictator who, until recently, had made all the right moves and had all the right friends. In a country that has never experienced rule by the people, the people have tired of waiting and demanded that its rulers change their ways. For 5,000 years Egyptians have endured under pharaohs, Roman then Byzantine emperors, Persian and Arab caliphs, Turkish khdedives, British governors-general, sultans and kings, a revolutionary-turned-dictator (Nasser), his successor (Sadat), and the latest incarnation, Hosni Mubarak. And after all that, the Egyptian people came together as one hand and took what wouldn’t be given to them. The strategic ramifications are still foggy, and likely will be for some time. However, the psychological effect this will have on other oppressed peoples is immediate and immeasurable.
The actual story of the last three weeks reads like a novel. On January 25th, following the month-long protests in Tunisia that sent President Ben Ali packing, protests largely organized by students grew and grew, with some clashes with police. The regime grew antsy and cut the Internet to prevent communication within the crowd. Some spent nights on end in the streets. They didn’t go home and come back – they knew by then Tahrir Square would be sealed off by riot police or retaken by pro-Mubarak antagonists. Others set up camp on rooftops with stones ready to fend off attacks by paid thugs. But the narrative isn’t completely romantic; prisoners escaped, criminals plundered what they could, including national historic treasures, and chaos reigned. But once again, the Egyptians dissidents cohered to protect their communities from crime as well as repression. While some set up checkpoints, others kept up the protests while the army looked on, unsure of their role.
In the face of quiet pressure from abroad and mounting embarrassment at being besieged by his own people, incremental reforms were conceded and Mubarak promised to step down after September’s elections – just enough time to make sure his party and his cronies would be swept back into power. The people balked at such an offer. They had been complicit in this game for decades, and they had no trust in the regime’s ability to reform. Thirty years of arrests and intimidation and torture and election-rigging and humiliations all but guaranteed that the offer would be seen as a stalling tactic. Eventually even Mubarak’s staunch ally, the mighty United States, had to admit that he needed to hand power over to the military immediately.
Suddenly the United States’ official line of “the transition must be stable and gradual,” no longer seemed enough to keep up with the protesters’ determination for change. A confident CIA Director Leon Panetta informed Congress yesterday that Mubarak would likely step down within the day. A defiant Mubarak gave a speech that night vowing not to step down until September. Finally, today, February 2nd, 2011, his longtime spy chief and newly appointed vice-president somberly announced that power was being handed over to the military. After seventeen days, three hundred dead (the most conservative of estimates), and countless wounded and missing, the people had won.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m optimistic, not naive. The Mubarak regime has had thirty years to spread its tendrils throughout the apparatuses of governance and coercion. Its remnants will remain strong in organs of state, especially the intelligence services, the police and the military. Members of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party are far better organized and have access to far more resources than the rest of the opposition combined, and so may still be formidable incumbents in upcoming elections.
The opposition movement, while currently united, will soon splinter into the full spectrum of political parties and interests, from radical Islamists to Western-style liberals, from students to trade unions to businessmen. And while the intentions and the power of the Muslim Brotherhood have been exaggerated, we still have to wait and see what they do with this opportunity.
But I also have confidence in the Egyptian people. They have shown resilience and bravery over the last three weeks beyond most expectations. Their tenacity in the face of detention and death have been remarkable. They simple must not forget that democracy is never a done deal. There is always work to be done and progress to be made, as we in the United States should know (but sometimes don’t acknowledge). I hope that these last weeks were only the beginnings of a great tradition of popular agitation to hold the Egyptian government accountable for its policies.
In addition to the domestic mess, Egypt is a strategically significant piece of land and a valuable partner for the United States – part of the reason the Obama administration was so cautious and cowardly in its initial approach. The West wants to ensure that whatever happens next, Egypt remains on ‘their’ side. This probably won’t be a huge problem, since Egypt benefits more from being on America’s side of the geopolitical chessboard than on anyone else’s. However, expect to see new strategies vis-à-vis the Gaza Strip in the coming years. Mubarak may have been willing to blockade the Sinai-Gaza border, choking off trade to the impoverished Strip, but Egyptians are less comfortable with starving fellow Arabs.
Domestic and geopolitical repercussions aside, the greatest consequence will be the shift of mindset. Dictators last because their people believe that they’re invincible. They pour billions of dollars into ostentatious military parades, ubiquitous police and security, flowery speeches, defiant shows of force towards enemies, and so on. Politics is as much psychological theater as it is an institutional or organizational or financial game. Even in America, a candidate who has billions of dollars to spend on a campaign won’t win if she doesn’t connect with her constituents (I’m thinking of Meg Whitman losing the California governorship after spending $144 million of her own money).
The consequences of such mind games are readily visible . When they don’t know whom to talk to for fear that their confidant is an informant, that shakes a citizen’s belief in the possibility of organizing for change; When they know of cousins and brothers who endured months of gruesome torture (I’ve heard stories of people having tubes inserted in their anuses and then inflated like a balloon), one is less likely to risk the safety of themselves and their families; when they see opposition movements crushed and confined, they deem it hopeless to bother – if these organized parties failed, what could I possibly contribute? This state of despair and hopelessness is what keeps oppressed people oppressed. A truly good dictator only uses his police and army sparingly. But the threat of those security apparatuses, coupled with some exaggeration on the part of the regime and the runaway imagination of the sha’b will break even the boldest of populations.
Despite the similarities (repressive, long-lasting Arab regimes, no history of democracy), there are crucial differences between the Tunisian and Egyptian cases. The Tunisian government was just as repressive, but it didn’t have the status of Egypt, which is among the most influential Arab countries. It is the most populous, serves as a physical as well as cultural bridge between Africa and the Middle East, and is one of the West’s key levers for influencing policy in the region.
Less impressive is the fact that modern Egypt is infamous in the Arab world for the regime’s brutality. Countless billions of dollars have been invested on keeping an eye on Egyptians, generally with American backing. Why? Well, in summary, because Egypt borders Gaza, Gaza borders Israel, Gaza is run by Hamas, Hamas has ideological similarities to the Muslim Brotherhood, and Hamas is at war with Israel. And although the Brotherhood renounced violence in the 1970s, the United States is still wary of them. Just as important is because Mubarak has absolutely essential for maintaining an uneasy Arab-Israeli peace – how beneficial this status quo is for the Arabs or the Israelis is open to debate.
For these reasons America has long been complicit in Egypt’s human rights violations, in some cases giving them the intelligence and means to execute such atrocities when they can be framed (often falsely) in the context of the “War on Terror.” Some suspected al Qaeda and Taliban members have been extradited to Egypt (as well as Jordan, Morocco, and Uzbekistan) to be interrogated without any messy rule of law or oversight to get those “ghost detainees” to say what their interrogators want them to say. The official name for the practice is “extraordinary rendition,” but “torture by proxy” may be more apt. And yet all we in America know them for is their pyramids.
This state of fear and uncertainty is the condition Egyptian have been living in, not only since Mubarak, but since independence. They have been mentally fenced in, forced to believe that this is the way things always have been and always will be. Which is why Mubarak’s departure, as abrupt and imperfect as it is, is such a beautiful thing. Once the mind has been freed from this authoritarian and repressive paradigm, there is no knowing what the collective creativity and shared aspirations of the Egyptian nation will come up with next.
Admittedly, the unified front will not last long. Perhaps the next step will be squabbling over minute details of the electoral process, or who gets what piece of the pie, or what position in the cabinet. Unfortunately, that is part and parcel of the democratic process. But at least now, having flexed their muscle (and, remarkably, having done so largely peaceably) the people know the power that they hold. And, as evidenced by the revolution’s transplantation from Tunisia to Egypt, such an idea is as contagious as it is potent.
Arab and African countries, and to some degree the greater Global South will not forget this. Yes, there are differences among regimes and regions, and yes, the army will not often stand out of the way, and yes, there probably won’t be the foreign media attention there was in Egypt. But there are no perfect circumstances that will breed such a popular uprising and anyone who claims there is such a formula is lying. At the very least, those that suffer under strongmen or repressive government may no longer see their suffering as inevitable.
After all, one month ago, how many Egyptians would have said that they could have any effect on the government? Despite the deaths and violence in Egypt, some face even worse odds (I think of my country of Sudan) and still fear that their collective voice, their combined power is not enough change things. How wrong they are. What about the knowledge and numbers of trade unions whose workers work too much for too little pay, students who read of democratic theories and popular governance yet have never seen them in practice, the poor who bear the brunt of inequality’s debilitating effects? What about lawyers who know that rule of law does not mean arbitrary detention and wanton torture, farmers who see money going to new tanks instead of irrigation canals, doctors who see what investing in the means of coercion and control instead of health care does to a society? And the disillusionment of the youth who chat and email with cousins overseas wondering why their lives can’t be that easy, the policemen and soldiers and intelligence officers who can no longer keep quiet about their comrades-in-arms’ abuses of power, members of parliament who realizes that the government is no longer working for the good of the people, or the good of the nation, but simply for the good of the government? From the lowest rungs of society to the most lavish halls of power, people are taking note of what happened in the opening months of this decade.
As the oft-quoted adage goes, people should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people. For years I thought it was a noble thought, but that it was unlikely to materialize in our world. Now, as governments in Yemen and Jordan begin ceding reforms before demonstrators even begin, as regimes in Syria and Sudan clamp down on opposition movements and protesters, it is clear that the message has hit home. Repressive governments are starting to fear the power of a sha’b that are tired of their acquiescence being taken for granted.
The impact on the collective psyche of oppressed people will not fade away easily or soon. And that is the lasting legacy of Egypt’s 2011 revolution.
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As usual, great analysis, Shadi.
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