For us dozy and docile westerners, for whom a protest means anything from a couple hundred to a couple thousand people chanting for an hour or two before going home, this past week has been startling in the extreme.
First, a wave of popular anger unseated a seemingly stable government in Tunisia in a matter of days. Then, while the shock waves from that event were still sinking in, today’s news out of Egypt came like a lightning bolt.
A population written off for years, if not decades, as too afraid, too weak, too cowed, to challenge the thirty-year reign of President Hosni Mubarak, rose like zombies from the grave and spent the better part of the day demonstrating that the emperor was indeed pulling a full monty.
As this is written there is no clear resolution. Mubarak has sacked his government but refused the central demand of demonstrators, that he himself resign. Saturday seems likely to be a repeat of the widespread protests that occurred today and a key question remains: if they have to pick, which side will the army fall on?
But no matter what happens, it is clear that something fundamental has changed. For Mubarak, and hopefully other dictators in the region, there is no putting this genie back in the bottle.
“Speaking truth to power” is an old Quaker saying, and I think nothing better represents the courage of the peoples of Tunisia and Egypt tonight. So many lies, so much fear, and yet through it all the people of Egypt and Tunisia have found the one truth that matters: that the power belongs to the people.
No matter what soldiers, what tanks, what obstacles those who would usurp our sovereign power throw at us, if we stand together and reject fear, there is truly nothing that can stop us.
This principle is as true here as it is in the Middle East; we just seem to have forgotten it. Coddled in our apathy, we do nothing about anything because “it won’t make any difference anyway.” Tell that to the Egyptians tonight, to the Tunisians. I don’t think they’re buying it anymore.
They spoke truth to power, and half the world’s Jefe’s are quaking in their booties. Listen to the statements from world leaders and notice one common thread. Far more serious, to listen to them, than the violence of the security forces, is the terrifying prospect of “chaos”, which must be avoided at all costs.
But what is happening in Egypt is not chaos; it’s freedom, messy bits and all. The streets are not bloody free-for-alls, the people have not turned on each other, they have come together. What our leaders are terrified of, and rightly so from their perspective, is that we should learn these lessons.
That somehow through the static of our consumer societies, and the endless mess of advertising and TV meant to pacify us, we would seize the truths that our courageous brothers and sisters across an ocean made startlingly clear today.
That the people, together, can achieve anything, and that each and every one of us can change the world, all we need to do is try.
Please check this space tomorrow, I have some thoughts on the shifting U.S. response as the day went on, and the possibilities for change in Egypt that I’ll be exploring in more detail as we see how day two plays out.
For the latest, you can watch the Al Jazeera live stream here