One of the things that blows me away about history and human nature is that there’s really only a handful of stories that get told again and again. While we appear to be facing new challenges all the time, there is so much that even a basic grasp of history and psychology can teach us about just how not-new our problems are.
Pete Townsend certainly seemed to understand this:
This song could have been written yesterday, as far as Egypt and the Middle East are concerned, particularly the seemingly-prescient line “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”
Egyptian forces swinging electrified batons and shouting the battle cry “God is great” swiftly chased off dozens of activists Monday who had refused to end four weeks of renewed protests at Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Hundreds of riot police backed by armoured vehicles and soldiers moved in to tear down a camp of dozens of tents after a group of activists — some of them relatives of people killed in the national uprising that toppled ex-president Hosni Mubarak in February — refused commands over loudspeakers to go home. Some in the crowd, whose demonstration aimed to pressure the country’s military rulers, hurled stones at the police.
Just a side note: anyone who isn’t immediately terrified by the prospect of a police officer shouting praises to his god before charging into a crowd of people with the intention of hurting them… there’s something wrong with your head. Of course, many of you who have been reading this blog for a while will remember how much emphasis I put on what is being called the Jasmine Revolution. Anti-government protests started in Tunisia, and rapidly spread throughout the Arabian peninsula. I was admonishing you to pay attention to what was going on, because it will have profound implications on the future of the planet.
While I have stopped talking about the developments there (short attention span? more sexy news items?), my opinion of them hasn’t changed and I have been watching as closely as I can. I hope you have been too, because it hasn’t become less important. The story above, of police tamping down on protesters, should resonate with those of you who’ve been paying attention for two chief reasons. First, because it happened in Tahrir Square, which is the site of the original anti-Mubarak protest that captured the world’s attention back in February. While I don’t really believe in totemistic attachments to geographical locations (I don’t think that places have souls), but the symbolism of police beating protesters in that particular place is powerful.
The second reason has to do with who is behind the attacks. The police now work for the military council that forms the government. If you remember, during the original riots the military refused to take a side in the conflict and protected the protesters from pro-Mubarak gangs. The people of Egypt praised and thanked the military for upholding their sworn duty to the people of Egypt. Things appear to have changed now:
“They beat people with sticks and electrified batons. I don’t see why they had to use excessive force like this,” she said. State radio reported later that 270 people were arrested, describing them as thugs and criminals.
Also interesting is the fact that protesters are now being described on state radio as “thugs and criminals” – precisely the same language that Mubarak’s government-controlled state radio used to describe protesters in February. It attempted to delegitimize the protests by claiming that they were simply a handful of malcontents who were only there to cause trouble. Of course that wasn’t the case at all – they had real concerns about government conduct and human rights abuses. The same is the case now:
Many activists are skeptical that a military council headed by Mubarak’s longtime defence minister can deliver on promises of democratic reforms before returning the country to civilian rule. They also accuse it of dragging its feet with prosecutions of regime figures and say it has so far failed to weed out Mubarak loyalists from the judiciary, police and civil service.
What I find fascinating is the level of hypocrisy and myopia we see in human beings when they (we) gain power. Now that the military is running the show, they are adopting the exact same pattern of behaviour as those they helped to oust. They are using force to quell political protest – in direct violation of the stance they took less than a year ago. They are lying about the motivation of dissenters – which they must know doesn’t work because they were there on the streets the first time it failed. And perhaps most chilling of all, they are doing it with the name of their god on their lips – not a good sign in what is trying to become a secular democratic state.
There are two potential explanations I can conjure for this phenomenon. The first is cynical – the military had been looking for an opportunity to supplant Mubarak’s rule but for some reason couldn’t until there was public hatred for him. Now that he (Mubarak) is out, the army can take over permanently, and was just using its temporary political powers as a ruse for long-term despotism. The second is perhaps a bit more optimistic – that human beings in power will inevitably become corrupted by that same power. When someone sees themselves as representing the ideals of a nation, then any personal opposition to them is tantamount to treason. In such a scenario how could you see legitimate criticism as anything other than sedition?
While that doesn’t sound terribly optimistic, it does tell us what we have to do as a society to ensure that our political organizations are stable and sustainable – we cannot allow power to become consolidated in the hands of a few individuals. Power must rest with the people, and the governmental organizations must be responsive to the people’s needs. Without that kind of underlying philosophy, even those that we once thought of as heroes will quickly turn villain.
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I think Turkey is a good case study to consider here – they’ve had, what, three coups in the last 50 or so years, yet the military always returns power to the civilian government. Obviously things aren’t quite that simple, but we can hold out hope that something similar happens in Egypt all the same.
I didn’t know about that. That is indeed a cause for some optimism.