After decades of useless guns, can’t we send some flowers to the Arab Spring?
Below is a heartfelt letter from an American professor, Mark LeVine, who went to Tahrir Square to support the Egyptian revolution and to live it with his own being. This is a message back to a failed system, but it is our message, the people’s message, the message of everyone who lives on the other side of a power architecture that serves nothing but itself: it’s time to let that world disappear. Let’s send flowers to the Arab Spring.
Dear President Obama,
From here at Tahrir Square, it seems clear that you are a very confused person. In your heart, you obviously want Egypt to become a democracy — what rational, ethical person wouldn’t? Yet it seems that you are being fed such a sream of propaganda and dire warmings about a take over of America’s most important Arab ally by Islamists and other anti-American forces that you seem to have decided to sell Egyptians up the river Nile in order to protect US “interests” against this frightening prospect.
I could explain how this is total nonsense, how the Muslim Brothers are not at all the dominant force here, how the movement is divided, especiallygenerationally, and how Tahrir represents an unprecedented co-mingling of old and young, rich and poor, secular and religious, and political persuasions of every type. But surely you’ve been told that in your briefings, or at least read it in the more astute journalistic analyses of events on the ground here.
And yet you still can´t just bring yourself to throw the full weight of your office behind the most important revolution in a generation, your very own Tiananmen Square and Berlin Wall at the same time.
I have a solution for you to break the impasse inside your head; come to Tahrir Square now, before its too late. Spend one afternoon, or better one night, and I can assure you all doubts about which side in this epic struggle to support will be erased. Don’t worry, you will be safe here. Indeed, you will never feel safer.
Mr President, you’ve no doubt heard that this is a “Facebook revolution”. But in fact the real leaders are not Facebookers but five year olds, the majority of them little girls, who from 8am till 1am are carried around the square and lead the people in song, singing newly crafted limericks against Mubarak and his henchmen. In particular Vice President Omar Suleiman, of whom you seem so enamored, are the subjects of anger and scorn. You should know why this is the case, since Suleiman has plied his ugly trade of oppression and torture for the direct benefit of the US government. Do you really want to be denounced in the same sentence as Suleiman and Mubarak? Shouldn’t that give you pause?
You have clearly been convinced that unless the very people responsible for Egypt’s sad state of affairs are given more power to lead the country, it will fall into anarchy. Come and let yourself be swept through a crowd of
half a million people or more, moving against each other like powerful ocean currents, which at any moment could explode into a violent stampede. And yet not a single person panics or is harmed.
Listen to the voices of hundreds of people, each one, with her or his own megaphone, shouting out their particular philosophy, ideology or agenda, while tens of thousands of people parade by, stop for a few minutes, and move on to hear the next one. What has been created here is the perfect amalgam of a pre-modern and postmodern public sphere — high-tech tweets meeting the most intimate forms of human communication. It is a glimpse of politics at its purest.
Yes, technology is crucial — it seems everyone here is either on their mobile talking to someone or snapping photos or video with their phones and updating their Facebook pages. But that’s actually incidental to the most important dynamic, which is that people are talking to each other in ways that has rarely if ever happened here (and sadly hasn’t happened in the US in far too long).
Americans could learn a lot from the respect and tolerance people here are showing to one another, never mind the incredible artistic creativity being displayed by long suffering Egyptians as they celebrate their freedoms and attempt to tell other Egyptians, and the world (including you), not to turn their backs on them.
Mr President, maybe you’ve forgotten what the struggle for freedom feels like. Maybe it’s been so long since you were a community organizer. Have you have forgotten your loyalties are supposed to lie not with the forces of order and stability that want to maintain a corrupt system, but rather with the people struggling for dignity and democracy.
Please come and tell the eight-year-old boys chanting until their little voices are horse that they have to be sacrificed for the cause of security and order. Tell the mother of Khaled Said, the young man whose tortured death at the hands of police last year helped spark the revolt, and who pulled me close to kiss my head when I told her the American people, if not their government, stand with her son’s memory. I doubt they will understand and I doubt that you will be able to tell them.
Please come and explain to the thousands of people living in tents in the middle of Egypt’s busiest intersection that their interests are served by a slow and orderly transition to something – what precisely you seem unwilling to say – that is not quite democracy but rather reforms that everyone here knows means a continuation of the status quo, albeit with a window dressing of free and fair elections. Would those be like the free and fair elections in the US, where corproations are equal to people and can openly buy Congressmen? Is that the best example we can offer Egyptians?
You have routinely lauded the bravery of American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. But what of the soldiers of Tahrir, who just yesterday, as I watched in amazement, sent a brigade outside the relatively safe confines of Tahrir to conquer and garrison the Parliament building so that the country’s falsely elected Assembly could not rubber stamp Mubarak’s faux reforms. Don’t they deserve praise and support? How are they any different than the average people who fought against British tyranny and oppression in the American Revolution? How can you betray them without betraying our own history?
Mr President, why is it you and your chief aides can’t just look squarely into the camera and say that Egypt needs democracy now? Not tomorrow, not in 7 months. Now. Sir, you cannot toss the word around like a carrot to be dangled every so often in front of Egyptians only to be pulled away before they can grab it, replaced by the far less nutritious, and indeed toxic meal of reform. People aren’t stupid, you know. They understand that reform means changing things just enough, giving just enough freedom here and there, so that the game can be called and business returned to normal, with the system that Mubarak, aided by tens of billions of American taxpayers’s dollars, has spent 30 years erecting.
Let me ask you, Mr. Obama, if the President of the United States had used the same discourse towards black Americans fighting for their rights half a century ago, what would you have said to him?
Would you accept it if he had supported a dyed-in-the-wool Dixiecrat to take over the country after him?
What would Dr King have said? Would he, or you, sanction the President’s refusal to annul racist laws that enabled the government to arrest, silence , and oppress the people, as Suleiman has so far done with the dreaded emergency decrees, because it might lead the wrong black people (those “radicals” or perhaps just “uppity” ones who don’t know their place) to take power?
Mr President, do you understand what your waffling means on the ground here? Do you really care so little about freedom? Whatever respect you gained in cairo in 2009 is buried beneath a grave of stones here in Tahrir. The protesters by and large still are happy to see Americans, but with every day of your waffling, the mood grows more suspicious of foreigners inside the square. You say that this revolution must be decided by Egyptians, but let’s be honest, that’s a meaningless statement. You know the US is knee – no, kneck deep – in the muck of Egyptian authoritarianism and status quo.
Yes, this is an Egyptian revolution whose fate must and will ultimately be decided by Egyptians. But whether you want to admit it or not, your actions are helping to preserve this system regardless of what ideals or people have to be sacrificed.
Some will say that doing so is a sign of your maturity and acceptance of Kissingerian realpolitik. That’s an insult, sir, not least of which because Kissinger was largely responsible for a war in which his government – the same one you now head – killed upwards of three million Southeast Asians just because some of them didn’t want to live under the right political and economic system. Is that really the political legacy you want to inherit?
I dont know what anyone can say to get you to change your mind, to really stand with the people of Tahrir, Alexandria, Mansoura and all across Egypt who are risking so much for such quintessentially American ideals and dreams. If only you could come here for an hour, you might change your mind, but I guess the sounds and spirit of freedom have no hope of penetrating your Washington bubble. But i can promise you this: If the Egyptian government manages to win the day here and suppress this revolution, the ghosts of Tahrir will haunt you for the rest of your presidency.
Consider that before your next call to Pharaoh.
Mark LeVine is a professor of history at UC Irvine and senior visiting researcher at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden. His most recent books are Heavy Metal Islam (Random House) and Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989 (Zed Books).
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.