Lessons from Egypt

In its complacency, America views the democratic aspirations of others as the desire to possess what we already enjoy. Little do we imagine that these aspirations reveal what we have discarded or perhaps never even possessed.

President Obama packages what has driven Egyptians onto the streets within the banal phrase “the desire for a better life” — as though the world is captive to a vision of life in suburbia in which material comfort is the sum of human fulfillment.

We misinterpret the significance of the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt if we look at these through the narrow prisms of dictatorial rule or economic hardship, because in truth they provide lessons about what it means to be human.

We are complex creatures and have advanced beyond the level of survival. Our needs go beyond material sufficiency.

Egyptians did not take to the streets today in order to fill their stomachs but in order to express their hearts. They were reclaiming their dignity by refusing to continue being the subjects of oppression.

But where is our dignity in accepting the fact that we have political representatives who do not represent our interests? Where is our dignity in having turned ourselves from citizens into consumers and having abandoned the idea of government by the people?

On the streets across Egypt today the single most important message from the people was this: we are not afraid.

Is this not a message that should shame the average American? Having spent a decade accepting the proposition that no expense should be spared to guard us against every imaginable fear, can we even imagine what it means to face danger yet not be afraid?

This perhaps more than anything else is the measure through which the bugaboo of 9/11 became the altar on which we sacrificed our dignity.

And should we pause to consider what the possible consequences are of empowering a national security state in the name of defense against terrorism, we could do no better than look at the example of the Mubarak regime.


One of the prevailing narratives in Washington has been that the US must tread a delicate line so that it does not undermine the flowering of democracy by providing unwelcome American support — as though the average Egyptian gives a damn about America’s position.

Egypt’s destiny is being determined by its people — not the Obama administration, which in its timidity and duplicity refuses to actually acknowledge the simple demand that is on the table: that Mubarak go.

And when from America we watch the Egyptian people assert their power, we should only imagine: what might this look like in America if we were not a nation filled with people so thoroughly convinced of our impotence?

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8 thoughts on “Lessons from Egypt

  1. Norman

    Good post Paul. The “O” & the Congress should take the rose colored glasses off and look around at their own house, how messy it is, start cleaning house before those same fires are brought to bear here in the U.S.A. Only smug fools believe that it could never happen. While they keep trying to divert attention away from the problems we face, with their “KABUKI” performances, the embers are smoldering, as with those countries in the Middle East, so too are they here in the U.S. An interesting note, 30 years, Tunisia, Egypt, the suppression, our own, starting 30 years ago. Some will say this is nonsense, probably continue when the fires ignite here too. Food for thought, though probably like usual, none will take heed.

  2. rick

    Paul Woodward asks,

    Where is our dignity in having turned ourselves from citizens into consumers … ?
    On the streets across Egypt today the single most important message from the people was this: we are not afraid.

    Is this not a message that should shame the average American?

    “Dignity”? “Shame”?

    I’m afraid that, in America, these ethical holy places in the human soul
    were thoroughly colonized by materialistic, economic status calculations.

    This has been America’s most toxic export — far worse than
    our exports of military arms and nasty industrial chemicals.
    How deep into Egyptian society does this globalized elite
    “Monoculture of the Mind” extend?

    At the risk of being “overtaken by events”, Egypt’s military
    is key to how events unfold. See especially how Mubarak uses U.S.
    $1.5 Billion/year of military aid to make life very comfortable and
    privileged for Egypt’s generals — hoping they will see themselves
    as part of the ruling elite class:


    It’s worth emphasizing Egypt’s military lobbying in Washington,
    which is aided by the usual K Street bipartisan suspects:

    Records also show Tony Podesta
    [brother of Center for American Progress founder John Podesta]
    himself meeting with members of Congress, governors and generals
    in recent years to discuss U.S.-Egypt relations and the
    military aid package and to introduce Egyptian officials
    to American power brokers.


    How far down the army’s chain of command does this (presumed) “elite Monoculture Mindset” dominate? Being ordered to shoot your own people induces cognitive dissonance … and that “still small voice of conscience” will begin to speak louder to some commanders than to others.

    A divided military response — if covered by Al Jazeera —
    would almost certainly force Mubarak out of power.
    And then what?

    President Hopey-Changey is right about one thing …
    this is, indeed, “a very fluid situation”.

  3. dickerson3870

    RE: “Egypt’s destiny is being determined by its people…” – Woodward
    BUT, FROM MONDOWEISS, 01/28/11:

    …Adalah-NY recently posted on American-made tear gas made by Combined Tactical Systems (CTS), a part of Combined Systems Inc., being shot at protesters across the West Bank. Now this theme is at last being echoed in the mainstream press, about Egypt and the same US tear gas company. From the Telegraph:

    A stark contrast, however, to the US’s calls for calm has come from protesters angry at the fact that the tear gas canisters being fired at them by security forces seem to be made in America – via AFP: “Egyptians staging anti-government protests on Friday vented anger at the fact that the tear gas security forces are firing at them is US-manufactured, probably part of a massive military aid package. “‘The American taxpayer should know how their money is being spent,’ shouted one young male protester who declined to give his name, brandishing a spent tear gas canister marked ‘Made in USA.’
    “Dozens of the canisters made by Combined Tactical Systems in Jamestown, Pennsylvania, were fired at crowds on one Cairo street on Friday, littering the road surface along with rubble and spent shotgun cartridges. “Many protesters have been injured through tear gas inhalation and by being hit by the canisters themselves, with the security forces sometimes firing them straight at demonstrators.”


    ENTIRE MONDOWEISS POST – http://mondoweiss.net/2011/01/party-building-on-fire-shots-fired-at-demonstrators-army-pouring-into-streets.html

  4. Vince J.

    The American people can not put these event into context. They are kept in the dark and kept in ignorance.
    As per 9/11, arrest Chenney and Bush!

  5. Jonathan Wright

    Very true and it’s often struck me in the context of US official comments on Palestinian aspirations. It has not just struck me, it has infuriated me. It’s as if they completely ignore the political demand for freedom and dignity and equal rights, as if they can fob them off with consumer distractions. It’s almost worked in the United States, why not elsewhere!

  6. Colm O' Toole

    Great post Paul.

    This piece brings up an interesting question, which to me is the psychological element of such a cold blooded system. If you go back into Modern history you can find one writer/intellectual who discussed this.

    Frantz Fanon (a psychiatrist) who led the intellectual movement in Algeria against French colonialism, observed that colonialism not only worked as Economic oppression and Military oppression but also as a form of psychological oppression where the people know that the system is injust but are impotent to stop it.

    Fanon said in the face of this powerlessness the only way to succeed is to create, as he termed it, “the new man”. By this he said that if the people who are psychologically beaten down by this system commit violence against Colonialism the very act of violence would be enough to free the person from these symbolic shackles by the act of striking out against this regime. It would change the way he views the world and create this new man.

    This seems to be where the Egyptian protests are important. The ordinary people always felt that the regime was unjust but were mentalily trapped in not knowing how to take it down. The very act of joining the streets and burning APC’s and throwing rocks at the security forces is enough to change the psychological dynamic of how people view themselves.

    Last week the ordinary people were just Workers now they see themselves as Revolutionaries and that profound shift is enough to change things. When that happens in the US and in Europe a similar situation will develop.

  7. David

    I consider that Paul Woodward is being a little too quick to claim that the destiny of Egypt is being etc., and that it is futile to think that Egyptians (etc) would not accept the substantial material benefits promised (and often, one must admit, delivered) by “liberal capitakism” rather than a revolution. Chomsky has so often noted that show elections every so many years , between Tweedledum (say, McCain) and Tweedledee( Obama) give virtually no choice to an increasingly apathetic electorate in “our” world ( US, UK etc) There is no reason to think that any new Egyptian regime will empower the people. a. they ( the leaders) almost certainly fear the people and b. the CIA etc will move swiftly to divert/undermine and really revolutionary initiative – perhaps Israel could be ncouraged to attack a new Egypt ?The essential power – as perhaps it always has been – is in the hands of the richest and most privileged, with plenty of pals in the other bourgeois democracies to help them out if things look tight (e.g. the Irish and Europe at the moment). Currently, both in the States and Europe, the poor are paying for the speculators’ monstrous greed (remember the Thirties?) and allegedly “leftie” (!!!) politicians do nothing – Obama has,of course, deliberately chosen the bankers over the people, and hardly a murmur, it seems from the said people. In the UK, the poor are being ,well, shafted, yet again, and yet we have the vote. Egyptians of the disenchanted middle classes who have not been captivated by the Mubarak regime will, once holding the effective reins of power, see that it is business as usual for them ,and probably do fairly well in accreting enough of the people to the cause of more consumer goods etc; some time in the future – perhaps a generation, maybe less, they ( the new rulers) will provide more games for the people to play, including, I believe, that most pointless of games known in “our” world as politics, when it disguises mere ripples of power change from one electoral machine ( backed by Big Money) to another, almost identical.Bread and circuses is winning hands down virtually everywhere (just possibly not at the moment in some Latin American countries) and , unless genuine working class movements arise , practically no politician anywhere has the balls to challenge Money. Seriously.

  8. Christopher Hoare

    Excellent post, Paul. The attribute the Egyptians, Tunisians, and others have is a sense of dignity, and it is this what is lacking in our centrist democracies. The huge bell shaped distribution mapping the electorate in the west is distorted by this huge hump of centrists who have forsaken dignity, courage, and morality for the ‘privilege’ of shopping in the most lavishly stocked malls the world has ever seen. They are not citizens any more but grasping, groveling consumers.

    Is it any wonder that the people they elect are no better? The economic system blows up under a crass exhibition of casino capitalism, let loose by the criminals that sabotaged responsible oversight, and all they can think to do is to reach longingly for a restoration of the obscenity existing before 2007/8. No one wants to work for a better tomorrow, they are still longing to get back to yesterday.

    Watch the Egyptians and Tunisians and weep, you spineless weaklings, because they are the truly free among us.

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