Egypt: The revolution that shame built

Mark LeVine writes: They were two “new media” events that changed history, unalterably shifting its course into uncharted waters – not merely in the Arab world, but globally as well. And yet their very impact points to two of the most important weaknesses underlying the past year’s worth of revolutionary protests across the region.

The first, an image shot by a cell phone camera, is heartrending to view, as it shows a young man completely on fire, like a still from some bad horror film. Today the world knows the pain behind the grainy image of 26-year-old fruit seller Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation, which lit the Arab world on fire. A young man, struggling to survive in an economy that had made him and so many young Arabs expendable, suffers one too many indignities, and is driven – or inspired – to stage a death that would give life to the hopes of his generation.

Today, revolutionaries across the Arab world circulate his supposed final words on Facebook: “Maybe by setting myself on fire, life can change”.

Bouazizi’s last Facebook entry was a plea for forgiveness from his mother: “Blame the times and not me.”

“Living in a land of treachery,” he explained, had driven him out of his mind. It was a mental state that was shared by so many of his friends – indeed, for the past decade it has been impossible for me to count how many young Arabs have told me they feel schizophrenic or mentally ill, just from living their daily lives in a system that only crushes them down and offers little hope for the future. And so several young men from Sidi Bouzid told me that, when they heard the news about what he’d done, their first reaction was: “Why wasn’t I brave enough to have been the one to do it?”

Across North Africa, in Egypt, pro-democracy activist Asmaa Mahfouz, also 26 years old, watched the unfolding revolution in Tunisia with great anticipation. Bouazizi’s hometown of Sidi Bouzid was a relative backwater, without much of a robust or well-developed public sphere or civil society network to channel his frustrations into more positive action. Mahfouz, however, was a founding member of the April 6 movement, which itself emerged out of the struggle for jobs and dignity by Egyptian workers in the previous half decade.

She well understood the despair and the circumstances that drove Bouazizi to take his own life; but, crucially, she also had the training, vision and networks to take the energy unleashed by Bouazizi in Tunisia and attempt to translate it into concrete political action – not merely one time, but multiple times, until her words broke through the wall of fear that had long kept most Egyptians, such as their counterparts in Tunisia, away from political protest. If Bouazizi acted alone and in desperation, her actions were the product of years of preparation, even if the speech on the video was ad-libbed.

And so, if on December 17, 2010, Bouazizi addressed his final Facebook posting only to his mother, almost one month later to the day, on January 18, 2011, Mahfouz put up a video on Facebook addressed to the entire Egyptian nation. “Four Egyptians have set themselves on fire to protest humiliation and hunger and poverty and degradation they had to live with for 30 years,” she declared, setting the context for her call to Tahrir.

“[They were] thinking maybe we can have a revolution like Tunisia, maybe we can have freedom, justice, honour and human dignity. Today, one of these four has died, and I saw people commenting and saying: ‘May God forgive him. He committed a sin and killed himself for nothing.'”

And then she uttered the words that would bring her generation into the streets: “People, have some shame!” (“Ya gama’, haram ‘aleyku!”)

The idea of shame is crucial in the history of the Arab Spring, and not, as the Bush administration’s torture masters would have had us believe, because Arab culture and Arab men especially are uniquely preoccupied with shame. Rather, because Mahfouz understood that she had to shame her compatriots out of their passivity in order to awaken a level of political consciousness, and through it agency, necessary to create a powerful, mass-based protest movement against the Mubarak regime.

In simple, yet elegant words, she described how only days before she’d posted another video calling on people to join her in Tahrir, only to wind up joined by “only three guys, and three armoured cars filled with police”, who violently pushed them out of the square, before trying to convince them that those who had set themselves on fire were “psychopaths”. She refused to accept such a characterisation – even though the term evoked precisely the feeling of being “out of one’s mind” that Bouazizi described in his final Facebook posting. But she also understood that while self-martyrdom could launch a revolution in Tunisia, it wouldn’t be enough to do the same in Egypt. Instead, a much more sophisticated discourse and strategy would have to be deployed. [Continue reading…]

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