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Hope for democracy and freedom: The manifold results of the revolution in Egypt

February 16th, 2011

Global experts Anne Applebaum and Melody Moezzi discuss the many possible changes and results of the events in Egypt.

Applebaum 150x150 Hope for democracy and freedom: The manifold results of the revolution in Egyptmelody moezzi Hope for democracy and freedom: The manifold results of the revolution in Egypt

Channeling Egypt’s energy of the crowd into positive change

Anne Applebaum

I didn’t have a pen in hand when I heard the broadcast from Cairo over the weekend, and I didn’t write down the precise words used by a woman demonstrator, interviewed at length by a BBC radio journalist, just after she heard the news of Hosni Mubarak’s resignation. But I remember the sentiments with great precision: Exhilaration, excitement, elation, euphoria. She was proud to be an Egyptian. She had never thought it was possible that Egyptians could achieve so much. Her life had changed forever: She had helped force the Egyptian dictator from office, and nothing would ever be the same again.

Listening to her, I felt something like envy. Anyone who has ever attended a rock concert or a football game knows how much fun it is to be part of a roaring, victorious crowd. The experience is even more memorable when you are standing in a crowd that might be able to change your country, or your life, forever. In a New Yorker article that touched upon the emotional power of mass activism, as opposed to the loneliness of online activism, Malcolm Gladwell recently quoted the political theorist Michael Walzer, who had interviewed civil rights activists following mass sit-ins in 1960: “The answer was always the same: ‘It was like a fever. Everyone wanted to go.’ ”

“It was like a fever.” Walzer was not the first to observe that people who join an exultant crowd feel something out of the ordinary, as if they were in a hallucination or a dream. Since the 18th century, writers and sociologists have observed that a crowd thinks and acts differently from an individual, and even seems to have its own psychology. In 1896, the Frenchman Gustave Le Bon published a famous treatise called The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, which observed, among other things, that crowds can be variously “generous or cruel, heroic or cowardly” but always have one thing in common: “the interest of the individual . . . will not dominate them.”

Coming down from the high of a crowd experience and returning to the humdrum ordinariness of an individual life can never be easy, especially if one has been part of a crowd for almost three weeks. It’s not remotely surprising that demonstrators keep returning to Tahrir Square after Mubarak’s resignation, not just to celebrate but to demand more: “We won’t leave because we have to make sure this country is set on the right path,” declared one protester, described as unemployed. On Sunday and Monday, soldiers clashed with demonstrators who were reluctant to go home, and the army even threatened to arrest those who refused to leave.

A letdown is inevitable. Disappointment in the slow pace of post-revolutionary change cannot be avoided. Historically, the months following a revolution can therefore be more dangerous than the revolution itself. The dissatisfaction with the February Russian revolution of 1917 led to the Bolshevik coup d’etat in October. In France, the mob kept resurrecting itself in the years following 1789 (a tradition which continues into the present).

Disaster and dictatorship are not inevitable, but if Egypt is to avoid either a coup d’etat or a return to mob rule, the soldiers now ruling the country will have to do more than send everyone home. As Le Bon understood, the essence of crowd euphoria is the feeling that one is part of something greater than oneself. Now the country’s leaders must help channel all of that enthusiasm into institutional change, not next month or next year but right now.

By whatever means possible, the army should encourage the formation of political parties, the creation of citizens’ committees, the building of neighborhood watch groups and cleanup brigades: Anything to prevent those unemployed men in Tahrir Square from going home, staring at the wall, and then slumping down again in front of Facebook or Al-Jazeera. Online activism is not a substitute for real activism. The satisfaction one receives from Twitter is not the same satisfaction one receives from spending hours in a room with a group of people, planning an election campaign.

Traditional forms of political activity are not the only outlet possible, either. A couple of years after Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, I met a woman who had spent days camping out on the Maidan, the Ukrainian equivalent of Tahrir Square. Afterward she returned home, determined to re-organize her life. She quit her job. She founded a publishing house dedicated to Ukrainian-language translations. When I met her she was disappointed with the new Ukrainian government but philosophical about it.

“We can’t expect the government to do everything for us anymore,” she told me. “We have to learn to do things for ourselves.” If the woman who spoke so rapturously about Egypt last weekend can speak with the same distance about her own government a year from now, then the Egyptian revolution will have been a success.

Published in the Huffington Post on Tuesday, February 15, 2011.

Egypt, Tunisia and the Iranian Opposition

Melody Moezzi

Like so many across and from the Middle East, I’ve followed recent events in Tunisia and Egypt with intense interest. Witnessing the Tunisian and Egyptian people topple long-standing, brutal dictators within weeks has filled me with joy and awe. But it has also filled me with another, less tender emotion: envy. Granted, as a rule, envy tends to be both unconstructive and unbecoming, but every rule has an exception, and this may be it.

So many Iranians, including myself, watched the demonstrations in Egypt and Tunisia and longed for the Summer of 2009, when the streets of Tehran were filled with demonstrators demanding that their votes be counted following a fraudulent presidential election after which incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad proclaimed victory in the polls. But while we miss the sense of excitement and possibility that those demonstrations represented, we don’t miss the bloodshed, the torture or the false arrests and detentions. In so many ways, the summer of 2009 in Iran was nothing like the winter of 2011 in Egypt. For one, security forces were significantly more brutal and arrests and disappearances were much more widespread in Iran. As a result, the Iranian regime was largely successful in pushing the pro-democracy Green Movement underground. It was not, however, successful in quashing it.

There is still widespread discontent throughout Iran, and the record rate of executions, as well as the ridiculous prison sentences doled out to opposition activists who still sit in prison today have only further fueled this discontent. In the end, the Iranian people have two options in response to the regime’s intimidation tactics: rise up and continue rising up in defiance of the regime, or succumb to despair.

Admittedly, there is no dearth of despair in Iran, especially among the youth, who comprise over 70% of the population and who have spent the vast majority of their lives under the suffocating, sexist and immoral criminal, family and “morality” laws of the so-called Islamic Republic. Suicide and drug addiction (despite the government’s highly publicized executions of many drug users) are both growing problems in Iran, and their victims are most often young people who would otherwise lead and support the pro-democracy movement.

But all is not lost. Thanks to Ayatollah Khomeini’s restrictions on birth control during the early stages of the purportedly Islamic Republic and the baby boomer generation that resulted, there are a hell of a lot more young people who have not succumbed to the traps of despair than who have. Today the current regime is up against these baby boomers, ironically the products of its own myopic public health policies imposed at the inception of the Republic.

These young people cannot be silenced forever. As the children of the revolution they are eager to inherit their country, and having learned great lessons from the 1979 Islamic Revolution, they are poised to stage their counter-revolution one day soon. They will rise up again, and Monday’s planned protests to show solidarity with the people of Egypt and Tunisia represent yet another step in the direction of democracy for Iran.

Opposition leaders Mehdi Karroubi (who has since been subject to house arrest) and Mir Hossein Mousavi have both called for the February 14th demonstrations despite government warnings against them. While the regime has deluded itself into believing that the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt are re-enactments of Iran’s 1979 revolution, the opposition has seen them for what they really are: pro-democracy uprisings in the vein of Iran’s Green Movement, which took root in the summer of 2009.

These Valentine’s Day protests are more than a show of solidarity with Egyptians and Tunisians. They are the healthiest outlet for our incredible envy, and they are a sign of things to come in Iran.

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