British-Egyptian journalist Nadine El-Hadi looks at the continuing impact Egypt has had on international expressions of solidarity from Wisconsin to London.
Tahrir Square is now a household name across the world - a buzzword for revolution, a rallying call for protest. When British anti-cuts activists called to turn Trafalgar Square into Tahrir Square, this was a code that was instantly understood.
Traces of Egypt’s revolution can be found throughout protest movements that are gathering pace world wide. Iconic images of Egypt in revolt continue to adorn campaign leaflets and the slogan ‘Walk like an Egyptian’ has become a protest staple - a salute to the determination of Egyptians who continue to take to the streets. Meanwhile, Mubarak is now a global symbol of dictatorship and corruption, as illustrated by Wisconsin protestors who carried signs comparing their Governor Scott Walker to the ousted Egyptian President - “Hosni Walker WI Dictator must go.”
As Egypt erupted on 25th January, protests at Egyptian embassies broke out immediately and thousands across the world marched in the streets of their cities in solidarity, and to put pressure on both the Egyptian and their own governments. In London, daily protests were held as the Egyptian Diaspora mobilised quickly in support of a popular movement that was incredibly, defiantly and finally spiralling into open revolt and starting to wrench back control of their country.
However, it was not just British-Egyptians who partook in these displays of support and mobilisation for Egypt. Student demonstrators marched on the Egyptian embassy, British activists flew out to Cairo and Egyptian activists continue to be invited to speak at the many meetings and discussions organised to examine the consequences and lessons of the Arab uprisings.
There has been much talk of a domino effect, with different movements spurred on by each other. Egypt was emboldened by Tunisia, as the removal of Ben Ali poured fuel on the groundwork laid by Egyptian activists and dramatically ignited the frustrations and humiliations of a whole nation. The ranks of hundreds of committed activists suddenly swelled to millions of protesters.
However, this is a chain reaction that reaches out of the Middle East, moving people world-wide and forging connections between different struggles. Just as Egypt’s revolution was home-grown but given a push by Tunisia, the growing protest movement in Britain has its roots firmly in this country but is being energised by the extraordinary events in the Middle East.
Occupation was the tactic of choice for Egypt, with Tahrir the vibrant and symbolic heart of the revolution. British students have also revived the art of sit-ins, starting with occupations in solidarity with Palestinians during Israel’s brutal assault on the Gaza Strip in 2008-2009, and it is now employed as a widespread tactic against the current government’s cuts and austerity measures. The call to turn Trafalgar into Tahrir on 26th March was a clever piece of campaign rhetoric, but it goes deeper than catchy sloganising. It points to parallels and overlap, and a process of borrowing between resistance movements.
On this occupation of Trafalgar Square, academic Priyamvada Gopal commented in the Guardian that “British protesters' call to transform Trafalgar acknowledges that the struggles in the Middle East and those gathering momentum in Britain share a profound connection… The extraordinary levels of social and economic vulnerability impacting ordinary people from the American midwest to the Middle East have shared origins in the global concentration of wealth and power in fewer hands.”
The use of American and British made weaponry to suppress people (not to mention David Cameron’s unbelievably distasteful ‘trade mission’ to sell arms to the region’s despots) has underlined the idea of the interconnectedness of governments that are disinterested in the needs and will of their people. Protestors marching in support of Egyptians also targeted the symbols of Western power, as Tariq Ali raged at a rally outside the US embassy, “it is the west who has kept this [Mubarak’s] regime going!”
Walter Armbrust is an anthropologist and writes about Egyptian popular culture. He points to the economic hardships brought on by unfair structures and policies and argues that Egypt and Tunisia are the first successful revolutions against neoliberalism. Looking to the Wisconsin protests, he argues, “Americans could learn from Egypt. Indeed, there are signs that they already are doing so.”
Perhaps the most unexpected and incredible aspect of the unrest and resistance in 2011 is that the seat of protest is now the Arab world - a region that had long since been written off and scorned for its complacency, accused of disinterest and incompatibility with democracy and social justice. Now, it is the most bold and most successful in making demands through popular protest and mass mobilisation. Egypt’s revolution is far from complete and a huge struggle remains, but suddenly the western world is looking eastwards for inspiration. Just as the students who took to the streets proved they were not the ‘iPod generation’ of lazy apolitical young people they had been cast as, so too Egyptians have broken the myth of political apathy and submission.
This is a year for smashing stereotypes.
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