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February 16, 2011

History is made, and the future opens

Salam Elmenyawi

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Muslims and Christians, women and men, young and old Egyptians came together to topple oppression and broken promises.

Witnessing history in the making is an amazing experience. It is incredible to watch events you have been waiting for all your life. The 50-second speech announcing the departure of Hosni Mubarak from Egypt ended 30 years of oppression, deception, corruption and lack of rights and civil liberties.

The peaceful protest by the Egyptian people in Tahrir Square, and in many other cities, was a political earthquake that shook the pillars of corruption and oppression in Egypt and in many places around the world.

The peak of disappointment in that 18-day roller-coaster of protests was on Thursday night, Feb. 10.

Everyone expected Mubarak to resign, but he continued to talk about what he would do to fix the country's problems, about his sacrifices and how he loves Egypt and its youth.

Many people just stopped following the 17-minute speech with the ambiguous reference in the 14th minute about transferring powers to the vice-president he had just appointed, after failing to appoint one for 30 years.

To understand our disappointment, one has to look back at the history of promises made by Mubarak.

Soon after taking power, he promised to step down after one term. Yet he ended up doing everything to stay in power for life, and tried to get his son to inherit the state. He promised to hold accountable any corrupt person, including members of his family. Yet he ended up giving awards to some of the corrupt officials in Egypt.

For 30 years, Egyptians were terrified when they heard Mubarak's promises to fix any problem; he almost always ended up causing more damage instead. He weakened the already corrupted political system, the constitution, the education system, the environment, the health-care system, the economy (as he privatized it around his beneficiaries), and the agricultural sector. As he promised to fight corruption, he increased it, causing serious damage to the social life of Egyptians. And he blamed failures on anything except his regime's corruption.

He transferred ownership of prime real estate and publicly owned companies to his family and friends for a fraction of their market value, and even these low prices were not fully collected by the state. The assets were then resold for billions of dollars in the open market.

In the middle of the last decade, the regime removed from the constitution all the checks and balances that were supposed to guarantee fair elections. Judges were prevented from supervising the voting process. It was made impossible for an ordinary person to contest presidential elections, setting the stage for the nomination of Mubarak's son.

That left Egyptians unable to participate openly in politics.

The 300 courageous persons who came out to demonstrate at that time had 30,000 Central Security policemen surrounding them. In response, Egyptians began expressing their opinions through jokes, poetry, songs and the Internet, using indirect criticism. The most recent theme of their jokes was the impossibility of removing Mubarak. They say a person found the lamp of Aladdin, so he rubbed the lamp and the genie said: "Ask what you want, it shall be done." The person said, "I want a private highway from Cairo to Aswan," and the genie replied that this was too difficult. So the person retorted, "What about removing Mubarak from power?" And the genie replied, "So how many lanes do you want in your highway?"

A few months ago, just after openly rigging the election for the Egyptian parliament and Shura Council (the upper chamber, or consultative council) and eliminating almost all his political opponents, Mubarak declared that this was the best election ever in Egypt. It seemed he was living in a parallel universe, with no grasp of reality, and it was useless to engage his regime. I believe that this was what finally convinced the people that they needed a revolution. It had become clear that change would never happen through politics.

In a trip I made to Egypt in the early 1990s, the main question many of my friends were asking was how to get rid of this tyranny. I suggested massive demonstrations. This brought a strong negative response and the accusation that I had been living for too long in Canada and didn't understand the brutal oppression of the Mubarak regime. Fear of the state's apparatus was real and very serious. I suggested an alternative: stay-home civil disobedience. However, coordination was a problem in the absence of a clear leadership to motivate the masses.

Well, this year came the answer. Co-ordination came through Twitter and Facebook, and the tipping point was reached when the wall of fear fell thanks to the example of Tunisia, which proved that it was possible to remove a dictator -you just need to persevere as you protest peacefully in the streets.

In a way that had never been seen before, Egyptians from different backgrounds walked to the streets in full unity. They were not united because of an ideology, or because of a political party's agenda; there was no specific leadership or fight for power.

They were Muslims and Christians, women and men, rich and poor, young and old, all coming out peacefully, without burning any flags, to fight corruption and establish a free and just society. And they stayed to clean the streets at the end of their protest.

I am optimistic not only about the future of Egypt, but also about the future of the Middle East, even if we face some setbacks in the coming days. I am optimistic because Egyptians found their bearing and they became united in purpose. They restored their pride and they will work hard to protect it.

I am sure peace will be stronger, the economy will prosper for everyone, and the few remaining problems will be resolved peacefully. Perhaps one of the honest judges who fought the corruption of the regime will emerge to lead the country to new-found justice and freedom.

With a transparent society, the players in the Middle East will have no choice but to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, as they all need to have a share in a new, progressive Middle East. Compromises will be made to make it possible to live under resilient peace, supported by the masses and not by one person.

Furthermore, I believe that the whole world will benefit, as the man who helped ignite Islamaphobia is gone, his regime that radicalized people is about to be dissolved, and people who proved that great gains could be made through peaceful actions are on the horizon waiting for our support.

This is a great moment in history, because all the ingredients for success are present. If we help keep this window of opportunity open for all participants, we will all enjoy a prosperous and bright future. And in any event, Egypt will never be the same, as it starts building after this extraordinary earthquake of political change.

Salam Elmenyawi is the president of the Muslim Council of Montreal. He came to Canada from his native Egypt 39 years ago.

Montreal Gazette, February 16, 2011.

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On July 7, 2024 in Toronto, Canada, Dimitri Lascaris delivered a speech on the right to resist oppression.

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