Peace as an agent of change

 In Current Affairs, Middle East

Today, in spite of — or perhaps because of — the Libyan regime’s brutal attempts to crack down on protesters, Gaddafi continues to lose territory to his opposition. This has been in large part because members of his own police and military are switching loyalties and refusing to fire on unarmed protesters. As the commander of the armed forces in Tobruk told Al Jazeera, “We are on the side of the people. I was with him [Gaddafi] in the past but the situation has changed – he’s a tyrant.”

I’m sure I’m not the only one in awe of the bravery and power of peaceful protest right now. My guess is that the pro-democracy revolution sweeping through the Middle East and parts of Africa will be studied and analyzed for years, alongside the anti-colonial movement in India and the civil rights struggles in the US, as an example of non-violent resistance.

In the run up to Egypt’s overthrow of Mubarak’s 30-year reign, there were reports of a street-level narrative that the protests needed to be peaceful — partly to prove that Egyptians were capable of self-rule, and to clearly delineate the differences between the protesters and the brutal regime they opposed. I think it’s important to acknowledge that there was some violence, and not always from the pro-Mubarak side, and not always purely defensive. I’m not judging. But the violence could have easily spiraled out of control. My point is, it wasn’t easy to keep it peaceful. But there was a large enough contingent of the protesters who firmly believed that peaceful protest was the only path to achieving their goal, and felt strongly that this was a matter of maintaining their dignity. The fact is, it took a great deal of determination, commitment and a sense of purpose to keep order and peace in Tahrir square.

Once past the soldiers there is a second line of security run by the anti-Mubarak campaign where identity cards are shown again and male protesters are politely patted down. It’s an orderliness Egyptians have surprised themselves with – designed not only to minimise confrontations with the army and keep the protest peaceful, but also to suggest that it is the regime that is the source of chaos.

It hasn’t been easy. A few days into the protests, a wave of looting was unleashed. The pro-democracy movement suspected that the regime might be creating disorder in the hope that ordinary Egyptians would welcome a crackdown that could be used to clear the anti-Mubarak movement from the streets. But Cairo’s residents took matters in to their own hands, policing their neighbourhoods, and the protest movement grew stronger.

Every now and then, there is a crack in the order. Periodically, someone among the protesters is determined to be a security police agent or agent provocateur. Two men spotted on a balcony overlooking the square are pounced on, their hands bound with white cord before they are frogmarched, looking petrified, through a hostile crowd to soldiers who take them off to a makeshift pen.

A little later, another man, in a blue shirt, is not so lucky. The kicks and blows come from every direction as one group of protesters attempts to protect him from more agitated demonstrators as they march the suspected government agent across the square to hand him over to the army.

There are shouts of “hang him” from some men, young and older, venting years of anger at the vast, anonymous machinery of state repression on one of its agents suddenly alone and powerless. More reasonable protesters plead against any violence. Only with a determined effort by his protectors and help from a couple of soldiers is the man finally prised away from his attackers.

In the midst of the revelry that immediately followed Mubarak’s resignation, there were deeply disappointing reports of sexual assault against women. But leading up to Mubarak’s resignation, many women reported a kind of oasis of gender harmony inside Tahrir square, and al Jazeera documents that women played an equal role in the revolution.

One of the women they highlight is Mona Seif, a 24 year old researcher:

I was amazed by the peoples’ determination to keep this peaceful even when we were under deadly attacks. When we caught the pro-Mubarak thugs, the guys would protect them from being beaten and say: ‘Peaceful, peaceful, we are not going to beat anyone up’. That was when I started thinking: ‘No matter what happens we are not going to quit until Mubarak leaves’. The spirit of the people in Tahrir kept us going.

My friend and I had the role of ensuring that all of the videos and pictures from Tahrir were uploaded and as the internet connection was bad in Tahrir, we would use a friend’s nearby flat to make sure the images made it out so everyone could see what was happening in the square.

I have never felt as at peace and as safe as I did during those days in Tahrir. There was a sense of coexistence that overcame all of the problems that usually happen – whether religious or gender based.

Pre-January 25 whenever we would attend protests I would always be told by the men to go to the back to avoid getting injured and that used to anger me. But since January 25 people have begun to treat me as an equal. There was this unspoken admiration for one another in the square.

We went through many ups and downs together. It felt like it had become a different society – there was one Egypt inside Tahrir and another Egypt outside.

The moment Tahrir opened up, we saw a lot of people that were not there before and there were reports of females being harassed.

I know that Egypt has changed and we will transfer the spirit of the square to the rest of the country. Before Tahrir if I was [harassed] I would refrain from asking people for help, because there are a lot of people that would disappoint you by blaming you. But I think the spirit of the revolution has empowered us to spread the feeling we established wider and wider. From now on, if anything happens to me, I am going to scream, I am going to ask people to help me and I know that I will find people that will help me.

I was in front of the TV building when the news broke about Mubarak stepping down. I found myself swept away with people screaming and cheering. It was an emotional moment that I celebrated with strangers. People were hugging me, shaking my hands, distributing sweets. At that moment we were all one.

I no longer feel alienated from society. I now walk the streets of Cairo and smile at strangers all the time. I have gained a sense of belonging with everyone on the streets of Cairo – at least for now. Before January 25 I was tempted to leave the country. This feeling has changed now, I want to stay here. This is an extension of our role in the revolution, we have to stay here and contribute to changing our society.”

None of us can know what the future holds for the region, and in Libya, Yemen and elsewhere lives are still in great danger. We also don’t know how long the commitment to peaceful protest will hold, or if it will buckle under the pressure of extremely violent repression. But at the same time, I am so inspired and hopeful by what the protesters have already accomplished.

If you’ve also heard stories about this commitment to peace in the Middle East and African protests, please share them in the comments!

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