by James M. Wall
In 1968, American civil rights organizer Bayard Rustin wrote,
All these things are very important, but deeper and more profound is the feeling of young Negroes today—through all classes, from the lumpenproletariat to the working poor, the working classes, the middle classes, and the intelligentsia—that the time has come when they should have power, a voice in the solution of problems which affect them.”
Helene Cobban, for many years the Middle East foreign correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, recently found this Rustin passage, which she described as a “great, short piece of writing by the African-American, gay, Quaker activist”.
The connection between the aspiration of Palestinians today and the American civil rights struggle, was described by Laila El-Haddad, the author of a recent book, Gaza Mom:
What the Palestinians in Gaza are suffering from is not restrictions on their food, it is restrictions on their freedom!
In her Cairo-based blog, along with the Rustin quote, the blogger Baheyya included the picture below of a large crowd of protestors in Sanaa, the capital of Yemen. The protestors were demanding an end to social inequality, vote rigging, and the chokehold of president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s ruling party. I like to think Bayard Rustin would approve.
From Rustin to Baheyya to El Haddad to Cobban, the connections demand to be heard. The writer of Baheyya, by the way, explains in her blog profile that she chose the title of her blog because:
“Baheyya is an Egyptian female name that has come to stand in for Egypt itself. The symbolism of course is the handiwork of the gifted duo of Shaykh Imam Eissa and Ahmad Fu’ad Nigm in their haunting song, ‘Masr yamma, ya Baheyya.'”
Masr yamma, ya Baheyya, according to one source I consulted, may be translated into English as Egypt, O Mother, you are Glorious.
Another source informs me that in her research she found:
The poet stated in an introduction to this poem that he has drawn/designed his poem after his mother or literally he was in fact drawing his mother. He also stated a famous saying that goes, “it was a sweets chef who constructed Egypt” (literally: the one who constructed Egypt was a sweets chef).
The connection between the American civil rights movement and the current uprisings across the Arab world, is inescapable. Does the President hear, and more importantly, feel, this connection?
Lamis Andoni has followed President Obama before, and since, his 2008 election. She writes from Doha, Qatar, where she is currently a Middle East consultant for Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based news station. She also writes for the Washington Post Global blog.
Andoni has covered the Middle East for 20 years for the Christian Science Monitor, the Financial Times and major newspapers in Jordan. She has also been a professor at the Graduate School in UC Berkeley.
In a Washington Post blog column, on January 23, 2009, Adoni wrote that she believed the new president had a better understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian issue than earlier presidents.
The inauguration of Barack Obama, the first African-American President, is itself an inspiration of hope for a better world. It has sent a message of goodwill even to the most skeptical spectators around the globe. But he can easily shatter people’s glimmer of hope if he does not really and truly break away from an American foreign policy of ruthless hegemony imposed by ruthless military force.
His reaction to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis will be the first and most important test of the change he has promised to bring. His biggest blunder would be to reinforce America’s full-fledged support of Israel, especially after the Israeli war of destruction on Gaza.
Two years later, in a speech the President gave at a Miami, Florida Democratic party fund raiser March 4, his “full-fledged support of Israel” was all too evident. This is not what people seeking freedom wanted to hear.
In his remarks, Obama said:
[W]hen you look at what’s happening across the — around the world, what’s happening in the Middle East is a manifestation of new technologies, the winds of freedom that are blowing through countries that have not felt those winds in decades, a whole new generation that says, I want to be a part of this larger world and I want to have some say in what happens.
Now, that’s a dangerous time, but it’s also a huge opportunity for us, because America is built on liberty and innovation and dynamism and technology. And all the forces that we’re seeing at work in Egypt are forces that naturally should be aligned with us, should be aligned with Israel, if — if — we make good decisions now and we understand sort of the sweep of history.
It is very difficult to understand how the President could conclude that the forces at work in Egypt are forces that “naturally should be aligned with us”, and should “be aligned with Israel”. The evidence is overwhelmingly against such a conclusion.
In her Al Jazeera response to Obama’s Miami fund-raising speech, Lamis Adoni wrote that the pro-western Arab dictators and royal rulers across the Middle East have always sought to appease their publics “by paying lip service to the Palestinian cause, because they understand the place [that cause] holds in the Arab psyche.”
The current Arab revolutions, however, have revealed that “lip service” is no longer sufficient.
It is wrong to assume that the new Arab mood is somehow consistent with a friendlier posture towards a country that continues to occupy Palestinian land and to dispossess Palestinian people.
This kind of misreading of the situation derives not from facts but from an Orientalist attitude that has long dominated American thinking and large sections of the American media.
In the prevailing US political culture, supporting Washington’s policies is considered synonymous with democratic thinking and behaviour, while opposing the American outlook and Israel is judged to derive from the backwardness of ‘captive minds’.
According to this perspective, a mentality of imagined victimhood feeds ‘hatred’ of and resistance towards Israel.
But, it is, in fact, this thinking that is utterly undemocratic. If we assume that democratic values are universal values and move away from a Western ethno-centric interpretation, we will find that the rejection of occupation is totally consistent with ideas of freedom and human dignity – two supposedly integral components of democratic thought.
Just as rejecting racial discrimination asserts a belief in freedom, so does the refusal to simply accept the Israeli and American occupations of Arab lands and subordination of Arab people.
So unless Obama is talking about ending the US occupation of Iraq and the Israeli occupation of Palestine, why would he imagine that the Arab revolutionaries who rose against their oppressors would be natural allies of the US?
Hossam el-Hamalawy is an Egyptian journalist from Cairo. In a piece he wrote for the London Guardian, March 2, he examines recent history and traces the growth of the Egyptian revolution.
He concludes that the revolution the Arabs are conducting for their own personal freedom is directly related to the growing outrage younger protestors feel about the treatment of the Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.
I recall the first time I heard protesters en masse chanting against [President Mubarak] in April 2002, during the pro-Palestinian riots around Cairo University. Battling the notorious central security forces, protesters were chanting in Arabic: “Hosni Mubarak is just like [Ariel] Sharon.”
The anger was to explode on an even larger scale with the outbreak of the war on Iraq in March 2003. More than 30,000 Egyptians fought the police in downtown Cairo, briefly taking over Tahrir Square, and burning down Mubarak’s billboard.
The scenes aired by al-Jazeera and other satellite networks of the Palestinian revolt or the US-led onslaught on Iraq inspired activists across Egypt to pull down the wall of fear brick by brick. . . . .
In April 2008, a mini revolt took place in the city of Mahalla over the price of bread. Security forces put down the uprising in two days, leaving at least three dead and hundreds detained and tortured.
The scenes from what became known as the “Mahalla intifada” could have constituted a dress rehearsal for what happened in 2011, with protesters taking down Mubarak’s posters, battling the police troops in the streets, and challenging the symbols of the much-hated National Democratic party. . . . .
The uprising that started on 25 January 2011 was the result of a long process in which the wall of fear fell, bit by bit. The key to it all was that the actions on the ground were visually transmitted to the widest possible audience.
Nothing aids the erosion of one’s fear more than knowing there are others, somewhere else, who share the same desire for liberation – and have started taking action.
The photo of Sanaa protestors in Yemen, is from the Associated Press. It ran on the Baheyya blog.