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Breaking News Egypt: People Power and US

2 February 2011 3 Comments

Cairo January 2011 Photo Credit: Felice Gelman

by Patricia Smith Melton
Founder, Peace X Peace
Editor, Sixty Years, Sixty Voices: Israeli and Palestinian Women

“Power is a mighty magnet for the human psyche to distort and indulge. People suffer. And one day they rise, en masse. That day in Egypt is now.”

***

Just as the protests of the people of Egypt reached critical mass last week, Peace X Peace was launching Connection Point, our initiative to raise the voices and spread the wisdom of Arab and Muslim women to everyone in the Internet world, which is most of us.  We commit to support Arab and Muslim women—and Western women and men who want to support others. Together we can lessen entrenched stereotypes, create mutual good, connect, and become friends. The Web is the medium, people are the way, and women are needed as leaders.

On the Connection Point announcement I am quoted as saying that the divide between Islamic nations and the West is our “world’s wound.” Yet, this chasm is not nearly so large as the divide between people who are working for democracies that include others of different beliefs and people of extremes who wish to dictate their beliefs and behaviors to others.

This larger chasm splits both Islamic and non-Islamic nations. As I see it, we are in a global struggle between forces for moderation, empathy, reasonableness, and sanity and forces of fear, ignorance, confusion, and anger.  In all cases, working with and through women is essential for managing conflicts and healing cultures.

Women go to the heart of the matter and the hearts of people. Women are—admit it and claim it!—usually better than men at cleaning up messes, getting up each day and doing what needs to be done, balancing complex emotions and situations, and recognizing that getting even often gets in the way of getting better lives—and most women have internal radar that connects into empathy rather than “fight or flight.”

Until a couple weeks ago I was to be in Cairo now with a small group of CODEPINK activists on our way to meet with Palestinians in Gaza. Instead I am in Iowa with my 93-year-old mother. I take her to her room at the care center, stopping with her as she checks on all her neighbors.  As we walk down the hall, text messages come to me that jets just flew over the Egyptian protestors and that the offices of Al Jazeera have been shut down. The group going to Gaza are stuck in Cairo. They send first person accounts to Peace X Peace that we post to the world. We are all intertwined.

Cairo January 2011 Photo credit: Felice Gelman

“Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The exceptions to this rule are enshrined in our minds. They are rare indeed. Typically we see heads of state—or people closer to home—who exemplify this rule. Power is a mighty magnet for the human psyche to distort and indulge. People suffer. And one day they rise, en masse. That day in Egypt is now.

History is being made that will change the overt and covert relationships in the Middle East, throughout the Muslim world, and across the world. Who will emerge as the new power players in the largest Arab nation? If there is a military takeover, what will that look like? Historically, within a few weeks military takeovers become repressive military dictatorships that kill citizens for years. That’s the pattern. Would the Egyptian military be nicer than others?

Maybe the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood will come out on top. This prospect sends chills through most of the Western world and Israel, and many Arab and Muslim nations. Would this split the global communities of Muslims more than they are now?  Would it set nation against nation, or divide people within nations? How would it affect the future of the West Bank, of Gaza, of Israel?  And, one more pertinent question being raised: does the West overestimate how fundamental or extreme the Brotherhood is, and maybe over-react? We in the West have not been astute in judging which side to back in other nation’s conflicts. We have given arms to people who turn against us and isolated people who have reached out for cooperation. Have we learned anything?

Overwhelmingly, we support and are inspired by the populist movement and want a representative democracy to emerge in Egypt. We envision “common people” rising on the belief that there are “truths to be self-evident that all men [and women, please] are created equal … and have unalienable rights” for a government “of the people, by the people, for the people.” Reading the biography of John Adams by David McCullough, I am aware that making that real in the U.S. was tedious, harrowing, hard-won, took time, and barely slipped through. It wasn’t fast, easy, or obvious.

Yet, perhaps, a democracy may emerge in Egypt, and the precious, long, tedious (even as inspiring), job of building a democracy run by civil society may begin. Maybe the light of freedom will have a unifying power for the Egyptian people that can surmount the vested interests of either the military or fundamentalist religious groups who must feel the pull of power. The potential of power to corrupt is there from the beginning.

Cairo January 2011 Photo credit: Felice Gelman

Building a civil society that knows how to rule itself takes time. Evolution is more complex than a revolution. It changes a culture’s DNA without the adrenaline rush. We must be patient, helpful, and reasoning. We must voice and show our support in ways that we can. As President Obama said earlier last week, we must “constantly widen the circle of our concern.”

Widening the circle means to me that we must recognize not only that building a true democracy is a gradual work of vigilance and purpose, but that humans are works in progress. This is essential to empathy, and empathy is what joins us into the community of humans.

Then comes responsibility. Responsibility is a verb, the action of bringing substance to empathy.  Without substance in real time, our empathy may feel sincere but it is actually avoidance of our responsibility to help others, to be a grown up. It is why my mother pushes her walker up to the man in the wheelchair and asks, “Do you need anything?”

The world would answer my mother that, “Yes, we need something.” The world needs something outside our front doors and outside national boundaries.  We all need something.  We need each other.

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3 Comments to “Breaking News Egypt: People Power and US”
  1. April Van Matre says:

    I can leave a comment, commending your work,but what can I DO? I wish there were something a little old lady on a fixed income could do to help you wonderful women in your goals. God bless us all.

    One thing I do believe is that it is the black woman that will lead America back to God, because I believe that’s the segment of society that has the most belief and faith. And the black woman is not afraid to speak out. I think of Pres. Obama’s mother-in-law as I write. She and women like her can and, I pray, will lead this nation back to God, wake up their faith and let us return to sanity. This a.m. I heard the president speak at his prayer breakfast. I am sorry he has to do this to prove he is christian,(can only christians run for pres.) but I appreciate that any awareness of God is a good awareness.

  2. patricia smith says:

    April, I am touched by your message and observations. I, too, have immense faith in no-nonsense black women.

    And I have faith in women like you, too, who observe carefully and speak out. “Little old ladies on fixed incomes” are a very powerful segment of our population. Keep letting the world hear your voice — and connect with Arab and Muslim women on our Connection Point initiative that is starting this week. It will grow if we work together.

  3. Mary Liepold says:

    Thanks, Patricia–especially for being brave enough to question the received assumptions. I too, wonder sometimes if we have learned anything at all from a long, bloody history.

    And I loved that Adams bio too. The ending–which I won’t spoil for you–is particularly delicious. Like the ending of this blog!

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