Monday, February 07, 2011

Protest Against Egypt's Dictator in San Francisco

(2/5/11) Greg Lyons converted to Buddhism several years ago. He is in downtown San Francisco on a spring-like day to take part in the demonstration against Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. “Our intentions are important,” he says. “They are the seeds of reality.” He is optimistic that people power will prevail in Egypt after decades of dictatorship. “But change must come from within. If America tries to bring about the change that Egyptians are dying for, it will be a disaster. They must do it themselves.”

One reason why grassroots revolution is sweeping the Arab world is the enormous income gap between the rich and the poor. “Do you think that kind of class struggle can happen here in the U.S.?” I ask Greg.

“What do you mean can it happen here?” he asks back. “It’s already happening! Just look around you, a few blocks from here, and you can see how many Americans have become destitute. We have become one of the most unjust societies in the world.”

We chant slogans - 1,000 Americans strong - who have gathered at the United Nations Plaza. “Down, Down, Hosni Mubarak! Yasqut, Yasqut, Hosni Mubarak!”

Jack Kornfield also feels strongly that Egyptians must take control of their own destiny. The soft-spoken person becomes agitated when he talks about how the U.S. may undermine the aspirations of Egyptians. “U.S. has got to stay out. I am confident Egypt will find its own way. People on the streets of Cairo and other cities are smarter than the people in Washington.”

Hassan, an Egyptian, is a doctoral student in a California University. He is grateful to Tunisians for showing the way but believes that since Egypt is a bigger and more “critical country,” the revolution must succeed in his homeland for other Arab countries to emulate. He wants the new government to stop selling Egyptian land to foreign investors, as Mubarak’s government has been doing. “The king and his corrupt cronies fatten their pockets while the poor become poorer!”

“No justice, no peace,” exhorts an organizer from the makeshift dais, and we respond in unison.

Farida, a young Egyptian student, narrates how she tried to get her voter card in Cairo last November to vote in the parliamentary elections but was harassed and intimidated at every step of the way. An officer at the police station asked her, “Who are you going to vote for?” Emboldened by a friend who threatened to bring a lawyer, the officer quickly changed his tune and gave her the voting card. But many of her friends got the runaround for weeks until they gave up in frustration. (The election was, as usual, completely rigged by Mubarak and his minions.) These young people have never known anyone other than Mubarak as their ruler. They felt defeated, until they saw what happened in Tunisia. Everyone cheered when Farida said January 25 would be the most important day in the history of modern Egypt.

Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, women, men, babies in strollers and veterans in wheelchairs, the young, the old, Imams, Rabbis and Priests filled the Plaza. Colorful signs sprouted everywhere: “Stop U.S. Military Aid to Egypt,” “Buddhist, Jews in solidarity with the Muslim and Christian People of Egypt,” “Mubarak in De-Nile, Get Out!,” “Ali Baba is Gone. What about the Forty Thieves?” “DeNile Ain’t Just a River in Egypt,” “Dying for Something is Better than Living for Nothing,” and many more.

Maryam Bin Salah, a doctoral student from Tunisia asks in wonder: “Just two months ago, could you have dared to dream that two dictators would fall? Why are we ruled by trash in Arab countries? All our thinkers and scholars and engineers are either in exile or in prison. Why? Why are we treated so badly? We must rid our countries of dictators so our inventors and our best minds can return and rebuild our nations.”

Imam Abdul Aziz of Sacramento, an Egyptian, asks us to put pressure on the White House to make the right decision. “Just think,” he said, “the revolution is raging for the 12th straight day. There is uncertainty, sure, but what is certain is that the brave people of Tunisia and Egypt have already prevailed. All supporters of democracy have prevailed. Even after Mubarak is forced to resign, people will remain in the streets until true democracy rules. We have a chance to become a developed country rather than remain frozen as a third world country.”

The Imam chokes with emotion but recovers: “I have a cousin, a young fellow, in Tahrir Square right now. He has never had an aim in life, frittering away his time in frivolous pursuits. I just spoke to him. He told me, ‘I will die for my country until we have democracy and rule of law.’ The revolution is changing hearts. Some are already swayed by the crocodile tears of Mubarak. ‘Give him a chance,’ they say. ‘The economy will be destroyed. Old people are not getting their pension. The sick are not getting their medicine.’ All I can say to them is: Shut up! We have been in prison for 30 years. The thugs have stolen $70 billion of our money that are now in the banks in Switzerland and France and England. Egyptians will stay on the streets until their demands are met!”

Tim Paulson, a labor union representative tells the gathering that Americans must learn from Egyptians “so we know how to secure our own rights here in America. We must remain vigilant until Egyptians can live their dreams. Mubarak is only four hours from Saudi Arabia. Enough is enough. Get out!”

A new slogan reverberates around the Plaza:
Ben Ali Yesterday, Mubarak Today,
Qaddafi Tomorrow!

Mo, an activist with the Jewish Voice for Peace ( - Israelis and Palestinians. Two people. One Future), told me: “It is not for presidents and kings to give people their freedom. Freedom is God’s gift to people. We must be united together.”

Israel has expressed anxiety about democracy coming to Egypt. Why is that?” I ask. Mo sighs. “Because it is easy,” he says, “for Israel to engage in the politics of fear. Israel must act like a country in the Middle East and not as if it is a transplant of the West. It will be good for Israel if democracy comes to Arab countries.”

Mo wants the U.S. to do everything it can to let democracy bloom in the Middle East instead of promoting its candidates in the name of stability. “Jews and Muslims are not separate,” he said. “We are united by a common future.” He is sure that the last pharaoh will soon go. “Coddling dictators has been the U.S. policy. That has to change. All this talk about the Brotherhood coming to power is a tactic to create anxiety and undermine the revolution of the people.”

“O Mubarak can’t you see, Time to join Ben Ali.” The rhyming slogans are catchy and energizing and make us smile.

More people are pouring in. I realize with a shock that three hours have already passed. When stories and images of oppressed people breaking free from their oppressors grip us, time becomes inconsequential.

People sitting on the fences say that demonstrations, rallies and protest marches don’t change anything. What they don’t understand is that, at the very least, they change the participants in subtle and significant ways. Change without can come only from change within.

What Tunisians have achieved, and Egyptians are poised to achieve, is nothing short of miraculous. It’s still a long way to freedom and democracy but the first steps have been taken. The least we can do is show them, “We are with you, all the way!”

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