Wading through agendas looking for the truth

Thousands protest in Egypt

People across Egypt took to the streets on Tuesday in demonstrations against corruption and failing economic policies, rallies partly inspired by similar protests that rocked Tunisia this month.

Thousands were protesting in the capital of Cairo, according to the “Front to Defend Egypt Protesters,” an alliance of lawyers who helped organize the events.

The burning men saga is continuing, demonstrators are in the streets in Lebanon, Egypt and Algeria.  There is tension, but most of the demonstrations are relatively small, contained by the police or military by governments very aware of the flash point that brought the place of Carthage down. But all demonstrations are not created equally – nor do they all mean the same thing.

I have followed the news in the Middle East since 2001; after the events of September 11th and the American attacks on Afghanistan, I realized that even though I have lived in the region once, I didn’t really understand its history and certainly not its major religion; Islam.  Since, I have read hundreds of books, watched many movies and documentaries and for many years have read the English language press from the countries in the region and the two or three major pan-Arabic media outlets.  I am not certain I understand much more about the history, religion or politics than I did 10 years ago.  But it does give me a different perspective that most western media outlets.  Today, I found that includes some BBC reporters.  I was listening to the BBC on radio reporting from Cairo on the demonstrations in that city and around the country.  The interviewer was treating the reporter as an expert in the region and as an eyewitness to the events – he may have been both, but I could not see how; sputtering with annoyance I sat down to write this.

The BBC reporter characterized the movement and the participants in terms that made no sense to me at all.  I have watched a few videos of the events in Egypt and like the reporter I was watching the crowd, looking for indications of age, gender, religious political affiliations and other characteristics that might indicate who they were and more important as we are learning in Lebanon, who their backers are.  The BBC reporter saw young and middle class people, most male, rather like a French student demonstration, a limited and even marginalized segment of Egyptian society.  I saw something very different; what I saw was a crowd with a higher than normal mix of women, women from all walks of life and ages.  The men, were of course the majority,  were both young and old and from mixed social and economic backgrounds – to me it looked like a true reflection of Egyptian society.  They all one thing in common, they wanted a new governmental approach to social problems in general – some thought a new government, but not everyone thought that was necessary – mostly they wanted more jobs, more opportunity, less political restriction and an end to the state of emergency that has existed for decades.

In the west we use broad terms and concepts for the entire region, in general we fail to discriminate between nationalities, religious sects and political parties. And as the saying goes, “the devil is in the details” and the differences significant.  So while demonstrators are in the streets in several countries, the nature of the demonstrations is not the same.   At the moment, Lebanon is very politicized – the demonstrations are part of a battle between political parties for control of the government.  But at the moment, from what I saw, in Egypt the demonstrations are not political or religious, they are social; the official government newspaper and the Muslim Brotherhood paper both describe the demonstrators in much the same terms, broadly mixed and frustrated.

Al-Ahram, the government paper, gave several accounts of the demonstrations, but as one would expect emphasized that they were illegal as no permit had been issued to demonstrate,  but they were relatively peaceful – two people have died so far, a police officer and a demonstrator.  The main story from Al-Ahram was about the conviction and death sentence of the leader of the attack on the Coptic church – citing the conviction as important in proving the government was not going to tolerate religious extremism.  Al-Ahram also reported on a meeting of Arab states taking place at the same time; the organization was supporting initiatives to create jobs and opportunities for young people and recognizing that unemployment and the high cost of food were creating social unrest through the region.

The Ikwan, the Muslim brotherhood organ, also emphasizing the lack of permits, but blamed the government for refusing to issue them, at the same time stating that the demonstrators were not members of that organization.

The Egyptian Daily, an independent newspaper, had may stories covering a variety of aspects of the situation; the Daily related it directly to Tunisia – quoting one demonstrator as say; “If the people of Tunisia can do it, so can we.”  And what would that “it” be?  A change in administrations and some loosing of political restrictions.  Large rallies of highly energized people seeking political change was the way the Daily characterized the events – not much different from the descriptions I have read of Obama, Tea Party, Sarah Palin or any of another mass political gatherings in this country before the last election.  We have been thinking terrorism and religious extremism for too long when viewing the Middle East, we have to be careful not over use our metaphors.  That was more problem with the BBC reporter, he thought he was reporting from Iraq or Gaza and forgot to open his eyes and his mind and really look at what was happening in the streets – that was how Al-Ahram characterized the regional unrest – the Arab Street – is frustrated and dissatisfying with unemployment, food prices and political restrictions.  They want to work, not fight.


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