As the media, politicians, diplomats, think tanks and ordinary citizens commented on the demonstrations in Egypt prior to Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, it seemed the only thing non-participants like me could do was to watch and wait. Those events were an ocean and a continent away. I knew only one person with any familiarity with Egypt. She was a Ugandan refugee, who made it to the southern Sudan, worked for the United Nations in the Sudan in a medical supportive capacity, eventually got a scholarship to go the University of Cairo where she stayed for several years. That, and some reading, including ancient Bible stories, was the extent of my knowledge about Egypt.
And yet there was something inspiring about a large group of people who believed they could affect the way their country was run. One lesson and an interesting feature of these events surely was the level of public participation.
In Canada, what we call an unstable political environment, is clearly a very relative turn of phrase when we compare ourselves to what is happening in Egypt. Perhaps because of the comfort and complacency of living here, it had not occurred to me until the recent events in Egypt, that revolt and revolution has changed much of the world. Those historical events are filed away somewhere in dusty academic archives, available to history students. They are not even a vague or distant memory and clearly not discussed or spoken of. And perhaps we are fortunate not to have a history of revolt or revolution in Canada.
Yet our neighbours to the south, did fight a revolutionary war of independence, a decade or so before the French revolution. In the last century, the Russian revolution of 1917 massively altered the face of Russia and eastern Europe. Despite the collapse of the Soviet Union the effects of that revolution are still felt today. The Chinese revolution, despite its gradual morphing in an atypical capitalist state, clearly has had profound effects. Indeed from Nepal, to Ethiopia, to Nicaragua, to Cuba, the reverberations from these events are still felt.
All of which leads me to wonder how accustomed we are, perhaps because of our history, to gradual, incremental, often extremely slow political reform and change. I wonder if this state of affairs reflects the level of our public participation in politics. Perhaps we are not needy enough or angry enough or fearless enough to become more politically involved, unlike the Egyptian demonstrators.
Of course increased public involvement will not guarantee quick or effective change. The fact that a 30-year-old oppressive regime has ended in Egypt does not guarantee a democratic outcome. But it is a start.
The human tendency to cling to power beyond what is good for a country is certainly part of any political equation; so clearly too are the aspirations of ordinary people who in the three weeks of demonstrations in Tahrir Square and beyond have shown collectively how badly they want the rights and freedoms we in Canada often take for granted.