Mutual Solidarity and New Nonviolent Campaigns on the 2nd Anniversary of the Egyptian Revolution
by Matt Meyer
Amid high-level Cabinet shuffles among Egypt’s ruling elite, and negotiations with the International Monetary Fund for billions of dollars of loans, the casual international observer can easily forget that in late December popular demonstrations filled the streets of Alexandria and Cairo’s Tahrir Square. As January 25, 2013 marks the second anniversary of the dramatic protests at Tahrir, Egyptians are well aware that this year is far more than a symbolic anniversary; it is a time to focus attention on the new phase of the struggle which must be intensified.
In the days before Christmas 2012, opposition activists staged pro-democracy protests against the controversial constitution, which legalizes military trials against civilians and removes the only article defending gender equality. As “Made in the U.S.A.” tear gas was used to disrupt the popular mobilizations, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi espoused the use of repressive police tactics, stating that “defending the homeland” must include breaking up civil resistance actions when the possibility exists that those actions might go beyond strictly nonviolent tactics so praised at the onset of the “Arab Spring.”
With reports of gatherings into the hundreds of thousands following the announcement of extensive new presidential powers (including immunity from judicial oversight), there is little chance that the question of tactical violence was a major concern for the overwhelming majority of demonstrators. The hundreds of injuries suffered as 2012 came to a close were the result of the “palpable” increase — in the words of one constitutional researcher — of a military presence which is routinely used to “maintain order” when the authority of those in power is threatened. These recent events underscore a critical theme raised by some long-term activists throughout the past year: the dramatic actions of 2011 may have gotten rid of a dictator, but they did not rid Egypt of the system of dictatorship.
The root cause of the violence in Egypt today is the continued economic and social inequalities maintained by a government as reliant on militarism as its predecessor. But the struggle for basic human rights and an end to dictatorship continues to grow, with a decidedly anti-militarist political emphasis. The record number of new trade union and labor organizations, waging forceful and militant strikes, have for example, been a central feature of civil society since the 2011 ouster of Hosni Mubarak. But the first “post revolution” union of dock workers from the vital port of Suez was formed in response to an act which clearly linked the movement for democracy with more general peace movement concerns. Customs officer Asma Mohammed of Adabiya refused to process a seven-ton shipment of tear gas being sent to bolster the Egyptian regime from its manufacturer in Jamestown, Pennsylvania and shipper in Wilmington, North Carolina.
“The Arab people now want to be the decision makers,” noted Mohammed. “We want our rulers to know that we are the ones that are going to influence things… I said ‘No, I refuse — because I don’t want to be the cause of someone’s pain or death.’ In solidarity with me, or with the cause, my co-workers said ‘No, we’re not going to work on it either.’” Her actions, and the subsequent work of the General Independent Union of Port Workers, won them the 2012 Peace Award of the War Resisters League (WRL), who stated that while so many say “I was just following orders” or “I was just doing my job,” the act of nonviolent resistance helped break Egypt’s cycle of violence at least temporarily.
WRL has initiated a major international campaign against the use of tear gas and other repressive apparatus, mostly U.S.-made products which can only be used as tools of dispersal and attack. A new Global Tear Gas Network has formed, calling for a global ban of the use of these chemical sprays and an end to the sale and shipment of related products. The Network already has active members from Bahrain, Palestine, Ireland, Chile, Canada, the U.K., the U.S., and Egypt. Human rights activist blogger and Tahrir Square camper Shimaa Helmy is one such member who has stressed the importance of united action and mutual support. While on a visit to the U.S. at the end of 2011, she joined a California-based Veterans March Against Police Brutality as a means of making the connections concerning abuse of power and authority. Samah Selim, another activist who has been involved in movement-building in both Egypt and the U.S., posted her experiences on the Network’s tumblr site: “I was gassed with CS (one of the most widely used type of gas) in Tahrir Square on November 23, 2011. Blindness, skin on fire, utter panic. Down with the Police State!” The Campaign’s story-telling project, Facing Tear Gas, is designed to foster a cross-border collaborative spirit, much more than simply a sentimental commemoration.
War Resisters League program staff member Ali Issa noted that tear gas was a uniquely political product, used to disrupt popular protests and public mobilizations and to discourage democratic, nonviolent expressions of dissent. “By focusing on those who seek to profit off of the repression of others,” Issa explained, “the campaign hopes to make the companies involved in tear gas production feel the force of the entire human rights community.” Building a truly international effort, with grassroots activists sharing experiences and strategies across boundaries, the campaign is building a new model of what global peace work might look like. “As I learned on a recent trip to Egypt,” Issa reflected, “the revolutionary process there is on every city wall and every other person’s lips. There is widespread understanding that significant gains have already been achieved. Many — from media collectives, independent unions to youth formations and formal political parties — are now talking about making alternative political programs a big priority. They are committed to maintaining public pressure against the attempts to roll back the revolution.
“This is a key moment for movements of the world to build concretely with these Egyptian efforts, to give and to receive in a spirit of mutual solidarity.”
Matt Meyer is an educator-activist, based in New York City, and serves as convener of the War Resisters International Africa Working Group. His recent books include Guns and Gandhi in Africa: Pan-African Insights on Nonviolence, Armed Struggle and Liberation (Africa World Press, 2000), the two-volume collection Seeds of New Hope: Pan African Peace Studies for the 21st Century (Africa World Press, 2008, 2010), and Let Freedom Ring: A Collection of Documents from the Movements to Free U. S. Political Prisoners (PM Press, 2008). Meyer is a contributing member of the Editorial Advisory Board for New Clear Vision.