The voice of the street has been a bugle cry this year. You heard it. Everyone did, but the rulers who thought their power was the only power that mattered, heard it last and with dismay. Many of them are nervous now, releasing political prisoners, lowering the price of food, and otherwise trying to tamp down uprisings.
There were three kinds of surprise about this year's unfinished revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, and the rumblings elsewhere that have frightened the mighty from Saudi Arabia to China, Algeria to Bahrain. The West was surprised that the Arab world, which we have regularly been told is medieval, hierarchical, and undemocratic, was full of young men and women using their cell phones, their Internet access, and their bodies in streets and squares to foment change and temporarily live a miracle of direct democracy and people power. And then there is the surprise that the seemingly unshakeable regimes of the strongmen were shaken into pieces.
And finally, there is always the surprise of: Why now? Why did the crowd decide to storm the Bastille on July 14, 1789, and not any other day? The bread famine going on in France that year and the rising cost of food had something to do with it, as hunger and poverty does with many of the Middle Eastern uprisings today, but part of the explanation remains mysterious. Why this day and not a month earlier or a decade later? Or never instead of now?
Oscar Wilde once remarked, "To expect the unexpected shows a thoroughly modern intellect." This profound uncertainty has been the grounds for my own hope.
Hindsight is 20/20, they say, and you can tell stories where it all makes sense. A young Tunisian college graduate, Mohammed Bouazizi, who could find no better work than selling produce from a cart on the street, was so upset by his treatment at the hands of a policewoman that he set himself afire on December 17, 2010. His death two weeks later became the match that lit the country afire—but why that death? Or why the death of Khaled Said, an Egyptian youth who exposed police corruption and was beaten to death for it? He got a Facebook page that said "We are all Khaled Said," and his death, too, was a factor in the uprisings to come.
But when exactly do the abuses that have been tolerated for so long become intolerable? When does the fear evaporate and the rage generate action that produces joy? After all, Tunisia and Egypt were not short on intolerable situations and tragedies before Bouazizi's self-immolation and Said's murder.
Thich Quang Duc burned himself to death at an intersection in Saigon on June 11, 1963, to protest the treatment of Buddhists by the US-backed government of South Vietnam. His stoic composure while in flames was widely seen and may have helped produce a military coup against the regime six months later—a change, but not necessarily a liberation. In between that year and this one, many people have fasted, prayed, protested, gone to prison, and died to call attention to cruel regimes, with little or no measurable consequence.
Guns and Butterflies
The boiling point of water is straightforward, but the boiling point of societies is mysterious. Bouazizi's death became a catalyst, and at his funeral the 5,000 mourners chanted, "Farewell, Mohammed, we will avenge you. We weep for you today, we will make those who caused your death weep."
But his was not the first Tunisian gesture of denunciation. An even younger man, the rap artist who calls himself El General, uploaded a song about the horror of poverty and injustice in the country and, as the Guardian put it, "within hours, the song had lit up the bleak and fearful horizon like an incendiary bomb." Or a new dawn. The artist was arrested and interrogated for three very long days, and then released thanks to widespread protest. And surely before him we could find another milestone. And another young man being subjected to inhuman conditions. And behind the uprising in Egypt are a panoply of union and human rights organizers as well as charismatic individuals.
This has been a great year for the power of the powerless and for the courage and determination of the young. A short, fair-haired, mild man even younger than Bouazizi has been held under extreme conditions in solitary confinement in a Marine brig in Quantico, Virginia, for the last several months. He is charged with giving hundreds of thousands of secret US documents to WikiLeaks and so unveiling some of the more compromised and unsavory operations of the American military and US diplomacy. Bradley Manning was a 22-year-old soldier stationed in Iraq when he was arrested last spring. The acts he's charged with have changed the global political landscape and fed the outrage in the Middle East.
As Foreign Policy put it in a headline, "In one fell swoop, the candor of the cables released by WikiLeaks did more for Arab democracy than decades of backstage US diplomacy." The cables suggested, among other things, that the US was not going to back Tunisian dictator Ben Ali to the bitter end, and that the regime's corruption was common knowledge.
Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story, a 1958 comic book about the Civil Rights struggle in the American South and the power of nonviolence was translated and distributed by the American Islamic Council in the Arab world in 2008 and has been credited with influencing the insurgencies of 2011. So the American Islamic Council played a role, too—a role definitely not being investigated by anti-Muslim Congressman Peter King in his hearings on the "radicalization of Muslims in America." Behind King are the lessons he, in turn, learned from Mohandas Gandhi, whose movement liberated India from colonial rule 66 years ago, and so the story comes back to the east.
Causes are Russian dolls. You can keep opening each one up and find another one behind it. WikiLeaks and Facebook and Twitter and the new media helped in 2011, but new media had been around for years. Asmaa Mahfouz was a young Egyptian woman who had served time in prison for using the Internet to organize a protest on April 6, 2008, to support striking workers. With astonishing courage, she posted a video of herself on Facebook on January 18, 2011, in which she looked into the camera and said, with a voice of intense conviction:
"Four Egyptians have set themselves on fire to protest humiliation and hunger and poverty and degradation they had to live with for 30 years. Four Egyptians have set themselves on fire thinking maybe we can have a revolution like Tunisia, maybe we can have freedom, justice, honor, and human dignity. Today, one of these four has died, and I saw people commenting and saying, 'May God forgive him. He committed a sin and killed himself for nothing.' People, have some shame."
She described an earlier demonstration at which few had shown up: "I posted that I, a girl, am going down to Tahrir Square, and I will stand alone. And I'll hold up a banner. Perhaps people will show some honor. No one came except three guys—three guys and three armored cars of riot police. And tens of hired thugs and officers came to terrorize us."
Mahfouz called for the gathering in Tahrir Square on January 25th that became the Egyptian revolution. The second time around she didn't stand alone. Eighty-five thousand Egyptians pledged to attend, and soon enough, millions stood with her.
The revolution was called by a young woman with nothing more than a Facebook account and passionate conviction. They were enough. Often, revolution has had such modest starts. On October 5, 1789, a girl took a drum to the central markets of Paris. The storming of the Bastille a few months before had started, but hardly completed, a revolution. That drummer girl helped gather a mostly female crowd of thousands who marched to Versailles and seized the royal family. It was the end of the Bourbon monarchy.
Women often find great roles in revolution, simply because the rules fall apart and everyone has agency, anyone can act. As they did in Egypt, where liberty leading the masses was an earnest young woman in a black veil.
That the flapping of a butterfly's wings in Brazil can shape the weather in Texas is a summation of chaos theory that is now an oft-repeated cliché. But there are billions of butterflies on earth, all flapping their wings. Why does one gesture matter more than another? Why this Facebook post, this girl with a drum?
Even to try to answer this you'd have to say that the butterfly is born aloft by a particular breeze that was shaped by the flap of the wing of, say, a sparrow, and so behind causes are causes, behind small agents are other small agents, inspirations, and role models, as well as outrages to react against. The point is not that causation is unpredictable and erratic. The point is that butterflies and sparrows and young women in veils and an unknown 20-year-old rapping in Arabic and you yourself, if you wanted it, sometimes have tremendous power, enough to bring down a dictator, enough to change the world.
Other Selves, Other Lives
2011 has already been a remarkable year in which a particular kind of humanity appeared again and again in very different places, and we will see a great deal more of it in Japan before that catastrophe is over. Perhaps its first appearance was at the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson on January 8th, where the lone gunman was countered by several citizens who took remarkable action, none more so than Giffords's new intern, 20-year-old Daniel Martinez, who later said, "It was probably not the best idea to run toward the gunshots. But people needed help."
Martinez reached the congresswoman's side and probably saved her life by administering first aid, while 61-year-old Patricia Maisch grabbed the magazine so the shooter couldn't reload, and 74-year-old Bill Badger helped wrestle him to the ground, though he'd been grazed by a bullet. One elderly man died because he shielded his wife rather than protect himself.
Everything suddenly changed and those people rose to the occasion heroically not in the hours, days, or weeks a revolution gives, but within seconds. More sustained acts of bravery and solidarity would make the revolutions to come. People would risk their lives and die for their beliefs and for each other. And in killing them, regimes would lose their last shreds of legitimacy.
Violence always seems to me the worst form of tyranny. It deprives people of their rights, including the right to live. The rest of the year so far has been dominated by battles against the tyrannies that have sometimes cost lives and sometimes just ground down those lives into poverty and indignity, from Bahrain to Madison, Wisconsin.
Yes, to Madison. I have often wondered if the United States could catch fire the way other countries sometimes do. The public space and spirit of Argentina or Egypt often seem missing here, for what changes in revolution is largely spirit, emotion, belief—intangible things, as delicate as butterfly wings, but our world is made of such things. They matter. The governors govern by the consent of the governed. When they lose that consent, they resort to violence, which can stop some people directly, but aims to stop most of us through the power of fear.
And then sometimes a young man becomes fearless enough to post a song attacking the dictator who has ruled all his young life. Or people sign a declaration like Charter 77, the 1977 Czech document that was a milestone on the way to the revolutions of 1989, as well as a denunciation of the harassment of an underground rock band called the Plastic People of the Universe. Or a group of them found a labor union on the waterfront in Gdansk, Poland, in 1980, and the first cracks appear in the Soviet Empire.
Those who are not afraid are ungovernable, at least by fear, that favorite tool of the bygone era of George W. Bush. Jonathan Schell, with his usual beautiful insight, saw this when he wrote of the uprising in Tahrir Square:
"The murder of the 300 people, it may be, was the event that sealed Mubarak's doom. When people are afraid, murders make them take flight. But when they have thrown off fear, murders have the opposite effect and make them bold. Instead of fear, they feel solidarity. Then they 'stay'—and advance. And there is no solidarity like solidarity with the dead. That is the stuff of which revolution is made."
When a revolution is made, people suddenly find themselves in a changed state—of mind and of nation. The ordinary rules are suspended, and people become engaged with each other in new ways, and develop a new sense of power and possibility. People behave with generosity and altruism; they find they can govern themselves; and, in many ways, the government simply ceases to exist. A few days into the Egyptian revolution, Ben Wedeman, CNN's senior correspondent in Cairo, was asked why things had calmed down in the Egyptian capital. He responded: "[T]hings have calmed down because there is no government here," pointing out that security forces had simply disappeared from the streets.