Originally appeared in the Huffington Post on 2/14/2011
A specter is haunting Africa and the Middle East – the specter of an awesome army of youths on the move, in revolt, marching for freedom, chanting for democracy and dying for human rights and human dignity. Millions of youths are standing up and demanding dictators to stand down and leave town. They are fed up with despotism, totalitarianism, absolutism, authoritarianism, monarchism, fascism and terrorism. They are sick and tired of being told to wait and wait and wait as their future fades into nothingness. They are sick and tired of being sick and tired. Youths rose up like the morning sun to brighten the long dark night of dictatorship in Tunisia and Egypt. They dictated to the great dictators: “Mubarak, irhal (go away).” “Degage, Ben Ali!” (Get out, Ben Ali!). When Mubarak refused to budge like a bloodsucking tick on a milk cow, they brandished their shoes and cried out, “Mubarak, you are a shoe!” (a stinging insult in Arab culture). Mubarak finally got the point. He saw 85 million pairs of shoes pointed at his rear end. In a 30-second announcement, the House of Mubarak dissolved into the dust bin of history.
The Beautiful Egyptian Youth Revolution
What makes the Egyptian youth revolution so beautiful, wonderful, absorbing, hypnotizing and inspiring is that they did it with moral courage, steadfast determination and without resorting to violence even when violence was visited upon them by Mubarak’s thugs. They did not fire a single shot, as Mubarak’s thugs massacred 300 of their own and jailed several thousands more. Egypt’s youths fought their battles in the streets of Cairo, Alexandria and elsewhere, but they won their war against dictatorship and for freedom, democracy and human rights in the hearts and minds of their people. How they went about winning their revolution is a testament to a people whose civilization is the cradle of human civilization. They transformed their oppression-seared nation into a molten steel of freedom-loving humanity: Muslims and Christians prayed together in Tahrir Square for the end of the dark days of dictatorship and the beginning of a new dawn of freedom. Civilians held hands with soldiers who were sent out to shoot them. Religious revivalists locked arms with secularists, socialists and others to demand change. Rich and poor embraced each other in common cause. Young and old marched together day and night; and men and women of all ages raised their arms in defiance chanting, “Mubarak, irhal.”
Victory of Courage Over Fear
For 30 years, Mubarak ruled with fear and an iron fist under a State of Emergency. He established a vast network of secret police, spies, informants and honor guards to make sure he stayed in power and his opposition decimated. Under an emergency law (Law No. 162 of 1958), Mubarak exercised unlimited powers. He banned any real opposition political activity and unapproved political organizations, prohibited street demonstrations, arrested critics and dissidents and clamped down on all he thought posed a threat to his rule. Mubarak had the power to imprison anyone for any reason, at any time and for any period of time without trial. Some he tried in kangaroo military courts and sentenced them to long prison terms. Mubarak held an estimated 20,000 persons under the emergency law and the number of political prisoners in Egypt is estimated at 30,000. Mubarak’s brutal (secret) police are responsible for the disappearance, torture, rape and killing of thousands of pro-democracy campaigners and innocent people. A cable sent to Washington by the US ambassador to Cairo in 2009 revealed: “Torture and police brutality in Egypt are endemic and widespread. The police use brutal methods mostly against common criminals to extract confessions, but also against demonstrators, certain political prisoners and unfortunate bystanders.” When Egyptian youth overcame their fears and stood up to the notorious secret police, spies, informants and bloodthirsty thugs, it was all over for Mubarak and his kleptocratic regime. In less than three weeks, Mubarak’s empire of fear, terror and torture crumbled like an Egyptian ghorayebah cookie left out in the Sahara sun.
All Dictators End Up in the Dustbin of History
These must be days of worry and panic for African and Middle Eastern dictators. No doubt, some are in a state of total depression having sleepless nights and nightmares when they catch a wink. They brood over the questions: “What if IT (the “unspeakable”) happens to me? What am I going to do? How many can I kill to suppress an uprising and get away with it? A thousand, ten thousand?”
African and Middle Eastern dictators who have abused their power must know that sooner or later their turn will come. When it does, they will have only three choices: justice before their national or international tribunals, the dustbin of history, or if they can make it to the airport fast enough to Dictators’ “home away from home”, Saudi Arabia (at least until their turn comes). There will be no place for them to run and hide. Let them learn from the fates of their brothers: Al Bashir of Sudan has an arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court hanging over his head. Old Charley Taylor of Liberia is awaiting his verdict at the ICC. Hissien Habre of Chad will soon be moving into Taylor’s cell at the ICC. A gang of Kenyan state ministers which instigated the violence following the 2007 presidential elections should be trading their designer suits for prison jumpsuits at the ICC in the not too distant future. Mengistu, Ben Ali, Mubarak, Al Bashir and others will be on the lam for a while and evade the long arm of justice. Justice may be delayed but it will always arrive as it did a couple of days for Pervez Musharraf who has warrant out for his arrest in connection with the assassination of Benazir Bhutto.
All dictators are doomed to an ignominious downfall. No African dictator has ever left office with dignity, honor, respect and the adulation of his people. They have all left office in shame, disgrace and infamy. History shows that dictators live out their last days like abandoned vicious dogs– lonely, godforsaken and tormented. Such has been the destiny of Mobutu of Zaire, Bokassa of the Central African Republic, Idi Amin of Uganda, Barre of Somalia, El-Nimery of the Sudan, Saddam of Iraq, Pol Pot of Cambodia, Marcos of the Philippines, the Shah of Iran, Ceausescu of Romania, Pincohet of Chile, Somoza of Nicaragua, Hoxha of Albania, Suharto of Indonesia, Stroessner of Paraguay, Ne Win of Mynamar, Hitler, Stalin, Mussollini and all the rest. History testifies that these names will forever be synonymous with evil, cruelty, atrocity, depravity and inhumanity. It is ironic that Mubarak (which in Arabic means “blessed one”) was born to live as the blessed one; but he will forever be remembered in Egyptian history as the “cursed one”.
The Power of Nonviolence Resistance
As Gandhi said, “Strength does not come from physical capacity”, nor does it come from guns, tanks and planes. “It comes from an indomitable will.” Winston Churchill must have learned something from Gandhi when he said, “Never give in–never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”
As odd as it seems, violence is the weapon of the weak. To shoot and kill and maim unarmed protesters in the streets is not a sign of strength, it is a sign of fear and cowardice. To jail wholesale opposition leaders, journalists, critics and dissidents is not a demonstration of control but the ultimate manifestation of lack of control. One speaks the language of violence because one cannot speak the language of reason. Violence is the language of the angry, the hateful, the vengeful, the ignorant and the fearful. Dictators speak to their victims in the language of violence because their raison d’etre (reason for existing) is to hate and spread hate. Their very soul stirs with hatred often damaged by childhood experiences and feelings of inferiority. Hitler and Stalin exhibited strong hatred towards Jews from childhood, and because they felt woefully inadequate, they did things to try and show everybody that they have power. Violence never resolves the issues that triggered the violence; and as Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” Dr. Martn Luther King explained it further: “The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate…” To reciprocate in violence is to become one with the perpetrators of violence. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
But the nonviolent resistor is strong, very strong. S/he is willing to sit down and reason with the one brutalizing her/him. Gandhi, Martin King, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Vaclav Havel, Lech Walesa, Rosa Parks and many others have proven to be stronger than those whose heartbeats stroked to the metronome of hate. Gandhi drove the British colonialists out of India without firing a single shot. They mocked him as the “little lawyer in a diaper.” In the end, the British saluted the Indian flag and left. More recently, Eastern Europe shed its totalitarian burden through nonviolent resistance. Now we have seen it happen in Tunisia and Egypt.
But there are some who believe that nonviolent resistance will not work in the face of a morally depraved, conscienceless and barbaric adversary who will mow down in cold blood children, men and women. Others say nonviolence resistance takes too long to produce results. Such views have been articulated since the time of Gandhi, but the historical evidence refutes them. As we have recently seen in Tunisia and Egypt, two of the most brutal and entrenched dictatorships in the world unraveled in less than a month through nonviolent resistance.
As to a long-term nonviolent struggle, there are many instructive experiences. Let’s take Poland as an example. In 1981, the Soviets put General Wojciech Jaruzelski in charge to crackdown on Solidarity, a non-communist controlled trade union established a year earlier. Jaruzelski immediately declared martial law and arrested thousands of Solidarity members, often in in the middle of the night, including union leader Lech Walesa. Jaruzelski flooded the streets of Warsaw, Gdansk and elsewhere in Poland with police who shot, beat and jailed strikers and protesters by the tens of thousands. By the beginning of 1982, the crackdown seemed successful and most of Solidarity top leaders were behind bars. But Jaruzelski’s campaign of violence and repression did not end the nonviolent resistance in Poland. It only drove it underground. Where the jailed union leaders left off, others took over including priests, students, dissidents and journalists. Unable to meet in the streets, the people gathered in their churches, in the restaurants and bars, offices, schools and associations. A proliferation of underground institutions emerged including Solidarity Radio; hundreds of underground publications served as the medium of communication for the people. Solidarity leaders who had evaded arrest managed to generate huge international support. The U.S. and other countries imposed sanctions on Poland, which inflicted significant hardship on Jaruzelski’s government. By 1988, Poland’s economy was in shambles as prices for basic staples rose sharply and inflation soared. In August of that year, Jaruzelski was ready to negotiate with Solidarity and met Walesa. Following the “Polish Roundtable Talks”, communism was doomed in Poland. In December 1990, Lech Walesa became the first popularly elected president of Poland. It took nearly a decade to complete the Polish nonviolent revolution. History shows that nonviolent change seems impossible to many until people act to bring it about. Who would have thought two months ago that two of the world’s worst dictators would be toppled and consigned to the dust bin of history in a nonviolent struggle by youths?
The Wrath of Ethiopian Youth
In June 2010, I wrote:
The wretched conditions of Ethiopia’s youth point to the fact that they are a ticking demographic time bomb. The evidence of youth frustration, discontent, disillusionment and discouragement by the protracted economic crisis, lack of economic opportunities and political repression is manifest, overwhelming and irrefutable. The yearning of youth for freedom and change is self-evident. The only question is whether the country’s youth will seek change through increased militancy or by other peaceful means.
Youths always inspire each other. Ethiopia’s youths seek the same things as their Tunisian and Egyptian counterparts: a livelihood, adequate food, decent housing and education and basic health care. They want free access to information – radio, newspaper, magazines, satellite and internet — as they are absolutely and unconditionally guaranteed in their constitution. Above all, they want to live in a society that upholds the rule of law, protects human rights and respects the votes of the people. They do not want corruption, nepotism, cronyism, criminality and inhumanity. That is not too much to ask.
When the uprising took place in Tunisia and Egypt, it was not the “leaders” that led it. Youth power became the catalyzing force for a democratic revolution in both countries. Africa’s dictators should understand that people do not rise up because it is in style or fashionable, but because their conditions of existence are subhuman, inhuman and intolerable. It is possible to stop the satellite transmissions, jam the radio broadcasts, shutter the newspapers, close the internet cafes, grab a young journalist and human rights advocate as he walks out of an internet café and interrogate, threaten, intimidate and terrorize him, but it is far more difficult to quiet the hungry stomachs, mend the broken hearts, heal the wounded spirits and calm the angry minds of the young people. Youths united in Ethiopia and elsewhere on the African continent can never be defeated.
Power to Africa’s Youths!
Zenawi, irhal! Bashir, degage! Mugabe, irhal! Gbagbo, degage! Ghaddafi, irhal! African dictators, irhal!…. degage!