Americans, and in particular US Americans, often ask me if protests make any difference. Surely the politicians are corporate executives and are set in their ways. Surely protesters have no real power and protest in the street won’t influence their thinking. I have some personal experience that disproves this thinking. When i sat on the Cornell University board of trustees, at one point the board was inconvenienced by a couple hundred students protesting against apartheid in South Africa, because the students had surrounded the building the board was in and the board could not leave.
So the efficient Cornell board re-opened its completed meeting and spent an hour talking about the oppressive and racist government in South Africa. While campus security forcibly removed the protesters, the board decided to set up a committee which would review the university investment policies. A year after this forced meeting started they would start selectively divesting from South Africa.
When the committee started to do it’s work, almost no one linked it’s creation and actions to the protest, they were too far separated in time. These protests and thousands like them would ultimately help free Nelson Mandela and liberate South Africa from exclusive white rule.
In 1970, 300,000 protesters surrounded the Pentagon. Inside that building sat a defense contractor named Daniel Ellsberg who was writing the secret history of the Vietnam war for the highest brass of the Pentagon to review. He had access to all of the military’s top secret documents. He looked out his window, saw this tremendous protest, which included all three of his daughters, and he decided that he was on the wrong side. Ellsberg would leak his secrets to the NY Times and Washington Post in what would ultimately be known as the Pentagon Papers. These papers would show that the US had staged the Tonkin Gulf attacks that had been used to justify the war in the first place, as well as many other lies about the war. These papers and the huge national protests that ensued would force Nixon to promise to withdraw from Vietnam as part of his re-election campaign.
Over the last couple of days the largest protests in Egypt’s history and perhaps the largest protest ever in the world have raged in Tahrir Square. [See pictures]. The Daily Kos is reporting unofficially 33 million people, which would make it about 1/3 the countries total population. The military has given the fairly recently elected Muslim Brotherhood president Morsi 48 hours to satisfy the demands of the protesters before it acts (as it has in the past) to solve the problem. Five of Morsi’s top ministers have already resigned.
Similar mass protests forced out Honsi Mubarek just two years ago. After years of dictatorship, Egypt is still finding its democratic legs. And as is more often true than many people realize, these protests really do matter.
I spoke with many revolutionaries in Egypt, and heard several fascinating tales. But the ones which haunt me I heard for Gihan. They were the tales of her experience in Tahrir square and afterward. Of the extraordinary temporary community which was created and how the act of revolution changed peoples lives. And very specifically hers.
She recalls when she was first in Tahrir Square she held up a sign so it was in front of her face, so she would not have to be seen. And with time she dropped the sign lower, chatted with the people passing by and the media, inviting them in – to be part of what was become more inevitably their revolution as well.
Gihan tells of her experience of cat calling [this is the verbal harassment many people – mostly women – get from men they dont know on the street. Frequently, but not exclusively about their appearance]. Before Tahrir Square she would just walk away from this type of harassment, feeling it was ubiquitous and hopeless to change.
After the revolution she found herself doing something else. When someone cat called her, she would turn and face them and ask “Were we together in Tahrir Square?” Millions of people from Cairo and other places participated in this popular revolution at least for part of it. Everyone she asks says “yes”
“What you just did hurt me and I know you would have never done that in Tahrir Square.” And then she turns to walk away – but every cat caller, asks her to stop and apologizes. And I think more importantly, they likely retire from this type of harassment.
The courage it takes to tear down a dictatorship not only changes the political landscape of the country, it empowers and emboldens the people who make it happen to take on other cultural injustices which surround them.
Shortly after the Berlin Wall fell, I went to eastern Europe to talk with the people who had made the revolution happen. I was advised to get there quickly because “once the history books are written, the truth will be lost forever.” I fell in love with then Czechoslovakia. The revolutionary spirit was still vibrant, everything seemed possible and the motivated and talented Czechs seemed to be just the right people to share my organizing skills with.
When I promoted my campaigning, fund raising and media skills in service of their post revolutionary efforts I was told politely “We have so many westerners here we dont know what to do with them. Go back to the west and if we need you we will call you.” Dissatisfied with the terrorist regime which had recently taken over the US (George Bush I), I embraced my refugee status and settle in the Netherlands where I had a lovely new girlfriend and political work to do.
Soon I would volunteer for the Amsterdam anti-nuclear group WISE (the World Information Service on Energy). Some months after I arrived Honza Beranek (whose house Christina and i are now staying at in Am*dam) from the Czechoslovakia arrived for an internship. When WISE asked me to leave the collective for being too much of a campaigner, which was not their mission, Honza who was upset with the collectives choice that he made me an offer “Come to Czechoslovakia, we are fighting the Americans who want to build reactors in our country and we dont know how. You’re an American, you can help.”
So I had my invitation and I went for what would be 7 or the most exciting and satisfying years of my activist life. The point is with my invitation I stopped being a tourist and started being a traveler.
So it is in Egypt. In Cairo, were we knew no one before we arrived we did the touristy things: Climbed into the pyramids, took a camel ride and went to the Egyptian Museum. Here in Qena, a town I never would have even known of without my invitation from Mahmoud, I am a traveler. I see the city through eyes of locals, I am being guided by students and talking with members of the Muslim Brotherhood and the April 6th movement and presenting at their college in a way unlike the experience of tourists who come through this city. [Blog posts on all of this to come.]
One need not share my political mission to step out of being a tourist. I had never met Mahmoud before I came to Qena, but we were Facebook friends through a friend of Abigail’s who is working for the region. Knowing nothing about me except some of my writings, he was happy to invite me to his city and into his home. I find the world I full of such hospitality and encourage me traveling friends to do the extra work to arrive with an invitation and leave the tourists behind.
Generally, i dislike museums. The Egyptian museum in Cairo where i spent a couple of hours recently was worse than most. As Sky described it aptly, it is more of a warehouse than a museum. It is poorly lit, there are lots of displays with no descriptions on them at all. There are so many objects in it (140K our guide says) that it feels endless and impossible to experience in any way except the most cursory. [If you spent 10 seconds in front of each exhibition, you would be there for 9 days straight]
In Athens recently we went to the New Acropolis Museum and this is one of the very few adult museums in the world i actually like (the others are the now closed holography museum in NYC and the Dali Museum outside Barcelona). The New Acropolis Museum is big and well lit and has a quite manageable collection of items to see and a good mixed of multimedia exhibits as well as “static” ones. It is also an attractive modern building.
So this got me to thinking about what it is that could make the Egyptian museum better. For starters, there is no way that they are going to abandon this museum, it is a huge historic building and replacing it or even moving the thousands of items (almost all ancient and many fragile) is a tremendous job. And I am confident that there is a huge entrenched bureaucracy, which will view all change as bad. There are simple things which could be done to improve this space. Better lighting and displays would help a lot, even for just the most frequented 0.1% of the items here. Yet this is the uninteresting part of the thought experiment.
Right next door to the museum is the one of the old party buildings from the Mubarek days. During last years revolution, this building was partially burned and is now (like many buildings in Cairo) abandoned. It is very well situated, huge and probably structurally sound. If our objective is to improve tourism quality of experience, increase revenue for the existing museum and serve a greater number of people, employing this building for that purpose would likely be cost effective.
The first thing would be to recognize that the existing museum, largely unaltered since 1901, misses a huge fraction of the population which wishes to be served by the building. While a grand building, perhaps 90% of the exhibits are not wheelchair accessible, there is no air conditioning and at best the displays are labeled in only Arabic and English. When we take over the old party building next door, these should all be design considerations. We should assume that in our thought experiment no money will come for the Egyptian state to build this place.
Two million people in Eygpt work directly in tourist, another 10 million are indirectly employed by it (the country is the largest in Africa with a total population of 82 million). During the revolution Mubarek was desperate to hold power. He order the police to stop protecting the Egyptian museum, so that looters were break in and he could pose the false choice of “me or chaos” but just as Christians protected Muslims praying and Mosques during the the street fighting, a human chain formed around the Egyptian museum for weeks. And it was not just tour guides and others employed by the industry, literally thousands were there day and night to make sure that the chaos around revolution did not damage these national treasures.
The only copy in the existing Egyptian Museum is the Rosetta Stone. This three language translation artifact could have an entire room dedicated to it in the new museum, rather than the poorly described and under appreciated display which currently exists. Even without the original, museum goers would be drawn to a more robust description of this decrypting relic. Sadly, probably the start up funding for such an effort would need to be corporate and the entire thing can’t happen without brilliant negotiators with the existing museum and the Egyptian state.
In my thought fantasy about this new museum, the existing museum could be a feeder, temporarily providing materials for exhibits in well lit, wheel chair accessible, climate controlled, multi-lingual display cases. With the intention of improving the original museum when the exhibits returned to their home in the existing neighboring museum, with funds drawn from the new revenue stream of the New Egyptian Antiquities Museum.