Authors: Nonie Darwish
The Cycle of Dictatorships and Revolutions
When I look back on my university days in Tahrir (Liberty) Square in the center of downtown Cairo, I remember a space and a time very different from the revolutionary scene that mesmerized the world on January 25, 2011. As a student, I often walked along the dusty and poorly paved sidewalks that led to the American University in Cairo, which is located on one of its corners. All around me were thousands of Egyptians, arriving from the surrounding suburbs and going in different directions. They bumped into one another and rarely apologized, because there was no way to avoid getting in the way of other people. The pedestrian was, and still is, responsible for jumping out of the way of cars. Even in the center of Cairo, roads are not designed for traffic. Traffic signals are scarce, and, where they do exist, they are ignored.
The traffic situation was bad then and is much worse now that the population of Egypt has more than doubled. In my student days, I could not avoid being rubbed against, bumped into, and even groped or pinched by sexually frustrated men who seemed to seize every opportunity for physical contact whenever a woman was alone without a man. It was a constant reminder of a women's place in the Islamic state: the home.
Those were the oppressive days of another dictator, Gamal Abdel Nasser. Unlike 2011, in the late 1960s people did not demonstrate to get rid of a dictator, but rather to keep him in power. After Egypt's humiliating defeat by Israel in the 1967 war, when Nasser resigned from office, Egyptians took to the streets to bring him back, fearful of letting go of their “daddy” dictator, even if he might lead them off a cliff to defeat and tyranny. The Egyptian people have come a long way since then.
Tahrir Square today has become a landmark of Egypt's January 25th revolution, which ousted the thirty-year rule of Hosni Mubarak. The world was on edge as it watched the developments of the Middle East uprisings with empathy and hope for a people yearning for freedom. The images on TV were riveting, inspirational, and a reminder to everyone of the power of the human spirit when confronted with repression. I saw a new generation of young Egyptians with V-signs who painted their faces with the color of the Egyptian flag, much as Westerners often do at sports events. The appeal of Western popular culture remains strong in the Middle East, despite the constant anti-Western propaganda. Having lived for thirty years in Egypt, I could almost read the minds of those people, starving for freedom and dignity in the Cairo streets. They wanted to reach out to the West and cry, “Help us, we want freedoms like yours!” Many protesters were eager to speak to Western journalists and carried posters with sayings in English such as “Game Over” specifically to communicate with the West.
With youthful passion, protesters charged into the streets, telling their loved ones, “I won't come back.” They were ready to die in that square to end centuries of oppression and achieve the freedom that most people in the West take for granted. My heart went out to my countrymen as I watched them risk their lives to confront guns and tanks of their own military and police, aimed against them. A feeling of pride dominated my mixed emotions when I saw Egyptians finally say no to a chronic state of enslavement under oppressive dictatorships and police states. Then the unique spirit of the Egyptian people truly blossomed when the military chose to stand by the people and guard the welfare of the nation.
Even though Mubarak was a dictator and had a hard time letting go, to his credit he had the decency not to use the full power of his military and police, as other dictators in Iran, Libya, and Syria have done against protesters in the streets. Mubarak also refused to leave Egypt, subjecting himself to be tried or executed. The Mubarak family has been put under house arrest, and Mubarak and his two sons are in jail, awaiting trial and facing execution if they are found guilty. It is a tragedy on all levels and is the ugly side of revolutions.
All of the various factions, Islamists, socialists, intellectuals, Christians, and ordinary Arabs on the street had one thing in common: they all wanted to oust the dictator. Even though the revolution seemed spontaneous, every group, especially Islamists, has talked about the removal of all Arab dictators for several decades. Calls to depose Mubarak and others were openly expressed at many Muslim events in the West. To the Islamist, Muslim leaders in power were not Muslim enough, because they obstructed the Islamists' demands for a pure Islamic state. Young reformists and certain intellectuals with a passion for Western-style democracy thought their leaders were not democratic enough. Christians believed they were discriminated against and that Mubarak did nothing to protect them. As for the ordinary man on the street, he was simply fed up with thirty years of dictatorship.
The West, in large part, has misunderstood what happened and why. The crux of the misunderstanding has been a description of the regimes of Hosni Mubarak, Bashar al-Assad, Sadam Hussein, and others as secular, when in reality they were not. Many of these dictators did come from a military background, and their wives did not wear Islamic clothes. Yet some, in their youth, had been members of the Muslim Brotherhood—for example, Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar El Sadat. No Muslim leader in the Middle East can get away with truly secular rule or even survive one day in office if he rejects Islamic law. It was during Mubarak's rule in 1991 that Egypt signed the Cairo Declaration for Human Rights, which declared that sharia, the divine law of Islam, supersedes any other law. So, even though sharia is not applied 100 percent in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, or Tunisia, it is officially the law of the land. Mubarak, like all Muslim leaders, had to appease the Islamists to avoid their wrath. In fact, according to sharia, a Muslim head of state has to rule by Islamic law and preserve Islam in its original form or he must be removed from office. Islamic law leaves no choice for any Muslim leader but to accept, at least officially, that sharia is the law of the land. Otherwise, he will be ousted by the mob, which is commanded by sharia to remove any leader who is not a Muslim. Because of that law, Muslim leaders must play a game of appearing Islamic and anti-West, while trying to get along with the rest of the world. It's a game with life-or-death consequences.
The tension between what Islam really demands of Muslims and trying to get along with the West has always been a problem that Muslim leaders must deal with, whether they are in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, or elsewhere in the Middle East. This tension has been building for a long time, lurking on the horizon, and it finally exploded. Although the revolt was inspired by events in Tunisia, it had strong roots in Muslim society and customs. The spark that caused the downfall of the twenty-three-year-old dictatorship of the Tunisian leader Zine el Abidine Ben Ali was an incident of gross injustice to the common man. A policewoman slapped a twenty-six-year-old street vendor and confiscated his goods for a permit violation. Note that when a woman in the Muslim world is given the chance to have a man's job, the oppression that she feels in that world often causes her to oppress those weaker and poorer than herself. It is the opposite of what we see in Western movies, when a woman slaps a man and his reaction is not humiliation but a smile. In the Muslim world, a man would feel the utmost humiliation after being slapped on the face by a woman. In Tunisia, the policewoman's uniform was her only protection against being slapped back. The street vendor was not only humiliated in public, but his livelihood was also taken away, in a country that suffers from extreme poverty and a high rate of unemployment. Out of desperation, he set himself on fire in public and died. Many of his countrymen identified with him, and a revolt spontaneously erupted. The street vendor became a martyred symbol of the revolution.
The tragedy struck a chord across the Muslim world with those who identified with the poor man's humiliation, hopelessness, and despair. In Islamic chat rooms, people called the policewoman's behavior “un-Islamic” and explained that this is not how Muslims should behave toward one another. The word
has become a common expression used by Muslims who want to separate themselves from the misbehavior of other Muslims. They use the word as a way to defend Islam and to deny that this religion is responsible for what Muslim society has produced. That stance ignores the reality of how a totalitarian religion such as Islam influences the entirety of how a society functions with its good, bad, and ugly sides. The Islamic system has clearly failed to channel the problem of human aggression and oppression toward one's fellow man and instead has perpetuated it. It has failed to promote love and respect for mankind as a whole as the basic principle from which all love and respect emanate. Islamic commandments clearly restrict compassion and friendship only to fellow Muslims and advocate mistreatment, hatred, and violence to non-Muslims. This distinction between how to treat Muslims and all others does not bring out the best in the human character and leaves Muslims in a state of confusion in their interpersonal relationships.
Being a citizen of a Muslim country is a challenge to one's ability to maintain a healthy lifestyle. I remember watching horrific scenes of police brutality on the streets of Cairo, where poor people and those with menial jobs were slapped and humiliated by not only the police but any person of authority and power. This is still true today. Anyone who had money to bribe the authorities could literally get away with murder. Others, and they are the majority, had to endure a grinding life of constant abuse and oppression from the top down. The oppression could not have become so prevalent in the political system and the police without having first infecting all levels of Muslim society. Maids are often still treated as slaves; slavery has always been an important Arab institution, which was never abolished by Islam and was legally practiced in Saudi Arabia until 1962.
While mosques are busy teaching Muslims how to hate Jews and mistreat Christians, they make no time to preach to them about forgiveness, redemption, and how to treat one another and to value individual rights and human dignity. What makes the problem even worse is that Muslims are told by sharia that they have the right to force its law on others. Muslims are told that they will not be prosecuted for killing an apostate or an adulterer, and that their law gives the Muslim individual, in many cases, the right to be judge and executioner. Such religious laws encourage the creation of little dictators in all ranks of society, from top to bottom.
Life in Muslim society is oppressive on every level. Men are forced to perform violent jihad, and the oppression of women, gender segregation and taboos, the criminalization of free speech, and polygamy are almost universally practiced. Not all of this is the fault of the government or the police, but every type of oppression arises from the basic laws of Islam. Yet the majority of Muslims do not see the link between their oppression and sharia, which Muslims are entrusted with enforcing. Abuse and hostility can erupt from anyone in a position of power: bosses over workers, husbands over wives. Child abuse is at an epidemic level, and even neighbors feel entitled to spy on other neighbors. Gossip is rampant and has a huge impact in a shame-based culture.
The Islamic state is the direct cause of such social ills, which, when compounded, can cause unbearable pressure on the psyches of Muslim citizens. Left with no coping mechanisms—dealing with shame without punitive consequences, freedom to speak one's mind and respect for individual dignity and privacy—the Muslim turns to warped measures to avoid detection. When distrust and anger prevail in a society, democracy and freedom will necessarily suffocate, only to be replaced with tyranny. Even if it is tyranny with the best intentions, it sets in motion a cycle of boiling rage, similar to a pressure cooker in which steam must be released periodically through violence and revolutions. One simple lesson in human behavior—respect for all mankind—that free societies learned from the outset to minimize instability was never learned in ancient civilizations such as Persia and Egypt. Unfortunately, Islam has not enabled Muslim society to escape the fate of rogue states and banana republics.
The Islamic state has one mechanism it uses to release the built-up pressure caused by the tyranny of Islamic law: it channels the people's rage and frustration to explode outside of the system in a continuous confrontation with the non-Muslim world. In this dynamic, villains must be found outside the system: Israel, the United States, past injustices, colonialism, or the Crusades are or have been good excuses for Islamic violence. The outside world has become the great Satan that is always conspiring against Muslims to cause a fitna, which means “disbelief and chaos.” For instance, the threat that Osama bin Laden posed to the Saudi kingdom was channeled toward the West with the blessings and all of the financial and moral support of the Muslim world. The end result is that a majority of the people are confused, their trust and moral standards are shattered, and their concept of reality distorted.
When I was a citizen of the Muslim world, I never connected the dots between the duty of jihad; the lack of freedom; the hatred of non-Muslims, especially Jews; the totalitarian control of the Islamic state; and the sacred cows that all Muslims must worship. This colossal scheme whitewashes the requirements of sharia and protects the totalitarian system, while at the same time providing an outlet to dump blame and built-up anger outside the system. It's a plan brilliantly designed to let Muslims have their cake and eat it, too, but how long can this warped situation continue? So far, it has succeeded for fourteen hundred years without collapsing and has its roots in the harsh tribal Arabian Peninsula culture.
The propaganda, the lies, and blaming the outside world can go only so far. Sooner or later, Muslims will revolt against the symbol of their system, the head of the state. This pattern has continued for generations. No one asks why Muslims have a chronic system of dictatorship or investigates other factors in their religion or culture that contribute to the dysfunctional vicious circle of tyrannies and revolutions. The Muslim mind has been trained for centuries to look outside for reasons for Islamic failures. No one can dare publicly blame oppression on sharia, because doing that is considered an act of apostasy punishable by death. That is true tyranny, the religious tyranny of sharia, when the public is not even aware of or allowed to consider who its true oppressor is.