On Egypt

Just over a year ago, I was in Tahrir Square, in Cairo, demonstrating with other members of the Gaza Freedom March, trying without success to pressure the Mubarak’s government to let us continue on our humanitarian peace mission to Gaza.  In these last weeks, I’ve often thought about that day on the square—the heady few moments when we blocked traffic, the adrenaline as the police rushed in to beat us back, the long, grueling day on the edge of the square.  We took those risks knowing we had some measure of protection, as internationals, from the torture, imprisonment and potential loss of life faced by our Egyptian friends should they take the same kinds of actions.

As I’ve followed reports of the protests, I’ve been awed by the spirit, the courage and the stamina of all the people who have come out to take those risks.  Yesterday, Mubarak finally yielded to the people’s will, and stepped down.

Moments of political euphoria don’t come often in a lifetime, and when they do, they are sweet.  I wish I could have been back in Tahrir Square to share that celebration, and to honor the sacrifices that so many have made.

As the drama has unfolded, I’ve been working on a book about power and group process in collaborative groups—with a deadline so tight that, with all my other commitments, it leaves little time for blogging.  I’ve been writing this book because I believe we are entering a new era in which the top-down organizations of governments, corporations and military are more and more being challenged by emergent, collaborative and co-creative movements without traditional lines of authority.  I’ve been working in those kinds of groups for thirty years, and believe I know something of their strengths and pitfalls—if only through the many, many mistakes I’ve made.

So I’ve found the unfolding events in Egypt fascinating and affirming—to see a loosely organized movement led by young people rise up, almost without warning, and sweep away the tight control of dictatorship.  Because the movement had no Great Leader nor central control, the government had no one whose death or imprisonment could stop the uprising.  Because people were voluntarily choosing to participate, they took enormous risks and suffered hardships without faltering.  Because they remained committed to nonviolence, they were able to deter the army from extreme reprisals and win over world public opinion.

I wish I knew more about how they made decisions on Tahrir Square, how they communicated in the absence of the internet and those cell-phones we’d come to depend on.  I hope that in succeeding days, we’ll hear more reports from inside the protestors’ camps.  I have a deep, professional curiosity about what kind of meetings they had, and how they were facilitated.

And I know that the work of transformation is not done, by any means.  Amorphous, emergent movements can be unstoppable—but building a new structure requires some sort of organization.  Structures can be washed away by the tides of spontaneous outrage, but to govern a country over time, new structures must be built on a new foundation.  The Egyptian people will continue to need our support to make sure the transition is a real one, not just a removal of one face while the infrastructure of oppression remains.

In the meantime, we have much to learn from their experience, and that of the Tunisians and all the other movements arising in the Middle East.  Let us all savor this sweet moment, with gratitude to those who bravery, sacrifices and unflagging determination have challenged repression and brought liberation.

13 comments to On Egypt

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by majda72, هدهد. هدهد said: RT @redjives On Egypt by Starhawk http://is.gd/7qTeDJ […]

  • Medwyn

    Two interesting articles in the London Review of books. The first giving historical and current perspective on Egypt and the US role in the Middle East; the second a detailed account of recent events the courageous actions of the protestors, and the army/police/security forces roles.

    After Mubarak
    Adam Shatz
    Adam Shatz considers what the revolt may mean for the wider Middle East, and for Egypt’s relations with the US and Israel. ‘The Mubarak regime – or some post-Mubarak continuation of it – may survive this challenge, but the illusions that have held it in place have crumbled. The protests in Tahrir Square are a message not only to Mubarak and the military regime that has ruled Egypt since the Free Officers coup of 1952; they are a message to all the region’s autocrats, particularly those supported by the West, and to Washington and Tel Aviv, which, after spending years lamenting the lack of democracy in the Muslim world, have responded with a mixture of trepidation, fear and hostility to the emergence of a pro-democracy movement in the Arab world’s largest country.’ http://www.lrb.co.uk/v33/n04/adam-shatz/after-mubarak

    Why Tunis Why Cairo
    Issandr El Amrani
    …..I have lived in Egypt for 11 years. The internet has almost never been censored. A privately owned press had blossomed there, providing the critical news coverage previously absent from the state-controlled media. There was limited freedom of association; the regime occasionally cracked down on protests, particularly if Islamists were involved, but otherwise it was usually willing to tolerate protests. It had, however unconvincingly, appropriated the reform discourse of the opposition and shifted to a subtler, neo-authoritarian mode. Egypt is a largely globalised country, reliant on foreign investment and money from tourism, whose PR stresses its ‘moderate’ nature and the openness of its people. But there will be no return to the status quo after recent events: the shutdown of the internet, violent clashes between riot control police and protesters, and a dying regime’s cynical manipulation of the security situation has made that much certain…….
    By midday, protesters across the country had taken on riot control forces armed with rubber bullets, rubber pellet shotguns, tear gas and armoured vehicles. They fought with great bravery, jumping on top of armoured vehicles, surrounding water cannon trucks and shaking them until they overturned. Teenagers ran towards tear gas canisters as they landed, picked them up and threw them back towards the troops. At times, protesters who had come equipped with medical masks and vinegar-soaked towels to neutralise the gas even attended to injured troops.
    to read the full article:

  • Maxine Kaufman-Lacusta

    I was there, too, last year in Tahrir Square, and I share Starhawk’s excitement and elation. I look forward to reading the important book she’s working on!
    With warm wishes from the (not so) frozen North (Vancouver, Canada),

  • Mary F

    Thanks Starhawk. There is also what I found to be a very apt and moving cartoon in SF Chronicle editorial page by Horsey, called The Past Meets The Future, with the tired old usual suspects staring at a fresh, joyful young smiling Egyptian with a flag, cell phone and a “democracy” t shirt. It conveys sweet joy. THanks for all you do.

  • Therese

    Thank you, Starhawk. I, too, have wondered about the organizing behind this “leaderless” revolution. Here is a link to a 25 minute video from Al Jazeera’s People and Power program about the April 6 Youth Movement who have been organizing for this for 2 years, learning the tactics of non-violence, etc.

  • Jerome Arnold

    ” I wish I knew more about how they made decisions on Tahrir Square, how they communicated in the absence of the internet and those cell-phones we’d come to depend on. I hope that in succeeding days, we’ll hear more reports from inside the protestors’ camps. I have a deep, professional curiosity about what kind of meetings they had, and how they were facilitated.”
    — See article: “How Google removed the muzzle on Twitter in Egypt” at:

  • veronica ruth

    What troubles me is what the reigning idealism is. Young people may want Democracy but then it’s put to a vote and look at Palestine, they voted almost unanimously for HAMAS. It’s about to come down hard in Iraq with that lunatics return, Muqtada al-Sadr. Fundamentalism is the downfall of humanity, and it is so insidious. So, I’ll believe it when I see it… for several years at a run. I LOVE the idea of young people standing up and deposing a leader and demanding fairness but getting it for real is tentative and demands much harder work than shouting in the street.

  • StarHawk, Good Sister – Thank you for your reflections and upcoming “manual” for peaceful, powerful change. On MSNBC late one night, early in the coverage, we all watched angry men stop a truck and yank an alleged pro-status-quo man from the truck, surround him in a mob, and begin kicking and beating him. My heart sank – it was live feed and both of the commentators, safe on their hotel balcony watched with dread, adding the comment that it could only get worse for the man. I am sure I was not alone in sending prayerful peaceful energy in that moment. Then one man, no bigger than any other, began stopping his brothers who were beating the man and tearing the truck apart. They backed off. There were no weapons. He and one or two others scooped the beaten man up and placed him back in his truck and they pushed the truck off the pathway of the tanks. This action spoke volumes of this movement. And, perhaps, it may have spoken something important about ourselves as we watched – remembering we can always choose, in any moment – even those of intense passion where we have “taken sides” – to pick up peace as our tool. (My major at Kent State was Peaceful Change – devoted to that ideal after four innocent students were killed, and several friends there were injured by the National Guard.) Keep on keeping on Strong Sister!

  • Bethana

    sane and simple, words clear and bright, thank you Starhawk.
    It is the key concern , after the fall what next. Working in community groups as we make our way through the old and the yet-to-be, I find that what is most ‘fearful’ for many is that transition period when the space is wide open- in Musquodoboit Harbour NS, we are posing the question in a monthly meeting that is something about “how do we create an effective voice of power” or what needs to change or be supported in our community differently that will grow our village in a sustainable way’-though not on the scale of Egypt in the issues or dangers there is still a sense of ‘revolution’ and fear for the future if we cannot traverse the diversities.

  • Interested

    Well put, and we are all hopeful and inspired.

    Yes, popular uprisings can be unstoppable. They can also be stopped. Its just not about who is more inspired; its also about who’s smarter and who can outanticipate the other.

    Take ‘social networking’: the Egyptian people really outgamed the Egyptian elite with this. Super. But the technology is value-neutral, politically. Other similar regimes will no doubt learn a few lessons themselves and monitor the very monitorable transmission wavelengths and round up the important players before they have a chance to go critical with their opposition. Question: What is the next counter-step to that? Somebody better be paying attention to this question.



  • Jessica

    Great post, Starhawk! I love your books, and I enjoy your blog. While I agree with 99% of what you write, and greatly appreciate you writing it, one thing I don’t agree with you about is nonviolence. Looking at the wild world around me (the natural world, I mean), it seems to me that violence plays an essential role in the cycle of life & death, and can and should be expressed in a healthy way. Just because the modern culture expresses violence through domination and power-over, doesn’t make violence inherently bad (no more than this culture’s unhealthy expression of sex makes sex inherently bad).

    But I digress – mainly I wanted to comment on your characterization of the Egyptian protests as being dedicated to non-violence. From what I’ve read in the media, and from the few first-person accounts I have read, the Egyptian people fought back when the police tried to repress them – to the point of pushing the police out of entire neighborhoods, and even taking over police stations. In fact, their refusal to allow the state to hold a monopoly on violence seems like the exact reason why the protests were successful (in contrast to the law-abiding, “stay-in-one-lane”, government-permitted protests we are used to here in the U.S., which surprisingly enough never seem to have any effect on the government). I do think that non-violent, law-breaking direct action can have an effect, but I think that the reason the protests in Egypt and elsewhere had more than just a limited effect was because the people chose to fight back against state repression rather than submit to it (beating the police back rather than allowing the police to round them up and arrest them, for example).

    I could be defining non-violence differently, and I’m sure that reality gets a lot more complicated than how I’m presenting things here, but I felt compelled to add my 2cents to the discussion.

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