Popular Protests in Egypt Forge Change Not Only in Politics, But in Perceptions; 2/11/11

02/11/11 – A new day has dawned in the Middle East and in the world. The entire world has watched as for nearly three weeks, Egyptian protestors have called for the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, who has ruled Egypt with an iron hand for the past 30 years. These protests have not only created a sea change in the way that the mainly autocratic rulers of the region will function, but how the rest of the world views the region, not only politically, but at a human level. For while the protestors have not only inspired the entire world with their bravery and courage, they have also achieved what organizations like ING have worked for over nearly two decades: they have challenged many of the common stereotypes about Arabs and Muslims that have for so long prevailed in the media, Hollywood, politics, and society. Those frames have commonly been used to paint a picture that both demonizes Arabs and Muslims and portrays them as “the Other,” worthy only of our fear and contempt.


The most dominant stereotype for the last few decades, but particularly post 9/11 is the association of Muslims with violence and terrorism. While pro-regime groups have perpetuated violence against anti-regime protestors, the protests themselves were characterized as incredibly peaceful, and even celebratory, often with entire families participating in the largest rallies. The concept of peaceful resistance, so long associated with famous figures such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King, has now been indelibly associated with the Egyptian protesters. These protesters – contrary to another common canard which portrays Muslims as intolerant of other faiths at the very best – include Christians and Muslims, side by side, making the same demands, and even guarding the other as they perform their prayers. This uprising has in fact done more to cement Christian-Muslim relations in Egypt than any interfaith undertaking. The Western media, which for so long has had difficulty moving beyond the common portrayal of the Arab and Muslim as a one dimensional figure, has finally understood that the Muslim and the Arab is a living, breathing human being, with the hopes and aspirations of all people.

The second pervasive stereotype relating to the oppression and subservient status of Muslim women has also been challenged by images and voices of assertive, intelligent, and confident women, including the famous video of a young girl leading a protest, and the vblog of a young woman which is said to have perhaps sparked the entire uprising. It should have become crystal clear to anyone watching media reports that Egyptian women, like a major segment of women in other Muslim majority countries are educated professionals with independent minds, personalities and ambitions. This perception is borne out by a 2008 Gallup poll which found that “88% of Egyptian women say that they should be allowed to work at any job for which they are qualified, a belief that is borne out in Egypt, as in other parts of the Muslim world, where a third of professional and technical workers are women, on par with Turkey and South Korea.”

The common portrayals of Arabs and Muslims as illiterate, uneducated, and pre-modern has been replaced with by reports of educated Egyptian professionals – doctors, engineers, pharmacists and lawyers – joining college graduates who are as skilled at using social media and technology as any Western young person. The widespread representation of Arabs and Muslims as backwards, unorganized and dirty has been upended by footage of common Egyptians guarding their neighborhoods from looters, organizing crowds, aiding the wounded, and cleaning the streets. The stereotypical images of bearded men and veiled women have become so engraved in our consciousness as people with whom we have nothing in common who are totally foreign both in identity and ideology that to see them portrayed as normal human beings engaging in actions we can relate to it is a major paradigm shift. While the media in the past would have us choose between the feared “Islamists” and the secularists we can all relate to, the lines and images have become blurred as Egyptians from varying backgrounds, ages, and garb regularly pause to perform the five daily prayers. Continuous media interviews with protesters and experts in Egypt have clearly demonstrated the level of literacy, intelligence and competence that exists in the Arab and Muslim worlds. They are both modern and Muslim; the one does not contradict the other.

But the most obvious frame that has been eliminated for good is the commonly held perception that Muslims are anti-democracy and freedom. While it is an unfortunate reality that most Muslim countries are ruled by self imposed dictators like Mubarak, this is not a reflection of the desires of the people of these nations. According to 2008 Gallup in 10 predominantly Muslim countries representing more than 80% of the global Muslim population, “substantial majorities in nearly all nations surveyed (95% in Burkina Faso, 94% in Egypt, 93% in Iran, and 90% in Indonesia) say that if drafting a constitution for a new country, they would guarantee freedom of speech, defined as ‘allowing all citizens to express their opinion on the political, social, and economic issues of the day.’” The survey also showed that when asked what they admire most about the West, Muslims frequently mention political freedom, liberty, fair judicial systems, and freedom of speech. When asked to critique their own societies, extremism and inadequate adherence to Islamic teachings were their top grievances.

For anyone following the twin uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, as well as protests in Jordan, Yemen, and Syria, there can be no doubt in any ones’ mind that the yearnings and aspirations of the people in countries across the Middle East for the actualization of these ideals is so strong that they are willing to sacrifice their very life in their pursuit. In ways reminiscent of the revolution that heralded in the birth of our own nation, the Egyptian people have reminded us how precious these rights can be. The desire for dignity, self-determination, and a life and society that is free from corruption, fear, and intimidation is at the heart of any people’s aspirations, regardless of their nationality, religion, or background. The sentiments voiced today in Egypt and neighboring countries mirror the very ideals that were central to the vision of our founding fathers and a potent reminder to those of us living in a democracy not to take these freedoms for granted. The famous words of Patrick Henry, “Give me liberty, or give me death” are as relevant today as when he uttered them over 200 years ago, and today have seen their modern rebirth in Liberation Square.

It is prophetic that President Obama’s historical speech in 2009 was made in no other than Cairo, which today is bearing testimony to the resilience of the human spirit. His words that day foreshadowed the sea chang
e taking place in that region today when he said: But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. These are not just American ideas; they are human rights. And that is why we will support them everywhere. Universal ideals such as democracy, liberty and freedom cannot be predicated on any other ideals, values or interests, but rest on their intrinsic value for all peoples and nations. We hope and pray that these ideals can become more than words or dreams, and become a reality for all the people of the region and for the entire world.