Middle East Erupts: Orchestra Seat to the Revolution

If the powers that be had realized the global implications of the Internet when it was invented, they probably would have found some way to kill it.

Take a look at these early pages and the very first World Wide Web site. Then take a look at this CNN footage of the intrepid Ben Wedeman in Benghazi.

In just two decades, the earth has shifted.

I suspect the 1989 slaughter of unarmed protesters in Tiananmen Square could not happen today, or at least not without severe international repercussions. Same with Rwanda.

One wonders how much sooner Hitler and Stalin might have been stopped if the people in Europe had cell phones and digital cameras, and an Internet on which to upload images instantaneously. Not to mention a means to learn the lessons of successful peaceful revolutions in the past. Egypt’s April 6 Movement was three years old when Tunisia erupted in January.

After the events of the last two months in North Africa, maybe journalists will earn back public trust. They’ve been dying for decades – since 1992, 850 journalists were killed in the line of duty – and now the Libyan government has threatened to treat anyone with a camera, including foreign journalists, as terrorists.

When CNN and MSNBC reporters crossed the border from Egypt into Libya, they were welcomed like it was Paris in 1944. Ben Wedeman @bencnn tweeted: “As first western TV crew to make it to Benghazi we were greeted like liberators, pelted with candy, cheers and thanks. Very humbling.”

The jubilation was recorded for history by NBC’s Richard Engel.

Ordinary citizens risked their lives too, by bearing witness. The Libyan woman on the phone with CNN’s Anderson Cooper admits she is afraid, since just the act of making this call could get her killed. But, she says, “people are outside dying for me. I am Libyan too, a Libyan citizen … I have to do the least thing I can do.”

Both amateur and professional media play a starring role in this drama. Women can take pictures and upload a video as well as a man. Women are protesting too.

The recent sexual assault of CBS correspondent Lara Logan in Egypt is chilling, but no more chilling than the death of Al-Arabiya journalist Atwar Bahjat in Iraq in 2006. According to one source, Bahjat was targeted: “Armed men driving a white car had attacked the crew after demanding to know the whereabouts of the on-air correspondent.” She was 30 years old when she died.

In this age of blogs and cell phones, the line between journalist and outspoken citizens gets fuzzier by the day. And in places where women’s rights have lagged the customs and laws in the Western world, women can pay for their actions with their lives.

In Africa in 2009, 24-year-old Peace Corps worker Kate Puzey reported a suspected rapist and pedophile hired by the Peace Corps to teach children. Soon thereafter Puzey was murdered. In Iraq in 2004, Oklahoma lawyer Fern Holland set up women’s centers. She was threatened, but she continued her work. She was shot to death by men wearing police uniforms.

This month marks 68 years since Munich student Sophie Scholl was executed, just five days after her arrest. Her crime: Distributing anti-Nazi pamphlets. She was 21 years old.

I had not heard of Scholl when I saw a banner ad that read: “Hans Scholl, Sophie Scholl, Christoph Probst beheaded 60 years ago for saying no to Hitler and yes to freedom.” (Seconds before Sophie’s brother Hans died, he shouted, “Long live freedom!”) Today the Scholls, Probst and other members of the resistance group The White Rose are well known in Germany.

But all too often acts of resistance are lost to history. The 1964 action film, “The Train,” starring Burt Lancaster, was inspired by the nonfiction book, “Le front de l’art” by Rose Vallard, an art historian who prevented the pillaging of masterpieces in occupied France. Vallard thwarted the Nazis with red tape and paperwork, not as cinematic as the intrigue in the John Frankenheimer film, but she was risking her life all the same.

My heart breaks to see the Libyans fall because of a corrupt, nihilistic leader. But I’m also gladdened to see such heroism and sacrifice. I suspect it’s in our DNA, because you find evidence in history no matter how far back you go.

Today I’m remembering an unknown woman, a student in Iran. In June of 2009 I came across her letter directed to the world and, probably, to herself as well. She was mentally preparing to return to the streets to protest her country’s fraudulent election. She was scared. She’d spent the day listening to her favorite songs. She was getting ready to die.

I don’t know her name or her fate, but we all know what happened in Iran in the summer of 2009. The mullahs and the Revolutionary Guard quickly crushed the nascent Green Movement, but not before the name Neda Agha-Soltan became a household word, and the hopeful street chants (“… don’t be afraid, we’re all in this together …”) soon became a bittersweet memory.

People have died in Tunisia. And in Egypt. Even more will die in Libya, because the outcome is beginning to look like a civil war.

Because of the 2009 demonstrations in Iran, protesters in North Africa and the Middle East had to know their struggle could end in death. But just like that, a nation of students and shopkeepers became a civilian army. Their demands – democracy, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press – are as American as Plymouth Rock and apple pie. Again and again I heard from the mouths of protesters: I am ready to die. For my children. For my country.

Could any example be more stark than what we saw in Bahrain? Unarmed protesters with hands raised, waving flags, saying,”Peaceful, peaceful,” mowed down by gunfire.

Some, including commentator Bill Maher, have worried that no revolution can succeed without a parallel revolution for women’s rights. But I believe that as more and more Middle Eastern women die in the fight, their fathers, brothers, husbands, sons, colleagues and friends will abandon whatever sexism lingers, eclipsed by national pride.

In late January, a young woman summoned her fellow Egyptians by video:

Four Egyptians have set themselves on fire to protest humiliation and hunger and poverty and degradation they had to live with for 30 years … Whoever says women shouldn’t go to protests because they will get beaten, let him have some honor and manhood and come with me on Jan 25 … If you have honor and dignity as a man, come and protect me and other girls in the protest. If you stay at home you deserve all that is done to you.

In reply, a commenter observed: “This young woman, Asmaa Mahfouz, showed the most noble, honourable, courageous, honest character I’ve ever seen in a so called ‘ordinary’ woman. Her family can be proud of her. Her country should be proud of her. Even I, a foreigner, am proud of her! This is not an ordinary woman at all. She’s a lioness.”

Another commenter remarked that Mahfouz didn’t know it when she recorded her video, but she had “just gone down in Egypt’s long and prestigious history. Watch and learn people. ANYONE can change the world.”

Going back two weeks more, to the middle of January, a Tunisian girl sings during a demonstration (translated):

I am the secret of the red rose
Whose color the years loved
Whose scent the rivers buried
And who sprouted as fire

Writes the video uploader: “I didn’t know her name at the time, but I recognized the voice. It’s the voice of freedom.” Watch her and the others like her, and be grateful that you are the same species as the brave Arabian people now appearing on our screens in the comfort of our homes.

[originally published by Politics Daily in 2010]

About Quixotic Chick

I write. I take pictures. I survived cancer.
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