Revolution. For so many Americans today, it is a very strange thing to think of. In the United States we have a consolidated democracy.
We vote into office those who we believe will lead our country in the right direction in free and fair elections at scheduled interviews. We have welfare programs and subsidies to help alleviate poverty and aid the disabled. We have laws entitling everyone to healthcare in emergent situations, even if they can’t afford it.
So why would we ever think of revolution? Well, we wouldn’t. As far as the state of the world is concerned, we have it pretty good.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock recently, though, you may have noticed that this is not true in all parts of the world, and the act of a street vendor setting himself ablaze in the streets of Tunisia has in turn lit a fire in the hearts of many across the Middle East and the world.
I know it has lit a fire in mine.
Unlike most Americans, however, who have trouble comprehending revolution, I have taken part in one. I was five months into my year abroad in Cairo, Egypt, when the Egyptian people decided that President Hosni Mubarak had been in power 30 years too many, and they were going to do something about it.
I took part in many protests, but by far the most memorable were those of Friday, January 28, 2011. It did not matter if we were Muslim or Christian or none of the above. Rich or poor, doctors or students or taxi drivers or fruit vendors, we all gathered outside of mosques for the afternoon prayer – the Friday afternoon prayer is the most important of the week, like Sunday morning mass for Christians – whether we planed to pray or not.
Immediately after the prayers, we all stood up and began chanting in Arabic against the regime. For the most part I had to ask my Egyptian friends what many of the words meant, but it wasn’t even necessary, I knew exactly what was being said, and so I chanted. I chanted until my voice went hoarse. I chanted because this was a cause I believed in. Democracy. And not imposed from the outside, but one that was being demanded by the people.
The government did everything in its power to stop us, from water cannons and tear gas and rubber bullets to cutting internet and even cell phone service. But we were not deterred. We all banded together in a showing of solidarity the likes of which I had never seen.
We passed out procedure masks, the closest thing to gas masks that my friends and I were able to acquire on short notice. Others came with liter bottles of vinegar or of Pepsi, or with chopped up pieces of onion to share, all of which help alleviate the effects of tear gas when applied to the face (there’s a few facts I never thought I’d learn while studying abroad).
People I had never met thanked me, clearly the whitest around, for my support, although many were confused why I was there. Even further, one of the chants that was interspersed with the (clearly) more common, stereotypical “fall of the regime” stuff was my favorite, “Muslim, Christian, we are all Egyptian.” In a country that only weeks prior had been split along religious lines by the bombing of a new year’s service at a Coptic (Christian) Church, this show of solidarity proved to me that this was truly a revolution of Egyptians, regardless of any other identity one may have held.
I’ve shed many tears in the last few weeks. I cried because for several hours I thought my friend was among the over 300 people who were martyred fighting for freedom in Egypt alone. I cried looking though photo slideshows showing makeshift memorials of people I had never met. I also cried with happiness when I found out that Mubarak had finally stepped down after 18 days of protests because I am so inspired by what I have seen and been a part of that could not contain myself. While I could not be happier that no more people have to die for the Egyptian cause, thousands have been killed across the region fighting for similar freedoms, and I cry for them, too.
I understand that for many Americans the concept of revolution is a foreign one – why wouldn’t it be? For me, though, when I watch the news from half a world away, evacuated from the history I so wanted to be a part of, I feel that fire burning in my heart and I know that I have been forever changed by what I have been a part of.