You Say You Want a Revolution?

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As I write these words, the Egyptian uprising is in its sixth day, going full blast and with no end in sight. The pressure cooker, under the iron fist of 30 years of President Hosni Mubarak’s repressive rule, had been simmering for some time. Last week, the pot boiled over.

What started this wave of protests was a Tunisian government bureaucrat’s harassment of a fruit vendor several weeks ago, which resulted in riots that led to the overthrow of President Zine El Abedine Ben Ali. Because of the new social media, word has gotten out to the Arab street that it no longer need to heed the iron fists of governments’ repressive rule. As a result, waves of protests have rippled in the Sunni Arab world, including in Tunisia, Yemen, Jordan and Egypt.

In Egypt, revulsion against the old guard has brought hundreds of thousands of people to the streets and resulted in more than 100 fatalities and more than 2,000 injured, as of Sunday night. Despite a curfew, demonstrators were still in the streets, burning buildings and calling for regime change. No one is sure how this will end. A great deal depends upon the army, and whether or not it will side with the people or with Mubarak.

The protests are not solely about economics or unemployment, although those are factors. And in no way are they about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, although some analysts can’t seem to avoid such a simplistic, irrelevant explanation.

This uprising, rather, is about the utter rot of the Mubarak regime. It is about the unquenchable yearning for democracy and about a revolution spurred by young people using the world’s latest communication technology. It is about the disgust at an oppressive regime that, for decade after decade, allowed absolutely no freedom of the press, freedom of assemblage and freedom of religion, and that provides no separation of powers.

It also is about the arbitrary and capricious arrest of dissident bloggers and anyone the regime feels might be unfriendly to it.

Take, for example, Abdel Kareem Nabil Suleiman (also known as Kareem), an Egyptian blogger who was sentenced to four years in prison for criticizing Mubarak and insulting Islam in February 2007. Kareem first began expressing his secular, pro-democracy views on his blog as a student at Al-Azhar University in Cairo. Upon discovering his writings, the school expelled him in 2006. His case was referred to the Egyptian authorities, and he was tried and convicted. He was sent to Borg El-Arab prison, where he continued to write passionate letters against Mubarak’s repressive regime. A global campaign was waged on Kareem’s behalf. According to, his four year sentence is the longest prison sentence any individual has faced for the so-called crime of blogging ideas that the government does not endorse.

Even more outrageous, however, is the story of a young Bedouin from Beer Sheba, Israel: Ouda Suleiman Tarabin. Ouda was 18 years old in 1999 when he travelled with his mother to visit his sister in Al-Arish, in Egypt’s northern Sinai peninsula. The Egyptian border police warned him that the next time he travelled to Egypt, he should leave his passport behind; when he travelled to Egypt to visit his sister several months later, therefore, he came without his personal documents.  Two days after arriving at his sister’s house, he was arrested by police and interrogated by army intelligence officers. During his interrogation, he was informed that he had been sentenced to 15 years’ hard labor.

For four years, Ouda’s family had no idea of his whereabouts. When he was arrested and interrogated, he asked to contact the Israeli embassy in Cairo, but was denied.  Finally, in July 2004, Egyptian authorities informed the Israeli embassy of Ouda’s arrest and of the charges against him.

Ouda has never been allowed to make even a single phone call. For 11 years, he has spent his days in a tiny cell, lacking running water or a toilet. He was not given due process of law, and never been served with an indictment or other legal document. The Israeli government has asked to see his file, but its requests have been denied.

Ouda’s Israeli lawyer, Itzhak Melzer, could only conclude that there never was a trial, and that no legal case has been produced against him. The Israeli government has made it clear that Ouda is totally innocent of any charges, yet he has been rotting away in his tiny prison cell. Melzer is devoted to securing Ouda’s release.

The cases of Kareem and Ouda represent the popular disgust over Egypt’s repressive, despotic rule that is making the Arab people take to the streets.

No one can be certain how the Egyptian crisis will play out. Like Iran in 1979, broad segments of the population are taking to the streets, including secularists, Marxists and Islamists. If Washington allies itself too closely with Mubarak, people will resent the United States. There is no reason why we should not, as the late wonderful congressman and human rights advocate Tom Lantos had once tried to do, condition our continuation of aid to changes in the treatment of human rights. One thing is clear:  Whoever ultimately takes or maintains power will have to institutionalize and support human rights, freedom of assemblage, religious freedom, a free press, separation of powers and due process.

The Egyptian people have spoken loudly and clearly, and we all had best wake up and listen to the voices on the street.

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About the Author

Sarah Stern
Sarah Stern is founder and president of the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET).

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