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Bob Dylan and John Lennon: Their music rings true in the Middle East

Bob DylanI’m not a politician, a war correspondent, or a newscaster. I’m simply a human being who, like millions of others, has been watching events unfold in Egypt. I don’t want to be one of those people who digests monumental news in soundbites and then quickly moves on, uninterested in others’ hardship and pain unless it directly affects me. Ultimately everything has an effect on all of us who share the planet. This post is my way of recapping the events and thereby remembering and acknowledging those who died and those who were willing to die for the very things we Americans take for granted every day.

Back in 1963 Bob Dylan recorded the song, “The Times They Are A-Changing. Here is one of the stanzas:

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside that is ragin’
It’ll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin

These lyrics are just as relevant and meaningful today as they were almost forty years ago. In some places in the world times are a-changing out of necessity, because some things, like greed and the need that some people have to dominate and control others, unfortunately remains the same.

John Lennon’s songs “Power to the People” and “Revolution 1,” written back in the seventies, could have been the Egyptian anthem during the 18 tense, uncertain, death-defying days from January 25 – February 11 when the world witnessed the largest, popular uprising in modern history in the Arab world.

I couldn’t tear myself away from the TV as I watched hundreds of thousands of people who gathered together in Tahrir Square, also known as Liberation Square. They came in droves – rich and poor, young and old, religious and nonsecular, those who are technology savvy alongside uneducated peasants – all Egyptians,  united beyond their differences by the heritage they share.
They pitched tents, set up make-shift camps, and went without the simple necessities of bathrooms, electricity, or running water in order to stand up against police brutality, unemployment, soaring food costs, and a corrupt government during the 30-year dictatorial rule of President Hosni Mubarak.

Like a cyber-thriller, this revolution’s roots began back in the spring of 2010 when a 30-year-old, bespectacled father of two, named Wael Ghonim volunteered to run the Facebook fan page of Mohamed El Baradei, the Egyptian Nobel Prize winner, who had emerged as President Mubarak’s key opponent.

Although Wael Ghonim no longer lives in Egypt since moving to one of Dubai’s most affluent suburbs with his wife and children after he was promoted to the head of marketing for Google in the Middle East and North Africa, he remains passionate about his homeland and the desire to see his fellow countrymen enjoy the simplest, basic, God-given rights and freedoms.

As a Google executive, Ghonim knew the power of the Internet. He believed that Facebook could be the ideal revolutionary tool in his country, which has been under a martial law since Mubarak became president in 1981.

Ghonim became the organizing nucleus of the uprising in June 2010, after a young businessman from Alexandria, Egypt, named Khaled Said, posted a video on the Web that showed police pilfering pot from a drug bust. The local police found Said at an Internet café, dragged him outside, and beat him to death in broad daylight. Photos of his battered corpse went viral.

That was when Ghonim anonymously started a new Facebook page called “We Are All Khaled Said,” that posted a constant stream of photos, videos, and news and quickly became a powerful campaign against police brutality in Egypt.

The times they are a-changin.

In order to protect himself and honor Khaled Said, Ghonim chose the moniker “El Shaheed,” or “The Martyr,” which roused the people and helped create an army of volunteers. Only a select few people knew El Shaheed’s true identity.

When the people took to the streets in Tunisia on January 14 and ousted that country’s longtime dictator, Ghonim or rather “El Shaheed, The Martyr,” announced Egypt’s own revolution and invited 350,000-plus Facebook fans to protest on January 25.

Within three days, 50,000 people said yes. The FB page “We Are All Khaled Said” became a bullhorn to rally people to take action, and take action they did. As Ghonim implored them to spread the word to others on the ground, hundreds of thousands of people began to take part in street demonstrations, marches, rallies, acts of civil disobedience, and labor strikes. Crowds marched on the Presidential Palace and barricaded the State Television that wasn’t reporting the truth.

In a country where demonstrations usually only consist of a couple of hundred people who are swiftly crushed by police, the scale of this protest was beyond anyone’s expectations.

The times they are a-changin.

Then on January 27, Wael Ghonim’s family reported him missing and it soon became clear that he was being detained by the secret police. When people found out that Ghonim was El Shaheed, he was hailed a hero, a symbol of the revolution, and people started a “We are all Wael Ghonim” Facebook page.

For eleven days the Google executive sat blindfolded in a jail cell unaware of what was happening in the streets. He didn’t know if the Egyptian military had mowed down the people like the Iranian army did to its citizens who were part of the Green Revolution when they disputed the election victory of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009.

Leaders like Mahmoud hmadinejad and 82-year old Hosnan Mubarak, who are controlled by greed, status and power, aren’t easily persuaded to give those things up.

After a particularly brutal round of violent clashes between protesters and pro-government loyalists took place January 28-29 in Cairo, Alexandria, and elsewhere in Egypt more than 100 deaths were reported and 750 policemen and 1,500 protesters were reported injured.

On February 5, it was confirmed that Wael Ghonim was alive. The next day Amnesty International demanded that the Egyptian authorities release him and on February 7 he was released.

That same day he appeared on Egyptian TV and spoke at length and praised the protesters and mourned the dead. After the host read the names and showed the pictures of those who gave their life for freedom, Wael Ghonim became so overwhelmed with grief that he sobbed uncontrollably and he had to walk off camera. He had no idea that he would become a worldwide celebrity.

On February 9, when he addressed the crowds in Tahrir Square, he told the protesters, “This is not the time for individuals, or parties, or movements. It’s a time for all of us to say just one thing: Egypt above all.

But despite the protests, Mubarak refused to step down. He alternated between inducements and threats. With his back pushed against the wall he offered meager reforms, but it was a case of too little too late. The people would have nothing less than his resignation.

By February 10, the death toll had conservatively risen to 300 and quite possibly double or triple that. I went to bed worried that the Egyptian people would be beaten into submission.

Fouad Ajami, a professor and Director of Middle East Studies at The Johns Hopkins University, wrote about Mubarak: “He had grown remote and imperious. And in Midan al-Tahrir, Liberation Square, the aged ruler saw a whole new country emerge before his startled eyes.”

Miraculously the next morning when I turned on the TV, I learned that Egypt’s president had finally conceded and was turning power over to the military who had turned the guns on their tanks away from the people. I cried as I saw hundreds of thousands of jubilant protesters in Tahrir Square and headlines that read, “Egypt is free.”

Ajami continued: “No turbaned ayatollah had stepped forth to summon the crowd. This was not Iran in 1979. A young Google executive, Wael Ghonim, energized this protest when it might have lost heart, when it could have succumbed to the belief that this regime and its leaders were a big, immovable object. Mr. Ghonim is a man of the modern world. He was not driven by piety. The condition of his country – the abject poverty, the crony economy of plunder and corruption, the cruelties and slights handed out to Egyptians in all walks of life by a police state that the people had outgrown and despaired of – had given this young man and others like him their historical warrant.”

It only took eighteen days to topple the man who enslaved the Egyptian people for 30 years. But freedom came at a price, not only in deaths, but in that currency that greed most values. When Mubarak left office he had the audacity to take with him somewhere between $40 and $70 billion. It seems to me that only someone who has made a pact with the devil could take such a sum while men, women, and children live in squalor without the basic necessities.

As I write this, a full scale revolt has been going on in Libya as the people there try to oust Muammar al-Gaddafi after 41 years. Reports say that so far 1000 people have been killed. I heard a Libyan woman talking on the phone to Anderson Cooper. She said people were afraid to come out of there houses for fear of being killed. She didn’t know how much longer they could hold on and she asked the United States, the World, someone, to help them, to take action against their maniacal leader. My heart goes out to them.

There are reports of renewed anti-government protests in Iran, with demonstrators taking to the streets in several cities across the country. People in countries around the world are having to fight for their freedom, something Americans take for granted.

I wondered what it would take for usually complacent Americans to take to the streets. I had no idea it would happen only days after the uprising in Egypt when 35,000 teachers, students, and other pro-union protesters descended on the State Capitol Building  in Wisconsin defending their most cherished ideals against the newly elected Tea Party Governor who wanted to strip them of their right to collectively bargain and negotiate their contract.

Americans will find that we are not immune to civil unrest. As the middle class disappears and the gap between the rich and poor widens, when there is a food shortage in a country that has been used to All-You-Can-Eat Buffets, when we pay the true price of gas that includes the cost of two wars, when we can’t afford health care, we may have more empathy for the people in Egypt, Iran, Yemen, Tunisia,  and Libya.

We have our own Mubarak in the form of people like Bernie Madoff and all those corporate executives who give themselves outrageous salaries, bonuses, and Golden Parachute compensation plans while millions of people are losing their homes. I can only imagine a world that is not ruled by greed; a world where people are willing to do with a little less so that others might have a little more.

Even after all these years, John Lennon’s words still ring true – here in the U.S., there in the Middle East, and everywhere.

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace
You may say that I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one
Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace

Did You Know?

Many of my interviews, including Up Close and Personal and feature articles, can be found on the Interviews page.

Giving Back

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  1. cherie in atlanta says:

    so put an immense lump in my throat, why doncha, hmmm?

    passionate prose poignantly presented.