Saturday, January 28, 2012

Lessons of January 28th

Today is the one year anniversary of the Egyptian revolution. Yes, the protests began on January 25th. But it was on January 28th that a minority of protesters ballooned into a majority of revolutionaries. Exactly one year ago, protesters collided with security forces all across Egypt, but one clash in particular has especially engrained itself in my mind: the battle of Qasr al-Nil Bridge.

At this time last year, waves of protesters crashed and crashed again upon the seemingly immovable security forces on Qasr al-Nil. For hours, the battle lines went back and forth, but it seemed for certain that the protesters would eventually be turned back. But then the improbable happened. The protesters actually won. And those waves that once crashed ineffectively against the security forces began to flood Tahrir Square. They would not leave until Mubarak fell.

I’ve learned so many lessons from the uprisings this year in Egypt and beyond, but two in particular stand out for me. The first comes from Yemen scholar Gregory Johnsen. Looking back at the absolute failure of US policy in Yemen, he tweeted that the effect of years of mistaken policy cannot always be fixed, that not all problems have solutions. It is a grim lesson, but it is also a true lesson.

The Arab Uprisings have brought previously unthinkable progress in some countries, but it has also brought unthinkable tragedy. Beyond the difficulties in Yemen, it may no longer be possible to stop a civil war in Syria, if one has not begun already. In Bahrain, increasingly influential radical voices drown out the moderates who would rather compromise before their country tears itself apart. In Iraq, Prime Minister Maliki has not only crushed fledgling protests there, but he has also endangered the precarious sectarian balance in Iraq by targeting the Sunni opposition.

Beyond the protest movements, more and more people are giving up on the two-state solution in Israel and Palestine. Within a few years, facts on the ground will make a two-state solution impossible. Yet the two sides apparently prefer squabbling about negotiating than actually negotiating. Meanwhile, Iran continues to act in an increasingly bellicose manner. They will not give up on their nuclear program and we will not give up on restricting it. War, whether purposeful or accidental, is no longer unimaginable.

This admittedly paints a rather dark picture of the Middle East, but the second lesson I learned is the light at the end of the tunnel. Like all the seemingly intractable problems above, the prospects for those protesters on Qasr al-Nil too were dark. Their improbable victory that day shows that, in the heat of the moment, a problem that is impossible to solve looks exactly like a problem that is extremely hard to solve. There is no distinguishing the two until ultimate success or failure. Perhaps the security forces on that bridge would never break, or perhaps the next charge would break them. There was no knowing until the protesters charged, so they did over and over again until they won.

Having been caught in a much smaller battle between protesters and security forces, I have seen firsthand the bravery of a protester who takes a step towards security forces. Many of the problems I list above may, in fact, have no solutions. But some might. And finding those solutions will substantially improve the security of the region and the lives of the people in it. To do so, we all will need to channel the bravery and persistence of those protesters in Qasr al-Nil. Our attempts may come to naught, but they just might become something so much more. We just might make it across the bridge.


Londoneya Eyan said...

Loved reading this, I hope we all make it across the bridge.

Jason Stern said...


Post a Comment