Revolution in the air

14:40, January 31, 2011      

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By Luis Vega

Change is a powerful concept, so is violence and political repression. It appears these elements have come together in an explosive mix all over the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region in a way not seen before. I emphasize 'seen' as the seeds of revolution have been sowed for decades yet unseen by those outside the borders.

There are new elements in the picture. Egyptians are not pinning responsibility on foreigners but on their own government and themselves for allowing an intolerable situation to fester for decades. That in itself shows progress and political maturity because it is true.

Instant progress is a 'political mirage', an illusion, because lasting progress only comes through hard work and mutual compromise if we are to achieve permanent improvements that benefit all. In the middle of a revolution there is not much room for compromise instead a lot of intimidation, incendiary rhetoric, and suppression of dissent.

The current situation in Egypt, although tragic, might be the necessary growing pains of a political system ready for transformation. It cannot happen any other way because the North African nation we've known has been hidden-in-plain-sight by the convenient propaganda benefiting an out-of-touch elite.

I remember a conversation I had with a taxi driver on the way to Arabic class, that he initiated, during my work assignment in the Middle East. "We don't want Bush democracy," he told me as we navigated the chaotic narrow streets of a Persian Gulf island. It was unexpected because nothing I had said nor any behavior I had shown should have triggered such comment. Yet there I was, a token American in a Muslim world personally challenged by reality and perception of what my country stands for. Taken to task by a powerless native bent on blaming his problems on a powerful country. Mine.

"Democracy means government of the people, not imposed by others," I told him, "Democracy is not a Bush invention or imposition, it's what we Americans believe brings stability and progress because it's mandated by the people themselves." He did not seem convinced by my argument. To him anything coming from the West was incompatible with Arab aspirations. Especially Bush democracy, as he described it. While to me democracy is not exclusive to a nation, political leader, culture, race or religion. It is a right. He saw a different picture.

His comment informed me of an American failure to articulate principles in a way that can be understood by the Arab street and accepted by the Arab elite. I felt our foreign policy, like myself, was trapped in a vehicle driven by outside forces I could not control nor escape. Needing each other to reach a common destination in a business transaction that actually benefits both.

"For me democracy means freedom. Freedom to chose, freedom to be, freedom to be an active partner in the direction of my country. Freedom cannot be imposed on you because by definition it means you are free to make your own decisions and live by their consequences," I added as I looked at my watch and out the window visually searching for location I wanted to reach.

As an American of Latino heritage I could not understand how anybody would see in freedom and democracy a Western conspiracy to usurp power from the people. It seemed the regional elite had been successful in convincing the Arab street they are incapable of governing themselves without the paternal guidance of an omnipotent leader. Yet we are complicit in our silence.

I felt conflicted. Here I was defending democracy and at the same time accused of attempting to colonize a group of people innately resistant to anything perceived Western. It made no sense and at the same time perfect sense. That's how they have been ruled for decades, brainwashed their rights and responsibilities to assist the creation of a more just society is a Western ploy to rob them of their independence. We were trapped in an abstract paradigm and inside a car navigating an unknown path to a common destination.

Somehow I did not feel constrained or held against my will in a situation I could not control but quite the opposite. I felt fortunate knowing the conversation I was now part of would not have happened had the anonymous taxi driver not felt he could trust me. In spite of resisting American influence he chose an American to share his fears and aspirations. It's a love-hate relationship. We need each other yet we argue about who goes on top or bottom of the power structure.

He said democracy to him meant anybody could do whatever they wanted all the time and that would create chaos, disorder and violence. He craved discipline and authority. I thought he was confusing anarchy with democracy. It was clear to me in his social construct; the difference between the two concepts was inexistent. Since illiteracy is rampant in the region lack of education facilitates delegating all authority to the state. Sometimes not by force but willingly in total submission.

Certainly the dynamics of the Middle East and North African region are specific to their historical and cultural realities. Realities I as an American and as a Latino understand but do not share. All sides of my cultural, historical, and political, nature support rebelling against social injustice always and forever. There is no conflict between my American and Latino selves. They are harmonious and compatible and democratic.

I do not want to come across as someone promoting revolution while sitting comfortably thousands of miles away from the mayhem watching its images on television. At times like these I'm glad I am simply a private citizen not president of a powerful nation with the weight of the world on his shoulders. Being a citizen of a functional democracy gives me the power and freedom to express my opinion without fear of reprisal or death. That's the gift of democracy.

Finally we arrived at my destination, and let me confide, I was happy to end the journey without problems. I thanked the driver, paid him in dinars and began walking towards my Arabic language school confidently. Until he interrupted my exit to speak to me in Arabic and smile. "Shukran, saffir," he said.

In my basic knowledge of Arabic then I only knew the word "shukran", which means "thank you" but did not understand the other term. Once safely in my classroom I asked my native teacher what "saffir" meant without telling him what had just happened. "Luis, 'saffir' means ambassador," he told me. Alone with my unknowing teacher a smile suddenly visited my lips. Lesson learned, I thought. "Salam alykhum, sadeeqi."

This article is a People's Daily Online exclusive.

The article represents the author's views only. It does not represent opinions of People's Daily or People's Daily Online.

(Editor:张心意)

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