22. April 2013 07:37
by Administrator

Birmingham and the Arab Spring by Rami Khouri

22. April 2013 07:37 by Administrator | 6 Comments

Those who took part (and continue to take part) in the civil rights movement in the USA, especially the seminal Birmingham events of 1963, should appreciate how deeply their sentiments, actions and ethics resonate around the world until this day. Birmingham activism was not just a pivotal historical moment in one location; it marked the birth of a style of non-violent resistance that was born and successfully applied there, but that endures in the hearts of subjugated people across the world. What Birmingham gave to the world turns out to be universal and timeless, transcending religions and cultures. Those school children who marched two-by-two and then stood out in the cold prison yards in the rain, and sang freedom songs, and came back to do it again a few days later....those children who are adults today continue to provide examples for people around the world who also yearn to be free and whole.

I will speak more at the symposium next week in Birmingham about some core parallels I see between the civil rights struggle and the various struggles for rights, dignity and full citizenship by various Arab populations in recent years, in places like Palestine, Lebanon, Sudan, Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and others, some going back to the 1930s and 1950s. We will explore together the mutual lessons of how citizens achieve their rights, and, equally importantly, how those rights are preserved forever under the rule of law, and not eroded over time.

The Arab uprisings today in half a dozen countries are the most recent example of citizens subjugated by their own authorities who respond by resisting oppression and seeking full rights. But the activism of citizens in the rich Gulf state of Kuwait is the one that strikes me as most dramatic in reflecting some of the same attitudes and activism techniques that we saw in Birmingham, including mass non-violent defiance and a willingness to "fill the jails." Kuwait is meaningful because the demonstrators are mostly wealthy, with all their basic needs fully taken care of by the Kuwaiti government—and still they dare the state to arrest them for demanding their rights. I mention the several reasons for grasping the symbolism of Kuwait in the excerpt below from my syndicated column today; the link to the full column is also below.

“A parallel important new political dynamic is the convergence among demonstrators of several opposition groups that had formerly mostly worked on their own, including Islamists, tribalists, nationalists, youth groups, human rights activists, and “bidoun” Kuwaitis who lack full nationality and rights. This kind of multi-constituency, non-violent, mass civil disobedience and open defiance of the emir and the police reminds me of the civil rights protests by schoolchildren in Birmingham, Alabama 50 years ago. There, thousands of youngsters who marched peacefully and sang protest songs in defiance of police orders also took their toothbrushes with them, knowing they would go to jail for at least a night. When the packed jails of Birmingham and adjacent towns eventually could hold no more protesters, and peaceful demonstrators demanding nothing more than their civil rights showed by their behavior that they were prepared to be jailed over and over again, the racist power elite gave up and negotiated an end to the protests by recognizing the citizens' demands.

It is not clear if mass civil disobedience will move Kuwait in a similar direction. What is clear is that we witness in Kuwait an unprecedented situation of anti-autocracy mass civil disobedience by elements of a population that is not poor, hungry or lacking in basic services. Unlike Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria, these protesters do not demand the overthrow of the regime, but rather seek constitutional reforms that give citizens their basic rights to participate in decision-making and hold power accountable.

The modern Arab security state has always responded to such movements with massive police action, including imprisonment, exile or even withdrawing nationality (as has happened in several GCC states in the past few years). Tens of thousands of Kuwaitis seem to be challenging this modern Arab legacy, suggesting instead that genuine security and stability must be anchored in that one phenomenon that the Arab world has never seriously tried to create: a satisfied citizenry that shapes state policies, enjoys the protection of the rule of law, and is the source of the legitimacy of public authority."

The full column is at http://www.agenceglobal.com/index.php?show=article&Tid=3015

Indeed, the struggle goes on, across the world, often reflecting and remembering Birmingham.

31. January 2013 05:20
by Administrator

Martin Luther King Day through the eyes of an Egyptian

31. January 2013 05:20 by Administrator | 1 Comments

Guest Blogger:  Amina ElHalawani, Fulbright FLTA, Birmingham Southern College  

A few days ago we celebrated Martin Luther King Day in the United States.  Being a Fulbright scholar in Birmingham, Alabama I got the opportunity to go to a celebration held at the historic 16th Street Baptist Church. With the presidential inauguration taking place on the same day, it could not have been any better, any more celebratory or joyful.  People sang of freedom, of equality, of pride in the journey and the call for civil rights, but most importantly, they sang of the dream. Martin Luther King’s words “I have a dream” reverberated in the hall as they all cheered that the dream has to live on and on until it becomes fully realized, and I wondered…

The dream? Has it not been realized? Has not the Civil Rights Movement in the United States achieved its utmost goals, being crowned by the election of President Obama for a second term? Yet, as these thoughts ran through my head, I could still hear the chants “Ain't gonna let nobody turn me around...Turn me around...Turn me around...” and the occasional yell from the crowds, “Soldiers of the dream!” Moving is not enough to fully describe the celebration; full of emotion and pride people were celebrating, but in the midst of the ecstasy there was no sense of complacency, the fighting spirit instilled in them by a sense of responsibility and a calling to turn the world into a better place filled the air.

Being an Egyptian, I could immediately relate. I suddenly started visualizing Tahrir Square, the tear gas, and the water hoses… the determination, the courage and the strength of will… And back at the church the chants grew louder: “Ain't gonna let the administration turn me around...Turn me around...Turn me around...Ain't gonna let the administration turn me around...Keep on a-walkin', Keep on a-talkin'…Gonna build a brand new world.” I could see the millions who marched the streets of Egypt, hand in hand, united by the dream of building that brand new world. People of all ages, men and women, Muslims and Christians, liberals and conservatives, all marched… In the church, the choir sang, “Ain't gonna let no first-strike policy turn me around...Turn me around...Turn me around...”

The dream was alive, I could feel it in the air, I could see it in the eyes of everyone around me, as they glanced at me and smiled, knowing I am just a visitor and encouraging me to sing along. “We shall overcome” the choir started to sing, and the congregation suddenly, even more fired up, started singing along. One of the choir members doing a solo went into some kind of a trance while the people yelled “Hallelujah!” and started praying… They prayed in song, they honored the foot soldiers who were sitting among us, then put their hands together and the voices rose above the sound of the grand organ accompanying their singing.

“Where do we stand now? Two years after the revolution…Wow, two years already?” I thought to myself. Then, flashes of the packed squares and the patriotic songs that echoed in the streets as the news announced that Mubarak had stepped down rushed through my brain… What a feeling that was! Two years… it feels like so long ago now, people barely remember it. To many, this was the moment, nothing else mattered… it was going to be a nice smooth ride from there…

The chants in the church grew louder, as I held hands with the people beside me and joined the singing, “Oh Freedom… Oh Freedom… Oh Freedom, now!” On the fiftieth anniversary of major events in the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham, the dream was alive with all its greatness; the desire for a better world, for the right to be free, for the right to be treated with dignity, for the right to a world that rewards ingenuity, creativity and hard work... “Today, we stand on the shoulders of brave warriors” the preacher reminded, as he called on the people to go on, move forward and continue the journey… Fifty years the dream has lived on… “Is it going to take Egyptians that long too? Is it going to be that many years before we start reaping what our great warriors have sewn?” I certainly hope not! But, in the meantime, the dream must live on; it must be revived in every one of us… It is the dream that brought us all together, as communities, as a nation and as global citizens and it is keeping it constantly in sight that shall lead all of us through to the light at the end of the tunnel…

Oh Freedom… Oh Freedom… Oh Freedom, now!

17. December 2012 12:25
by Ashley Makar

The Human-Rights Struggle in Egypt

17. December 2012 12:25 by Ashley Makar | 0 Comments

When my Egyptian dad saw news photos of water cannons unleashed on Cairo protesters in the first days of the January 2011 uprising in Egypt, he said “It’s like what happened in Birmingham.”

Before moving to the Magic City for his dream job in cardiology, all my dad knew about Birmingham were images of civil strife he’d seen in the newspaper: Church bombings; police beatings; water cannons, streaming with enough force to break skin.  When Egyptians from all walks of life came out for a “Million-Man March” against the Mubarak regime in February, my dad said “I’m with the people.”  But he was watching the protest on satellite t.v., from his recliner in Mountain Brook, Alabama.  I’m “for the people,” too.  But I’m watching the violent aftermath of the Egyptian revolution with my coffee cup and cream-of-wheat next to my computer screen, tuned in to Al Jezeera live stream. Can those with full stomachs be good global citizens to those without? 

I’m skeptically hopeful.  Skeptical that we can be more than sympathetic spectators from comfortable suburbs.  Skeptical that what many celebrated as a democratic, nonreligious, popular revolt won’t buckle at the fault lines of class and religion in Egypt: tension between the haves and the have-nots; between Muslims, Christians, and secularists. 

What’s happening in Egypt is exciting. But it’s painful and scary, fragile and fierce. Mubarak’s gone, but his legacy may live on. As Martin Luther King, Jr. would say, the struggle continues.  As the world celebrates International Human Rights Day, Cairo is reeling from the latest round of gunfire in Tahrir Square. Human Rights Watch reports the use of lethal force against protestors demanding an end to military rule.  Now that Egypt is having the first post-Mubarak parliamentary elections, the interim military rulers just announced they will intercede in the constitutional convention to come, to prevent the Islamist parties, who’ve won over 60 percent of the vote so far, from taking over.  This October, security forces violently stopped a protest march, with gunfire, armored vehicles, and tear gas unleashed on Coptic Christians demonstrating for the rights of religious minorities in Egypt.

On International Women’s Day, Egyptian men forcefully dispersed a group of female demonstrators demanding that they be given a voice in building the future of Egypt.  Some of the male counter-protesters, many of whom had demonstrated along with women against the Mubarak regime, shouted them down with misogynistic chants: “Go home, go wash clothes…find a husband…shame on you!” http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Middle-East/2011/0308/In-Egypt-s-Tahrir-Square-women-attacked-at-rally-on-International-Women-s-Day]

What will happen in Egypt could crush our suburban solidarity “with the people” of Egypt.  It could shatter us, if it weren’t for our t.v. and computer screens.  Power entails disparity, and comfort too often yields to complacency. Egypt has disappointed and surprised me. In the January 25 uprising, it wasn’t only the poor rioting for bread; those born with silver spoons in their mouths were also demanding a better life. The young people who organized the first protests—largely through Facebook—are of the newest generation of Egypt’s educated elites.  They’re the guys I would see on their laptops at the Starbucks in Cairo, the guys I assumed didn’t care about the workers eating fava beans out of plastic bags on the street.

An Egyptian-American friend told me some terrible things she’s heard from her colleagues who were providing medical care in Tahrir Square: the “Facebook kids” who started the revolution didn’t know how to stand up to the police, so workers and peasants were protecting them.  Those used to brutality were taking it as usual, but they couldn’t protect the Facebook kids for long. My family friend heard many of the so-called “Mubarak supporters” were drug addicts, so high they could hardly feel the stones people were throwing at them. The police disappeared. Thugs were terrorizing the streets.  Mubarak set the stage to justify his security-first regime, using addicts and prisoners on the front lines.

Being half Egyptian was embarrassing growing up in Alabama, cool in an exoticizing kind of way at my liberal arts college in Connecticut, and disorienting ever since I started spending time in Egypt.  Now, my Egyptian heritage is a blessing and curse.  The week the protests broke out in January 2011, I was at the Egyptian consulate in New York. The line extended out the consulate doors, with New York police there to control the crowd: young men in leather jackets, old men in prayer caps, families, frail ladies with canes, all standing out in the sleet, waiting indefinitely—to get a number, to get on the elevator, to be pressed in the hall where we earlier birds were waiting outside the office door.  That’s an inkling of what it was like to be Egyptian under the Mubarak regime: to be subject to a bureaucracy that’s incompetent and inefficient, that doesn’t value your time, much less your dignity; to be crammed with hundreds of others vying for something you need from a government you can’t trust.  The people outside the consulate were elbowing each other, to get in to the revolving door, some yelling “Allahu akhbar!” That’s a taste of how I imagine the scene last January at Tahrir Square: crowds clamoring in different voices, some saying “Allahu akhbar!” It’s not, as some fear since 9/11, a jihadist outburst.  Muslims say “Allahu akhbar” when they’re excited or distressed.  It’s a reflex, like when Christians say “Jesus Christ!” A colloquial combination of “great God!” and damn!; astonishment and exasperation.

I first learned an Egyptian Christian way of stunned prayer—ya rab irham, Lord have mercy— from my Uncle Latif, in the interfaith chapel of the University of Alabama at Birmingham Medical Center.  We would go there on breaks from sitting in my dad’s hospital room, where he was recovering from a kidney transplant.  Latif would say ya rab irham over and over, in hope and awe: astonished at the distress we were in; hopeful that the Lord would have mercy.  I thought the Egyptian revolution had little to do with us.  We’re a minority of a minority: affluent Egyptian Christians.  I thought we were immune to the Mubarak regime.  I was wrong.  The way Latif died has a lot to do with the protests in the Egyptian streets: The government hasn’t taken care of people’s basic needs. Egypt was not a place to live, or die, with dignity.  Two years ago, Latif was hurrying to catch the tramway in Alexandria. He almost made it, but he fell and cracked his skull on the concrete platform. He lay there hemorrhaging for over an hour. No ambulance came. A passer-by drove him to the emergency room, in a public hospital, where he waited for hours to see a doctor.  My dad says “only the indigent go to government hospitals in Egypt.” The nurses are incompetent; the equipment is inadequate and unsanitary. Latif could afford a private hospital, but he didn’t have a choice that day. He died of a hematoma in his brain.

Adapted from essays that first appeared in The Birmingham News, The New Haven Register and on killingthebuddha.com.