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In Warren Beatty’s 1981 film, “Reds,” journalist and activist Jack Reed is discussing the pros and cons of Eugene Debs’ 1912 presidential campaign with renowned anarchist Emma Goldman and a few others.
“Don’t you think,” someone asks Goldman, “that if Debs gets a lot of votes, it will strengthen the anti-war coalition?”
“No, I don’t,” Goldman says. “I think voting is the opiate of the masses. Every four years you deaden the pain. The only real impact you can make is in the streets.”
What was good enough for American radicals in the early 20th century also turned out to be the tactics that fueled the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam War cause many decades later: taking to the streets, marching, shouting, demanding, presenting a case to any and all willing to take notice.
Indeed, sometimes, the only real impact you can make is in the streets. That’s what has happened in Egypt since January 25, and in Tunisia before that. It’s what finally drove Hosni Mubarak from power last Friday.
Isn’t it refreshing to discover again what Emma Goldman knew in 1912? Nothing has more of a political impact than large groups of people taking to the very streets of their country to present their just demands.
The thing that made it so remarkable in Egypt was that it almost never happened. Americans take for granted the democracy we enjoy. But for the 30 years of Mubarak’s rule, Egyptians had no real form of democracy whatsoever. He had been “re-elected” several times, usually in so-called referendums where he had no opposition.
After Tunisia, where large protests led its strongman president to leave, the fever spread to Egypt, and was assisted by some modern techniques Emma Goldman didn’t have in 1912, and that not even Martin Luther King Jr. or Abbie Hoffman had in the ‘60s.
Here’s how the joke went in Egypt: Mubarak died and met the nation’s two previous presidents, Nasser and Sadat, in the afterlife. They said, “What happened? How did you die? Assassination? Poison?”
“No,” Mubarak said. “It was Facebook.”
The “social media” that we hear so much about really did fuel a lot of what happened in Egypt. Before the government shut down the Internet, a Facebook page was used to organize attendance for the protests.
The Twitter posts of one key opposition leader were reported as hard news, as were other “tweets” from people in the large crowds at Tahrir Square. It looks like the Internet can be used for more political purposes than just raising money for candidates.
Now we’ll wait to see just what form of democracy takes shape in Egypt, and whether other Arab countries can produce what the people in the streets of Cairo, Alexandria and other cities accomplished.
There’s another lesson in all this: Freedom and democracy in parts of the world that haven’t had it should come from their own people, not from foreign military invasions. George W. Bush was right about the freedom aspirations of people in the Arab world, but his method - invading a country that hadn’t attacked us - must not be repeated.
Given the legitimate passions we’ve seen in the streets of Egypt, people who long for freedom are quite capable of creating it for themselves when the time is right. What happened to Mubarak had been brewing for a long time; the desire for freedom met the modern techniques that made it possible.
But when the work in the streets is complete, then comes the time to do the even harder task of building a working democracy. That’s Egypt’s challenge now.