"Tunisia, Egypt, ..... Will the U.S. be Next?", by Paul Cienfuegos
Tunisia and Egypt are both ruled by dictators, as are many other societies in the Arab world and beyond. But is it really that different in these United States, as our corporate media and government leaders would have us believe? Is this country so democratic and free that a similar sort of uprising is not needed here?
As we’ve all listened to the endless pronouncements these past few days by U.S. leaders and political pundits about the democratic uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, why have we not been responding with a mixture of hysterical laughter and weeping? Have we not noticed how similar our grievances are to theirs? Have we become so numb about the sorry state of our own so-called “democracy” that we can no longer even imagine ourselves joining with strangers to demand a truly democratic society in these United States?
Over the past few days, I’ve gathered quotations about the Tunisian and Egyptian democratic uprisings. You might be surprised who said what! Can you imagine someone saying these identical words about our country?
* “People have grown tired of corrupt institutions and a stagnant political order. They are demanding reforms to make their governments more effective, more responsive, and more open.” (1)
* “If you look at this protest…these are really local conditions driving this even as we saw in Tunisia. You have poverty. You have issues of access. You have young professionals, middle class, educated people complaining bitterly about a lack of opportunity.” (2)
* “We want to see a real democracy that reflects the vibrancy of Egyptian society, and we believe that President Mubarak, his government, civil society, political activists need to be part of a national dialogue to bring that about.” (3)
* “President Ben Ali is aging, his regime is sclerotic…. Many Tunisians are frustrated by the lack of political freedom and angered by First Family corruption, high unemployment and regional inequities. …” (4)
* “Young people want to feel that they are participating: not only in their economic future, but participating in how they’re governed, participating in their future.” (5)
It’s a bit surreal how well these quotes describe our situation also. For example, the gap between the rich and the poor is wider here in the U.S. than in almost any other country in the world, including Tunisia and Egypt. And it’s growing wider by the day.
The blossoming of authentic democratic structures in Egypt has been blocked for many years by a dictator calling himself a President. The blossoming of authentic democratic structures in the United States has been blocked for many years by an ongoing corporate coup, aided and abetted by the U.S. Supreme Court. Intriguingly, both of these actions are totally legal in our respective countries. Does that make them right? Does that make them acceptable?
The Egyptian people have decided enough is enough. They even defeated the feared Egyptian police force last week, simply by overwhelming them with their massive physical presence in the streets of Cairo and other cities. It’s too early to know whether they’ll manage to prevail against the organized thugs sent to attack them by Mubarak’s regime. But their efforts have already been world-changing.
What are we Americans doing in regards to our serious grievances against our government and corporate leaders? We’re writing letters and signing online petitions begging them to do the right thing, and voting every second year - usually for the candidate who has the most (corporate) money in his/her coffers. Why? Because that’s what our elected officials and corporate leaders and single-issue activist groups keep urging us to do. It clearly isn’t working, but that doesn’t seem to be stopping us.
Is it conceivable that our actions aren’t having their intended outcomes because we aren’t living in a democratic republic? That it’s simply designed to look like one, thanks to all of the window-dressing that’s so pretty and alluring? If this were a truly democratic republic, with all of the effective checks and balances that we hold so dear, wouldn’t our wishes become reality more easily? More quickly? If the United States really were, in actuality, a country ruled by the majority, wouldn’t We the Majority be winning what we want, day in and day out?
* Contrary to what our corporatized mass media tells us, a majority of Americans want a publicly-managed health care system that provides affordable coverage to everyone. Polls show that we have wanted such a system for decades, which isn’t that surprising given that we’re one of the very few industrialized nations on the planet without one. Are our leaders responsive to our yearnings?
* A majority of Americans want real protection for the millions of our neighbors who are being forced into home foreclosures due to deceptive lending practices – 3.8 million of them in just the past year! Are our leaders acting boldly to end this travesty?
* A majority of Americans want a rapid end to our continuing occupations of and war against the people of Iraq and Afghanistan (and Pakistan and Yemen and and and), which - with the rest of our military spending - eats up about half of the entire U.S. budget each year. Are our leaders responding with decisive action?
Our nation has an official myth, an official story:
The U.S. has a “free press” and “free speech” protected vigorously and effectively by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. We have “free and fair elections,” which is all that is required to satisfy the official U.S. definition of a “democracy.” And last but not least, we are proud to be a capitalist society, which is officially pretty much the same thing as being a democratic society.
Fewer and fewer Americans believe this story. It is becoming increasingly obvious to anyone who pays attention to actual reality that the candidate with the most money usually wins. Our two party system is incapable of representing the vast majority of us, who increasingly respond by registering as Independents, Greens or Libertarians, but whose chosen candidates can’t win because of ridiculous election laws. Our mainstream press is almost entirely owned or controlled by a handful of giant corporations (including, tragically, PBS and NPR). Almost all of the key societal decisions are now made behind closed doors by corporate boards of directors, which have become the primary constituents of government and whose members now run most of our government agencies. Many of these outrages are legal only because We the People continue to allow our corporate creations to exercise Constitutional “rights” as if they were real flesh and blood people.
It’s really scary as an American to admit that the U.S. isn’t really a democratic society at all. Its founding fathers were slave owners who protected the dominant institution of slavery in the Constitution they wrote. Today, the corporation is the dominant institution of our society, and the U.S. Supreme Court continues to expand its Constitutional “rights” year after year. Today, the legal and political power of We the People pales in comparison to the legal and political power of the corporate “person”. This is not a democracy in any honest sense of the word. Given that painful truth, a fundamentally different kind of response is required from us. Single-issue activism simply can’t succeed when the “issues” we face are mere symptoms of corporate rule. (Solutions to this crisis do exist. More info at <CELDF.org> and <PaulCienfuegos.com>.)
What do We the People of these United States of America want? Do we dare even ask ourselves that question, for fear of being ignored or ridiculed? Perhaps it’s time to stretch ourselves beyond our normal comfort levels.
The Declaration of Independence includes these words:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. --That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
What’s stopping us from demanding that the men and women whom we elect either take these words seriously or resign? What’s stopping us from asking ourselves whether we are being well served by our existing structures of government? Is this really that different from what the Egyptian people are demanding of their government?
Please remind me again why we remain so disconnected from and distrustful of our institutions of government, while two million Egyptian people are in the streets together peacefully demanding (and winning!) dramatic changes from theirs. I’m not so sure that we have anything to teach the Egyptian people about what democracy looks like.
Just two weeks ago, most of the Egyptians in the streets would have told you that this could not have happened, that they felt isolated from each other and scared to stand up for their beliefs. Then the people of Tunisia rose up suddenly in enormous numbers, (partially due to leaked U.S. Embassy cables from WikiLeaks), and just as suddenly their dictator had fled. Young Egyptians started mobilizing themselves via twitter and facebook. And just one week later, two million Egyptians came out on the streets together. The Egyptian dictator’s days are now numbered. And as I finalize this article, peaceful demonstrations are also now taking place in Jordan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Syria.
Does this sort of popular widespread democratic uprising scare you? Excite you? It’s worth examining why you feel the way you do. Can you envision yourself finding your voice as millions of non-activist Egyptians are finding theirs? Can you see yourself joining your neighbors and co-workers, friends and strangers, young and old, in the streets and in the halls of government, and not just for a few hours?
According to long-time Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy, the Egyptian revolution “was launched by the youth and was driven by the youth. ….Everything you see today was started by two groups of youth movements that launched invitations on Facebook. And at first people laughed at them. They said, ‘You can’t invite people to a revolution.’ Everyone’s just going to click 'Yes,' you know, 'Like,' you know? And that’s it, you know?’ Armchair activists or ‘slacktivists,’ like they say. But people came out. So, they launched this amazing thing. And this group of young people who were convinced that they could take back Egypt from Mubarak inspired the entire country. So, they had thousands who joined them at first, and then more and then more and then more. And now you see everybody on the street….[W]hat we’re seeing in Egypt now is this amazing national dialogue where people are saying, ‘Look, this is the time to take a stand.’"
How closely are the youth of this country following what Egypt’s youth have achieved in just the past week? I’d like to think that many of our young people are currently asking themselves whether they have what it takes to follow in the footsteps of their brave peers in Egypt. Clearly, the youth of both of our countries share similar grievances.
The U.S. has a very long and proud history of resistance to injustice. Many of the people who were leaders in these movements are still with us and would be overjoyed to participate again in a peaceful grassroots and democratic uprising if it happened here. In fact there are perhaps millions of Americans who would respond to such a call – especially at this historic moment.
There are so many crises facing us that require urgent attention – from peak oil and climate destabilization to the real possibility of widespread economic collapse. We need responsive governing institutions freed from corporate interference if we are going to have any chance of responding effectively. Do We the People of these United States trust ourselves enough to act as boldly as are our Egyptian brothers and sisters? Do we really even have the choice?
No one expected what happened in Tunisia. No one expected it to jump quickly to Egypt. No one saw it coming. No one. Can it happen here? Will it?
“If the people lead, the people will follow.” The only questions remaining are: What’s stopping us? And what do we want?
1. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, issuing a warning to Arab rulers just as the Tunisian uprising was beginning, on NPR’s Morning Edition, 1/28/2011
2. Former Rep. Harold Ford Jr. of Tennessee, on Meet the Press, 1/30/2011
3. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on Meet the Press, 1/30/2011
4. From a U.S. Embassy cable about Tunisia dated 17 July 2009, published by WikiLeaks
5. Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman, on NPR’s Morning Edition, 1/28/2011
Paul Cienfuegos is an educator and community organizer working to dismantle corporate constitutional “rights." More info at PaulCienfuegos.com.