Political idealism triumphs over Egypt’s cruel political reality

The power of an idea proved stronger than tanks, water cannon and bullets.

When I saw images of Tahrir Square's peaceful-but-angry protesters gathering in the hundreds of thousands, I involuntarily linked them in my mind to images of police mistreatment of citizens, such as a man with one foot inside a public bus and the rest of his body hanging out, risking his life to go home. I knew that among these protesters were Egyptians who spent a big chunk of their lives waiting patiently in line for subsidised bread. I knew among them were mothers who had lost their sons, sunk in ships in an illegal and desperate attempt to seek a better life on the other side of the Mediterranean.

When I saw the protests in Tahrir Square, pictures of Khaled Saied's fractured skull [warning: exremely graphic image], of Emad Elkebir being sodomised with a cane by a police officer, of protesters being kidnapped by plain-clothed National Democratic Party thugs sprang to my mind. I remembered doctored pictures, state TV lies and the massive media outlets funded by our money to act as the propaganda arm of former president Mubarak's regime. I remembered waking up every single morning of my life to Mubarak on the first page of al-Ahram state-run newspaper on our breakfast table.

When I saw the anger, frustration, determination, resilience and great hope in a better future in the eyes of protesters, I also remembered what those who dreamed of change had to face other than state-security intimidation – except until a few months ago, those who have dreamed of change were scattered, unconnected, unorganised and weak.

These millions of people trying to pull down the Mubarak dictatorship have been told that political idealism is one thing and political reality is another. Political idealism in this battle was represented by protesters camping in Tahrir, driven by the desire for fresh political change, democracy, restoration of their dignity and a better future for their kids. They were armed with nothing but faith, sheer determination and great courage.

Political reality favours short-term, fake stability at the expense of freedom, human dignity and social justice.

For a long time political idealists were accused of being naive. The power of their ideas – of liberty, freedom and justice – has always been underplayed. Ending the Egyptian dictatorship seemed like a mission impossible. It wasn't a fight against one man, but against all Arab dictatorships, Israel and the US, which all had vested interests in keeping Mubarak in power.

This scepticism was completely justified. Mubarak's authoritarian infrastructure was a brilliant combination of three things: military loyalty, horrifying state security and intelligence apparatuses, and a ruling party of billionaire businessmen who help with funding this whole process of maintaining the status quo in return for "economic favours". What is more, all this was internationally backed up due to Mubarak's good friendship with Israel – or, better said, Mubarak's unquestioned obedience to Israel.

Amid all these challenges, how did peaceful protesters armed with nothing but a love of dignity, freedom and social justice win this battle against political realism despite the arrests of its members, the torture and killings? How did the mighty state security force collapse in a matter of a few hours? How was a cabinet of wealthy businessmen dismissed in a matter of days? How did one of the world's worst dictators fall in just 18 days?

It's because the power of an idea proved much stronger than the power of tanks, water cannon, bullets, batons, tear gas and Molotov cocktails. When the idea is right, it can prove more resilient than an out-of-its-mind police state, which wouldn't hesitate before running over [warning: extremely graphic footage] peaceful protesters with ugly armoured vehicles.

I salute those who turned one of the world's strongest men into one of its weakest, as well as those who did not favour a fake stability imposed by the heavy hand of brutal security over a stability driven by social equality and political freedom. But, most importantly, I salute those who gave their lives so that others can enjoy a better one.

Osama Diab is an Egyptian-British journalist and blogger.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496