Birth of a democracy

Last week, we celebrated my favorite American holiday. Between the food, family and pyrotechnics, it is a day I look forward to every year. What I love most though, is that it is a celebration of independence, a universally valued human right. July 4th marks the start of our history as a free and democratic nation.
This year, our celebration of independence coincided with the historic birth of Egypt’s democracy. While enjoying the usual barbeque and fireworks, I could not help but reflect on the fact that during the prior week, the population of my birthplace witnessed their first democratically elected president swearing an oath of office. It was an emotional moment for tens of millions of Egyptians all over the world, a celebration of freedom after struggle that was realized only after thousands of years of tyranny and oppression dating back before the time of Moses. A celebration of peace embodied by the word and action of local protestors chanting “silmeya, silmeya” (peaceful, peaceful) even in the face of violent attacks by the regime.

I live in Pasadena, but was born into a large extended family in Cairo so I have been closely watching the events there for the last year and a half with much hope and excitement. A year ago, neither my family in Cairo nor myself would have believed that a popularly elected leader would be possible in the land of Pharaoh, the metaphoric figurehead of tyranny and oppression. It is still difficult to fathom that President Mohamed Morsi, who was jailed as recently as last year for his political activism, now finds himself in office while former leader Hosni Mubarak lies in a jail cell, sentenced to life in prison for crimes against his people. What an astounding triumph of peace and democracy over tyranny and oppression.

Non-violence, or peaceful resistance, was never the traditional path for change in Egyptian politics. I remember being seven years old and watching the bloody footage of Anwar Al-Sadat’s assassination in 1981. Mubarak, the vice president at the time, was injured in the attack, went on to rule Egypt for most of my adult life. That is how regimes have ended in modern Egypt; leaders have only left their rule when forced to do so —by death. As despised as Mubarak was by many, myself included, he will still be remembered historically as the only Egyptian leader to yield to the will of his people, even if his hand was forced.

The lesson for me in this unlikely modern day parable is that non-violent resistance is a powerful tool for change, even in a place like Egypt. If it can happen in Egypt, it can happen anywhere.

After witnessing the modern uprisings throughout the Arab Spring, I am reminded that independence is a fundamental need that people will continue to fight to gain. I am also reminded of the sacrifices of all those, from the American revolutionaries to the protestors in Tahrir Square, who paid the ultimate price in their resistance to tyranny.

My hope for the future is that Egypt’s uprising sparked a fire that continues to spread freedom, through the example of non-violent resistance. I hope that people remember the lesson from Tahrir Square —that it took millions of peaceful demonstrators of all faiths working together for change, united by one vision, “silmeya silmeya.”
Tarek Shawky is a former Public Defender in LA and Riverside County. He practices criminal defense in Pasadena where he resides with his wife Edina and their one year old son.

(Photo Credit: enggul)

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