Inside the Arab Autumn

Mona Eltahawy held up her arms to block the blows from gendarmerie batons. The police had crossed from the cool evening exterior of the crowd into the steaming, dusty, tear-gas-choked innards of a movement. The rule had been that when the police enter the heart of the square, the weight of a dying regime lands with every strike of their batons. November 24, 2011 was no exception to the rule.

Her forearm and hand shattered, Eltahawy was dragged from the churned ground and thrown into police custody. The next twelve hours were a cacophony of interrogations from the Interior Ministry and the military police of consistent sexual assault and of further beatings. Blindfolded and exhausted from resisting attempts at rape, her broken arms went untreated until her release.

Eltahawy had made her stand on that autumn night in the square called Tahrir—which translates, appropriately, as Liberation—with thousands of fellow Egyptians as they had for 303 straight days. The people of Egypt rose against a Hosni Mubarak administration that had wielded violence, censorship, and electioneering as tools of oppression.

The people’s action in Cairo, coextensive with revolutions in Tunisia, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere across the Arab world, ousted Mubarak and yielded transparent elections for the first time in Egypt’s history. And, as Eltahawy says, “The revolution continues.”

The continuing revolution in North Africa and the Middle East is, for Syrian-American activist and Boston-area native Nadia Alawa, the backdrop for her community’s response to fringe groups who attacked Western embassies earlier this month. “Our participation in rallies for freedom in Syria,” she writes, “are attempts—on the part of our group of mostly Muslims, many Arabs, Americans, but also Christians and specifically Arab/Syrian Christians standing united—to make our voices be heard over that [sic] of acts of extremism.”

Extremism in the Arab world, as in the Western world, as in the world in which we all live, is never absent from public life. But, as Alawa notes, after the attack that killed U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens on September 11, “Libyans immediately took to the streets to rally and let the world know that the extremist acts were not supported by the majority there.” Alawa organized a vigil for Stevens in Harvard Square on September 13. Among the moving gestures of peace was a sign that read: “Violence committed in the name of our Prophet is more offensive than any film.” The revolution continues in the demonstrations of peace and mourning in the face of violent extremism.

Stevens was not a member of the revolution. His interests were U.S. interests. But his short tenure in Benghazi was faithfully dedicated to a Libyan people in the throes of change.

–Samuel Needham



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