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Rousseau, Nasser and the Egyptian revolution

 In watching the live streaming coverage of the Egyptian revolution on Aljazeera I am awe-struck by the incredible humanity of what is unfolding in that country. I imagine Jean Jacques Rousseau wandering amongst the throngs of people and being equally amazed and delighted. For the character of this uprising, this outpouring of frustration and joy, of kindness and determination, of compassion and hope and community is more Rousseau than it is Mohammed or Marx.

The image of an old man with a long white beard racing his horse across Liberation Square yelling at the top of his lungs “I am free! I am Free! I am free!” – hardly able to comprehend that he was able to do so without fear of bring beaten or worse, is for me the most enduring image of the incredible events taking place in Egypt.

The revolution has greeters. On Tuesday as people streamed into the square in the tens of thousands, organizers actually greeted each one: “Welcome, welcome…” All the people who pundits would have three weeks ago assured as would never revolt are there in the square: incredible numbers of women, secular and otherwise; old people; middle class people – and upper class people like a former member of the board of one of Egypt’s biggest banks.

Rousseau proclaimed that morality was not a societal construct, but rather innate, an outgrowth of our instinctive resistance to passively witnessing suffering and injustice, out of which comes the emotions of compassion and empathy. If Tahrir Square is the evidence, then Rousseau was right. And he would have been totally at home.

The revolution is one of those phenomena that cannot be predicted. It smashes stereotypes embedded in the consciousness of the West over decades. That stereotype of poor, desperate, ignorant, grasping third world people is a convenient construct for the US and Canada for they form the foundation of our justification of keeping vicious dictatorships in power.

The Egyptian ruling elite not only adopts these same stereotypes but also fervently believe them for the similar reasons: their theft of the resources of their countries also depends on this notion, for it is the ideology of oppression, if we see ideology as that which gives meaning to power.

But that stereotype is, thanks to the revolution being continuously televised, is utterly dead. The incredible poetry of the people in the streets describing their feelings, the almost universal articulateness of the men and women expressing their views is awe-inspiring. And humbling. I cannot imagine a Canadian (American?) crowd offering so many poets, philosophers and historians in spontaneous response to reporters’ questions. (Leave aside for the moment the fact that I can’t imagine a million Canadians in any square.)

The humanity of the people giving this explosion of democratic sentiment its character is hard to credit, from a people who have been brutalized, robbed, humiliated, jailed and tortured. Yet there it was in the first words spoken by Wael Ghonim, head of Google's Middle East operations after being released from jail. He was held, constantly blindfolded, for 12 days before finally being released.

But Ghonim was incredibly measured in his response to this crime – and he called it a crime – and his humanity, I think, was at the root of the huge resurgence of the numbers of protesters. Over 100,000 people have now signed onto a Facebook page declaring that he speaks for them.

But he would make no such claim: "I am not a hero. I only used the keyboard; the real heroes are the ones on the ground.”

He continued:

"This is not the time to settle scores. Although I have people I want to settle scores with myself. This is not the time to split the pie and enforce ideologies.

…Inside I met [State Security] people who loved Egypt but their methods and mine are not the same. I pay these guys' salaries from my taxes, I have the right to ask the ministers where my money is going, this is our country.

"I believe that if things get better those (good state security people) will serve Egypt well.”

This compassion for, of all people, the dreaded security police, seems not to have come from a place of naïveté or weakness but just the opposite: from a place of strength that derived from the hope and joy of witnessing the unity in the square. Listening to Ghonim you really get the feeling that the revolution will succeed.

The humanity demonstrated by the protesters also helps explain why the global reaction to the violence against them was so universal and so powerful: this revolution has been absolutely peaceful since day one – respectful of people and property and the army. The violence was that much more grotesque because of it.

In order to curry favour with this new hero of the day, the newly appointed General Secretary of the ruling NDP party, reformist Hossam Badrawi, actually drove Ghonim home. But Ghonim was not fooled or persuaded: “I told him I will go in the car …but without an NDP logo. I told them we don't want any NDP logo on the streets. … I told him I don't want to see the logo of the NDP ever again.”

As Middle East exert Eric Margolis points out, there are hints here, too, of what was called Nasserism in the 1950s and 1960s, after Gamal Abdel Nasser, the most loved and progressive leader Egypt ever had. Nasser’s philosophy combined Arab nationalism and a pan-Arab ideology, and embraced a form of socialism. He was also a key figure in the non-aligned movement of developing countries. While it is too early to tell what direction the movement will take, the central role played by skyrocketing food prices, the grotesque divisions between rich and poor and Mubarak’s alleged $70 billion bilked from his own people, suggests that both nationalism and class will define the movement – and how it spreads to other countries.

But what captures the imagination for the moment is the humanity and compassion of the people who are changing the face of the Middle East before our eyes.

Murray Dobbin is a journalist, blogger, and author. This column originally appeared on his blog. Reprinted with his kind permission.