The Woyingi Blog

Reflections: Ottawa’s Children of the Revolution

Posted in Countries: Egypt, Countries: Tunisia, Reflections by the woyingi blogger on February 21, 2011

The Arab population of Ottawa, according to the 2006 Census, is 45,245, making them one of Ottawa’s largest racialized communities. The vast majority of Ottawa’s Arab population originate from Lebanon. Many of Ottawa’s Arabs are youth. In the wake of the recent revolutions sweeping the Arab World, which includes countries in Africa, I’ve felt like reflecting on these revolutions and their impact on Ottawa’s Arab communities, particularly its youth.

Let’s start with Tunisia. Tunisia, if people in the West even knew about this small North African country with its great beaches, had been perceived as relatively stable and peaceful and there wasn’t much concern for its politics as long as they weren’t Islamist. I only learned about Tunisia when I befriended a family of Tunisian political refugees who were living in my neighbourhood about ten years ago. I have come to consider them my chosen family and over the course of our friendship I had to research evidence of political persecution of Opposition party members and their families in Tunisia in order to support their Refugee claim. I once even attended a forum organized by other Tunisian political dissidents with members of the Bloc Quebecois in Parliament Hill. But the impact of Tunisia’s political oppression wasn’t brought home to me by any of this. It was the poetry of the eldest daughter’s of this family, who had spent most of her life in exile from her homeland. Since she was a child she would write poetry and hip hop verses about social justice, her uncle who was a political prisoner in Tunisia, and her hope for the country’s future. I always thought that this was heavy stuff for such a young girl to write about, but as I came to know more families in Ottawa’s Arab communities, I realized that many of Ottawa’s Arab youth were highly aware of the political oppression and lack of economic opportunities that led to their parents choosing to raise them in Canada.

Although the root causes of revolution in Tunisia were high unemployment, rising inflation of food prices, government corruption, and the often violent suppression of freedom of speech and political opposition groups, it appears that the revolution in Tunisia was sparked, literally, by the self-immolation of a street vendor from the small Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid on December 17th 2010 (He would eventually die from his injuries on January 4th 2011). Mohamed Bouazizi had tried to complain to government authorities after being beaten and having his wares confiscated by local police but the governor refused to listen to him so Bouazizi, after stating that if no one would speak to him he would set himself on fire, went out, got some accelerant (it’s not clear whether it was gasoline or paint thinner) and set himself on fire in front of a local government building. The Tunisian revolution began with protests in Sidi Bouzid, as friends and family, outraged by the events the precipitated Bouazizi’s death, began to protest. Eventually, these protests moved into more cosmopolitan centres in the country, eventually leading to President Ben Ali, who had been President of Tunisia since November 1987, when he took power from then President Habib Bourguiba (who himself had been in power since 1957!) in a bloodless coup d’état, to flee from Tunisia to Saudi Arabia (That brings to mind another alleged African dictator who retired to Saudi Arabia…Idi Amin).

In Cairo, a 49 year old restaurant owner Abdo Abdel Hameed was driven to commit suicide by setting fire to himself in front of the Egyptian Parliament after the government denied him Bread Coupons. He died on January 17th. For those who have watched 26 year old Egyptian activist and protest organizer Asmaa Mahfouz’ impassioned Video Blog, recorded and posted on her Facebook on January 18th, which subsequently went viral, you know that Hameed’s death was driving force for her. But Asmaa wasn’t new to activism, as she is also a member of the Egyptian Facebook Group the April 6th Youth Movement and this Facebook Group is all about Action.

According to the 2006 Census for Ottawa-Gatineau there are 3, 580 Egyptians in Ottawa. Relatively more affluent and highly educated than Ottawa’s other Arab communities, I was curious to see how they might end up calling on the Canadian government to support the revolution (although I also knew that not all of Ottawa’s Egyptians supported seeing him go.) At the beginning of January, the community felt the effects of the Alexandria Church Bombing, which killed 21 people and wounded 80. Father Shenouda Boutros, leader of St. Mary’s Orthodox Church which is only a few blocks up the road from where I live, had grown up attending the Alexandria Church and was later a priest there. Local Coptic Churches held commemorations for those who were killed and expressed concern that copycat attacks might be made on their churches, concerns with the Ottawa Police Service, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and the Canadian Government took quite seriously.

Then the revolution came. A major Egyptian Gala was cancelled as community members felt it was inappropriate to have a big luxurious party while the country was in turmoil. I became curious to know what was happening on the ground in Egypt. I contacted Ottawa-born Iraqi-Canadian Associated Press journalist Hadeel Al-Shalchi (We know each other from high school) to see if she was alright. I checked up on Friends, Egyptian and Somali who had family living in Cairo. I read Facebook posts from Sarah Ghabrial about her mother, a Copt doctor’s, experiences helping the wounded in Tahrir Square (Liberation Square). I got an e-mail from a well-known Ottawa Egyptian community organizer asking for people to prey for her son who had decided to drop everything and jump on a plane to Egypt to join the protesters in Tahrir Square…she was both scared for and proud of him.

I wanted to know what some key Egyptian Intellectuals I follow felt about the revolution. Given Western perceptions of Mubarak’s regime somehow being a bastion for women’s rights in the face of the menace of the Muslim Brotherhood (as if that was the only Egyptian Oppostion Party), I was eager to hear from Nawal el Saadawi, the Egyptian feminist who had been imprisoned under Sadat and highly censored under Mubarak. I was surprised to learn that at 80, she was still as mad as ever and attending protests in Tahrir Square. In a telephone interview with journalist Sholeh Irani, el Saadawi had this to say about people’s fears of fundamentalists taking over Egypt:

We are not afraid of Islamic fundamentalists. You must know that millions of men and women are on the streets. It is not about right or left, about Islamists or any other political movement. People are frustrated about poverty and Mubarak’s regime. No political party has started this revolt. This is a spontaneous movement. But all political movements are trying to be part of it now. Now when people are out bringing a change, both right and left want to join. People have finally taken to streets to cry in unison demanding freedom, social justice, integrity, independence and equality. What is going on now is a movement that belongs to the young people and nobody else.

I then went looking for interviews and articles by Gamal Nkrumah, the son of Ghana’s first President Kwame Nkrumah and his Copt Egyptian wife Fathia Rizk. Gamal is the International Affairs Editor of Al Ahram Weekly, Egypt’s leading English-Language Newspaper. I found an interview with him from Voice of America on January 31st 2011 in which he seemed pessimistic about the prospects of Mubarak stepping down. After Mubarak stepped down, Gamal wrote an interesting article in Al Ahram reflecting on the possibilities of Egypt after Mubarak:

Egypt is a country now poised to find itself in fresh diplomatic stand-offs with old foes, Israel for instance. Two questions arise. Can the Egyptian economy pivot quickly to find new sources of growth other than tourism and revenues from the Suez Canal? For Egypt to play a greater economic role in Africa, the democratically elected government resulting from people power will have to make a concerted drive on a series of structural reforms. It will also hark back to the days when as a new focus on Egypt’s traditional post-1952 Revolution role as a pioneer of African liberation, a trendsetter of revolution and anti-imperialism.

He goes on to quote Fidel Castro:

By the end of World War II, Egypt was under the brilliant governance of Gamal Abdel-Nasser, who together with Jawaharal Nehru, heir of Mahatma Gandhi, Kwame Nkrumah and Sékou Touré — African leaders who together with Sukarno, then president of the recently liberated Indonesia — created the Non- Aligned Movement of countries and advanced the struggle for independence in the former colonies,” commented Cuba’s Fidel Castro in the wake of the 25 January Revolution. “The death of Gamal Abdel-Nasser on 28 September 1970 was an irreversible setback for Egypt.

Considering that Castro himself could easily be considered a dictator, I find his inclusion in this article as a champion of anti-imperialism funny but not surprising given Gamal Nkrumah’s pedigree. He quotes other Western political leaders including President Barack Obama who had this to say about the January 25th Revolution:

Egyptians have inspired us. They have done so by putting the lie to the idea that justice best gained through violence. For in Egypt, it was the moral force of nonviolence — not terrorism, not mindless killing — but nonviolence, moral force, that bent the arc of history toward justice once more.

I was most interested in what he had to say about Mubarak’s relationship with Sudan’s Al-Bashir. Considering that the January 25th Revolution followed closely after the referendum of Southern Sudanese who have chosen to secede from Northern Sudan, offering another example of an oppressed people fighting and winning their right to self-determination, I’m surprised that Egypt’s relationship with Sudan hasn’t been discussed more in the media :

It is no secret that there was little love lost between President Al-Bashir of Sudan and ex-president Mubarak. The latter suspected Al-Bashir’s connivance in the failed assassination attempt on Mubarak during a state visit to Ethiopia to attend an African Union summit. Al-Bashir also privately accused Mubarak’s regime of tacit complicity in the secession of South Sudan. Numerous Sudanese suspected that Egypt’s failure to play a positive and decisive role in Nile Basin politics in the past three decades and its wishy-washy and pussy-footed attitude towards intervention in domestic Sudanese political affairs led to the country’s break-up. Few in Sudan regret Mubarak’s demise. The consensus among African leaders is that they should support his departure from the continent’s political arena.

Despite all this, I got most of my information about the Egyptian Revolution from the Facebook Posts of my young Arab Facebook Friends. Many Canadian Arab youth, no matter how long they have lived in Canada, follow Arab Media sites and have connections with friends and family members who still live in their home countries, so their sources of information on events in the Arab World are far more diverse and can range from a CNN report by Anderson Cooper to an in interview on Al Jazeera by Riz Khan, to a blog post by their cousin Mo, to a video recored on a cellphone by their sister Fatima. And just as I was able to learn from these posts, so were other Facebook Friends. Although I think the idea of a Twitter Revolution is highly overrated, I don’t underestimate the power of friendships, real friendships to change global opinion. The fact that Ottawa has so many Arabs, many of them youth, has and will continue to effects the perceptions of the Arab World in this city. The generation of young people who attend high schools-both English and French as Ottawa’s Arabs, like Ottawa’s Africans, often bridge the Two Linguistic Solitudes of this city-and post-secondary institutions with Arab youth, they will come to learn their stories, their parents’ stories, and their perspectives on political and economic issues in the Arab World.

Needless to say, my chosen Tunisian family is overjoyed with the ouster of Ben Ali, and the mother and eldest daughter can be seen protesting in solidarity with other Arab communities as they demonstrate on behalf of democracy in their respective countries. At a recent protest organized by local Libyans, the eldest daughter wore the Tunisian flag as a cape.

What next? Who knows? One thing is for sure, the West’s perceptions of the Arab World have changed forever, Egyptian Youth, hijabs and all, just got touted as The Generation Changing the World in Time Magazine. Arab youth changing the world? I wonder what that could mean for the City of Ottawa?

Further Reading:

Mohammed Bouazizi

How a Single Match Can Ignite a Revolution by Robert F. Worth (article from The New York Times available online)

The Power of One by Ben Macintyre (article from The Ottawa Citizen)

Asmaa Mahfouz

The Famous Video Blog available online

Interview (2011) with Asmaa Mahfouz in The New York Times available online

Interview (2011) with Asmaa Mahfouz available online

Video Interview (2011) with Asmaa Mahfouz for MEMRI TV about using Facebook to Take Action, with English Subtitles Transcript of the interview available online

Alexandria Coptic Church Bombing

Coptic parish unites after attack in Egypt by J. Lafaro (article from Metro News available online)

Ottawa Coptic Events Cut Short Over Boming CBC News article available online

Room for religion and rights article available online by Gamal Nkrumah in response to the Alexandria Church Bombing

Egypt’s New Era: Copts Hope for More Freedom, video report by Al Jazeera available online

Nawal el Saadawi

In Tahrir Square (article available online)

Interview (2011) with Rebecca Walker available online

Interview (2011) with Democracy Now! available online

Video Interview (2011) with Riz Khan on Al Jazeerha available online

Video Interview (2011) with Nicholas D. Kristof for The New York Times available online

Interview (2011) by Sholeh Irani available online

Gamal Nkrumah

Room for religion and rights (article available online)

World of Words (article available online)

Undying Legacy: Reflections 40 Years After Nasser’s Passing (article available online)

Interview (2011) with Voice of America

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