Watching the exuberant celebration on television Friday, who could not weep with joy for Egypt.
I seem to have always been weeping for Egypt. I've never visited, but I spent many days editing video tape of the historic peace treaty between Egypt and Israel in 1979, along with footage of the extraordinary meeting between Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin. For many of those hours, I was wiping happy tears from my eyes for both of their countries.
Two years later, I again found myself in an editing room working around the clock for days with the awful pictures, in closeup and still burned in my brain, of Sadat's assassination. I wept then too, in sorrow for a great and courageous man. And his country.
Thirty years later now, I am thrilled – literally to tears - to see this revolution, to see what the people can do – without guns or bombs – to rid themselves of a tyrant.
It is during events like this one that cable news shines and I want to call out the reporting of CNN's Arwa Damon. She has long covered the middle east, is extraordinarily well-informed about the region and it helps immensely that she is an Arabic speaker. Her interviews with the people gathered in Tahrir Square on Friday night after Hosni Mubarak had left, were more insightful than any others I saw.
On Saturday, Ms. Damon broadcast a story with about half a dozen men, old friends, gathered in a Cairo cafe. They spoke with feeling about their happiness and relief at being able to speak openly with one another for the first time in their lives about what they believe.
Hearing them, I wept again. Imagine knowing you could be imprisoned and tortured for saying your leader is an idiot or evil or stupid and suddenly, in the space of little more than two weeks, that ends. Imagine the joy.
One of the men, a studio director for the national television channel, said he was faced with the decision about whether to protest against his employer which broadcast only government propaganda. In the end, he said, he knew he was choosing between right and wrong - and joined the protest. I wish I could be certain I would have such courage because at that point, no one knew the revolution would succeed.
Of course, the hard work comes now. There is no obvious leader yet and no experience with messy democracy. It will take a long time for Egyptians to build a new kind of government and there will be many disputes over how to do it. But a new day, a democratic day, has dawned in a formerly repressive country.
I could not help thinking that as Egypt makes its dramatic move toward freedom, our country - supposedly a beacon of democracy for the world - falls ever more precipitously into a corporate autocracy whose only interest is its own profit even over our dead bodies – perhaps literally (see Arizona Medicaid).
The tea party and other Republicans are hell bent on removing every public service they can get their hands on while creating new and even larger tax breaks for the rich.
With the Citizens United decision a year ago, the Supreme Court lifted all restrictions on corporate campaign spending ensuring that the people's most singular voice will be distorted in favor of business.
The president packs his White House adviser rolls with corporate CEOs like the latest, Jeffrey Immelt of GE, and corporate lobbyists spend billions of dollars a year – on top of their unlimited campaign spending – telling Congress members how to vote, even writing the legislation for a compliant Senate and House.
Is there anyone left now to speak for we the people?
After making some notes for this post, I took a break to read the papers on Saturday and found that Bob Herbert of The New York Times Op-Ed page had some of the same thoughts about this unpleasant comparison between Egypt and the U.S.
“As the throngs celebrated in Cairo,” he wrote, “I couldn’t help wondering about what is happening to democracy here in the United States. I think it’s on the ropes. We’re in serious danger of becoming a democracy in name only.”
He goes on:
“While millions of ordinary Americans are struggling with unemployment and declining standards of living, the levers of real power have been all but completely commandeered by the financial and corporate elite. It doesn’t really matter what ordinary people want. The wealthy call the tune, and the politicians dance.”
”The Egyptians want to establish a viable democracy, and that’s a long, hard road. Americans are in the mind-bogglingly self-destructive process of letting a real democracy slip away.”
Precisely. We were told, during the revolution, that President Mubarak confiscated, one way or another, 50 cents of every Egyptian dollar for his personal use. How is it different in the U.S.?
Trillions of dollars in life savings are stolen from our individually meager investment accounts. Our homes are snatched away based on non-existent legal documents. Our jobs are shipped overseas and those that remain pay peon wages as the middle class sinks further into poverty.
Schools are shut down. Police, fire and other essential public services are cut. Government employees are being fired by the tens of thousands or their salaries are being frozen. The parking meters, for god's sake, in Chicago and other cities are sold to Saudi Arabian shell companies who repeal free parking on Sundays, holidays and for street fairs.
Futile wars are conducted by corporate mercenaries who “lose” billions of tax dollars meant for projects to help the people of wartorn Iraq and Afghanistan. Banks and corporations collect more billions in free loans from the government transferring large portions of the money to executives who then hide their company and personal profits in tax havens while demanding more tax cuts.
Meanwhile, our air and water are poisoned, our roads, bridges and sewer systems crumble, and tent cities and “Hoovervilles” continue to grow in number.
Today, the budget battle begins in Washington as Congress and the president compete to see how many more public services can be cut and how much more blood can be squeezed from the people's turnip without a word from either of them about increased taxes on corporations and high earners. (See here and here.)
Is all this not tyranny? Is it not repression? Are we not as subjugated as the Egyptians were? The takeover of our government by its corporate masters is nearing completion now. Bob Herbert again:
”It’s a perversion of democracy, indeed, when individuals like the Kochs have so much clout while the many millions of ordinary Americans have so little. What the Kochs want is coming to pass. Extend the tax cuts for the rich? No problem. Cut services to the poor, the sick, the young and the disabled? Check. Can we get you anything else, gentlemen?”
Egypt had a single autocrat; ours is a cadre of wealthy elite whose power has corrupted our democracy beyond recognition and we the people are silenced. Bob Herbert:
”I had lunch with the historian Howard Zinn just a few weeks before he died in January 2010. He was chagrined about the state of affairs in the U.S. but not at all daunted. 'If there is going to be change,' he said, 'real change, it will have to work its way from the bottom up, from the people themselves.'”
The Egyptian people, who should be an inspiration to us, reached their tipping point three weeks ago. When will we reach ours and rise up, as the Egyptians did, against our corporate masters?
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Old Webster: At Home in Black and White