New York– During my time in Cairo following the ouster of longtime Egpytian dictator Hosni Mubarak, I often wondered what lessons the relatively peaceful protests prior to that fateful moment could offer social justice activists in the United States and beyond. With that in mind, it was ironic, if not serendipitous, when one of my main counterparts during those restless days in Tahrir Square, Dina Abouelsoud, informed me that she would be coming to New York. An Egyptian activist and business owner, Dina embodied the ushering of a new generation into Egypt’s social and political sphere. I was deeply intrigued by the profound irony that she would be visiting New York at a time when the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protests were underway, especially considering the OWS movement was inspired by the Arab Spring itself.
Dina was in the United States as part of a business entrepreneurship program created by The State Department which saw her travel to four US cities: Washington, DC; Phoenix; San Francisco; and New York, respectively. The program was hatched during President Barack Obama’s infamous “A New Beginning” speech (otherwise known as the “Cairo speech”). In his monumental address to the Arab world, the President promised to increase US support for business and social entrepreneurship in the Middle East; and Dina’s participation in the subsequent State Department program saw her as the sole representative of her country–an exceptional and rarefied opportunity. Dina’s status as a popular and successful business owner (Dina’s Hostel) and activist earned her a nomination from someone privy to the administering of the program. During the historical protests in Egypt’s Tahrir Square, Dina was often quoted by international media covering the event, including The Washington Post, New York Times, and The Independent (a UK publication), respectively. Her singlehanded decision to create a women’s rights group once resulted in her and a small group of women getting attacked during a gathering in Tahrir Square; an event that, though a stark reminder to the realities of Egyptian patriarchy, did not dissuade her from continuing fulminating for her organization as the protests continued on.
I eventually met with Dina at New York’s Zucotti Park, and we couldn’t help but reminisce about the time we spent together in Tahrir Square. There were many parallels we observed between the two events. Dina was excited about the OWS movement and supportive of the underlying grievances. American friends who had also spent time with her in Cairo soon appeared at the park to meet with her as well. As we all stood there chanting slogans, I began thinking that the social uprisings birthed in North Africa seemed to start coming around full circle, though in a more nuanced and localized sense. A new generation of young people, interconnected and informed as never before, banded together in symbolic solidarity to confront the social and economic ills that confronts us all (inequality, corruption, poverty, and unemployment, no less).
Unlike the Egyptians, however, we in the US seem to lack a defined agenda in this time of social upheaval. Perhaps, for now at least, that’s for the better. Maybe as time progresses, specifics will coalesce as people work out their differences and come together under a common purpose as never before, and are able to effect change through the process, not just in isolation from it. There are undoubtedly deep-seated and legitimate grievances, affecting many Americans irregardless of racial and social strata, though there runs a risk that unfocused anger could be tapped into by exploitative politicians in an election year, at the expense of this potential for marked progress.
In spite of the tremendous challenges, I remain optimistic. Standing with Dina and her friends among the protesters, I felt an almost tangible sense that this time things were somehow different. Change was no longer a distant dream, but a reality surfacing on the horizon. I believed, if perhaps for a moment, that we would learn the mistakes of the past generations and not allow deception to permeate through our improbable, yet real, mountain of human solidarity.
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