Like most people on the planet I have been watching events unfold in Egypt with a mixture of fear, horror and trepidation. That people should feel so completely ignored by their government is appalling. To a much lesser extent this is how miners and their families in the north of England felt back in the 1980s. The Thatcher government had decided that the pits were closing and that those people’s jobs were going to be sacrificed and that was that. Bitterness that stems from that time still taints some ex-pit communities in the north to this day. To be ignored and sometimes brutalised by your own government is unacceptable.
What will happen if and when President Mubarak falls, nobody knows. But one thing that struck me about the demonstrators in Cairo and Alexandria was their lack of fear. With soldiers in tanks all around and military jets screaming overhead, a man interviewed by the BBC said that his fear had gone. The army and the President could do what they liked, he was no longer afraid.
Last year the Iranian regime was in trouble. President Ahmedinejad apparently won the General Election there and suddenly the streets were full of people calling ‘foul’. Hundreds of thousands demonstrated and Internet sites were abuzz with protest for weeks. Ultimately it all came to nothing and in fact the Iranian security forces used the Internet themselves to track down and arrest movers and shakers of the abortive rebellion. Though determined, the people were defeated and I don’t remember even one person on any of the news reports I heard or read about, saying that he or she had ‘lost’ their fear.
This is only a theory from an old psychology graduate but I do have an idea about why this difference could exist. Rebellion in Iran has an added dimension that rebellion in Egypt does not. Hosni Mubarak is an ex-military man who rules Egypt with his generals in line with a template set up by President Nasser in the 1950s. Like Nasser, Mubarak rules as a military secular leader. He may attend mosque on a Friday but he is not a cleric and he does not involve himself in religious affairs. Ahmedinejad on the other hand, does. His rule is heavily sanctioned by the Ayatollahs and he is a very overtly observant person.
As I have said many times before, personally I am a fuzzy agnostic. But like everyone except the most devout and hard-line atheists, I do have a sympathy with religion. In a way I quite envy those who have the comfort and the certainty of religion in their lives. I’m sure they’re less stressed than the ‘don’t knows’ like me. However, just because I don’t have a faith, doesn’t mean that I am not affected by it. To stand up against a regime that purports to represent divine authority on earth is a hard thing to do even for a ‘don’t know’. Had I been an Iranian agnostic demonstrating on the streets of Tehran last year, I know that the rhetoric from my government would have given me pause. It would only have slowed me down for a moment, but that moment would have been significant. To stand up against a human being is one thing, but to take on God is quite another.
And even if you know or you believe that those people who say they represent God are lying to you, your personal conditioning as well as the accumulated beliefs of your ancestors over hundreds of years cry out for you to stop what you’re doing and conform. I am sure that many of the Iranian demonstrators from 2010 are still angry, dissatisfied and aggrieved. But, although this is just a theory on my part, I do think that part of the reason why the rebellion failed was because of what lay very deeply embedded inside people’s heads. To take on those who claim to represent God is a vast psychological step. It goes way beyond physical or psychological risk to oneself and one’s family. If God’s representatives are correct and you are wrong you are going to find yourself on the wrong side of the afterlife. Even though he took that step anyway, something like this must have passed through Martin Luther’s mind when he basically told the Pope and Rome to take a hike. It can’t have been easy and it certainly wasn’t lightly done.
So, although this is just a notion, I think that to take on a theocracy, any theocracy, carries an extra dimension of risk. The demonstrators in Cairo know that if they do succeed in toppling Mubarak ‘only’ their physical safety and psychological well being are at risk. The afterlife is not at issue and so, on one very significant level at least, it is possible to ‘lose’ fear.
Whether this theory will eventually be bourn out by a victory for the protestors, I don’t know. I just hope that whatever happens the bloodshed stops and that things improve for the Egyptian people. One thing that is not a theory is that people all over the world are getting sick of the sight of a few very wealthy and powerful people controlling those further down the food chain. And that applies just as much here in the UK as it does in Egypt, Iran, Tunisia, you name it.