If there’s been a single unifying thread to the related yet disparate revolts across the Arab world, it’s been the resurgence of dignity among people systematically denied it for decades. The beatings routinely meted out by the police hurt, the mysterious disappearances of ordinary people caused untold grief, the bribe money needed to start a business or even see a family member in the hospital drove the already impoverished to a financial breaking point. But the greatest casualty of these daily injustices was not people’s physical or emotional or economic wellbeing. It was their dignity—the very essence of their humanity.
That this is, as many have coined it, a “Dignity Revolution”—an all-out struggle to reclaim that lost human birthright—has been evident from its catalytic moment, when a heretofore anonymous Tunisian street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself ablaze in the provincial town of Sidi Bouzid. Bouazizi was a university graduate relegated to scraping by selling produce out of a wooden cart. Long before his desperate act, Bouazizi had been subjected to the daily indignities of having his scales and produce confiscated by the petty foot soldiers of Tunisian President Ben Ali.
Finally, on December 17, Bouazizi made his morbidly heroic last stand. That morning, a policewoman slapped Bouazizi for refusing to turn over his scales before her colleagues then helped her force him to the ground as they once again stole his possessions. Bouazizi proceeded to the municipal building, where he demanded to meet with a local official. Predictably, he was shooed away.
What happened next triggered one of the most extraordinary chain reactions in modern history. Bouazizi went to the store and bought paint fuel, whereupon he returned to the street outside the municipal building and lit himself on fire. In the weeks that followed, dozens of similarly disenfranchised young men across the region followed Bouazizi’s example. The coals of a revolution had been lit. Within two months, mass demonstrations had brought down the regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, and several others now teeter on the brink.
When asked what compelled her son to undertake this desperate action, Bouazizi’s mother left no doubt that it had been the relentless assaults on his dignity by police committed to keeping him down. “It got to him deep inside,” she said. “It hurt his pride.”
The demonstrators who poured into the streets of Tunis and later Cairo and Manama and Benghazi were universally moved by this same grievance. From Egypt, NBC’s Richard Engel explained what the unfolding revolution was really about. “This didn‘t have anything to do with Twitter and Facebook. This had to do with people‘s dignity, people’s pride. People are not able to feed their families. I was talking to a protester today. He has two kids, 40 years old. He can’t make his car payments. He bought his car on a loan. He is worried that his children won‘t have a good future. That’s why he’s out.”
And when the people of Egypt finally toppled the tyrant, they immediately signaled their intention to build a dignified society. The day after, they returned to the epicenter of the protests, Tahrir Square, by the thousands to clean up the mess created by the 18-day struggle.
“We are cleaning the square now because it is ours,” a student in the square said. “After living here for three weeks, it has become our home … We’re going to leave it better than before.”
This surging sense of entitlement by Egyptians to a modicum of dignity explains why the ruling armed forces’ efforts to sweep the past under the rug have foundered so quickly. Following Mubarak’s resignation, the transitional military rulers brought charges against a few of the most iconic symbols of corruption of the ancién régime in a blatant attempt to scapegoat a few visible figures while avoiding a true reckoning with the tawdry legacy of Mubarak’s reign, one in which the military played an outsized role. According to reports, military leaders promised Mubarak he wouldn’t face prosecution.
After a few weeks, the public prosecutor, presumably in a bow to public pressure, did order a freeze on Mubarak’s assets and impose a travel ban on Mubarak and his family. Even so, the conventional wisdom has continued to hold that any sort of truth and reconciliation commission, let alone a prosecution of Mubarak, is out of the question. Media reports have focused almost exclusively on the money issue—how much did Mubarak and his cronies steal from the Egyptian treasury, where did the money go, what can be done to reclaim it—as if the revolution was merely a corrective measure to a giant Ponzi scheme perpetrated by Egypt’s leaders.
The problem with that logic is that the revolution was never about money. It was about Egyptians (and Tunisians and Libyans) reclaiming their humanity from the clutches of a tyrant who degraded them at every turn. And that reclamation project in Egypt is far from over. The clearest evidence came this past weekend, when a mob of demonstrators stormed the state security headquarters in Cairo to uncover the security forces’ trove of secret documents that shed unprecedented light on Mubarak’s labyrinthian spy network. Included in the files were transcripts of wiretapped phone conversations, secret photos of suspected political foes and documentation of torture.
Those at the scene described a palpable sense of catharsis in unmasking the crimes of the Mubarak regime. Many turned over documents to the public prosecutor in hopes that they will lead to charges against senior government officials. Whether justice will ever reach the man at the top himself remains a big question mark, but the incident showcased a widespread hunger for more than just the ornaments of democracy. Reclaiming their dignity, Egyptians seem to be realizing, requires more than grooming their nation for a fresh start replete with clean streets and democratic institutions. It also requires reckoning with a painful past.
The most famous exercise in transitional justice of the last several decades, the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), arose out of a similar recognition. The differences between the South Africa and Egypt are indeed vast. Nor was the TRC perfect by any stretch of the imagination. But at its core, the TRC represented a forum for South Africans (mostly blacks) to reclaim their dignity after decades of the most horrid degradation. As is well known, the TRC didn’t lead to any prosecutions. Perpetrators who came forward to acknowledge their guilt were granted amnesty. The testimony of victims and perpetrators alike, however, to the beatings, killings, abductions and general acts of inhumanity that permeated apartheid South Africa conferred official acknowledgment on the suffering of the victims, and in so doing, powerfully reaffirmed the humanity of thousands of South Africans.
For now, the military appears to be trying to placate Egyptians’ demands with yet more symbolic arrests. Today, four senior Interior Ministry officials were arrested for their role in the violence against protestors during the uprising. It’s doubtful that will be enough. While the revolution qua revolution ended with the hated dictator’s flight to Sharm el-Sheik, recent events make clear that the dignity revolution rolls on.