This past Sunday I put on The Clash. Hadn’t heard them in a while. This morning, “Should I stay or should I go” echoing in my head, I’m listening to the al-Jazeera live feed on the situation in Egypt and it clicks. Makes you wonder if that song lingered for random reasons or not. So Mr. Mubarak, you may have convinced yourself that if you go there will be trouble, but take some advice from Joe Strummer and pals: If you stay there will be double.
There is something wonderful and terrifying in watching a people – a community, a population, a country – rise up against tyranny, oppression, corruption, or plain old mismanagement. My younger days included eyes glued to the TV as “People Power” drove Ferdinand Marcos from office and as the Solidarity trade union shook off the iron embrace of Soviet power in Poland. One lesson from those movements is that they are most frightening to those in power in the early stages, before they are organized, when the raw and often chaotic energy means that, literally, anything can happen. After that: bureaucratization, cooptation, and the long march to becoming part of the establishment (and often to assume the same authoritarian policies and practices that had been so vigorously opposed all those years before). A lesson for MSF as well? That is a separate question.
A second lesson from the recent events in Tunisia and Egypt, one perhaps more pertinent to humanitarian action, is the sheer power of the people to take control of their destiny, of their lives. A desperate and rather unimportant Tunisian self-immolates and the 30-year reign of Hosni Mubarak teeters on the precipice. Amazing! That power didn’t come from the guns or bombs or billions of US (military) aid. It didn’t depend on charismatic leadership à la Benigno Aquino or Lech Walesa. These moments of emancipation didn’t spontaneously combust out of the sort of everyday insurrections we see being carried out by thug-led rebel groups across our work. And these transformations certainly didn’t come from us in the West (unless you calculate in the negative sense, of how Western political and economic policies propped up dictators, impoverished the masses …). They came from the people themselves.
To be more specific, they came from power which the people have always possessed yet failed to exercise. To the humanitarian, the question should come to mind: Where are the victims? Where are the populations whose suffering compels the presence of us Western saviours? Is it time we question the way our advocacy activities (“humanitarian protection”!) require a blameless, passive school of jellyfish-humans, swept up in the tide of bad guy behaviour? What happened to those millions of people in Darfur who we loudly declared to have been delivered to the brink of catastrophe when 13 international NGOs were shut down and expelled in March 2009? Where are those helpless masses of humanity upon whom our funding, our activities, and our identity are dependent? Turns out they aren’t as helpless as we thought.