I cheered the Arab Awakening.
I cheered the righteous moment when Egypt’s President Mubarak fell, ending an era of military rule by Generals Naguib, Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak that had extended beyond half a century: nearly 60 years of repression, torture and exploitation, occasionally supported by an America that believed security interests trumped human rights.
I cheered the Arab Spring.
I cheered my daughter when she flew to Egypt to join the students and activists in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, knowing she would witness a historic moment. Indeed, I was jealous of her — in my decades of engagement in the Middle East I never thought I would witness a moment when the people would overcome fear and turn into the streets.
And, as Seacoast readers know, I cheered when Egypt elected Mohammed Morsi president. I cheered not because I was in favor of a high-ranking member of the Muslim Brotherhood ascending to power but because it was an irreversible step forward in the always-messy process of building democracy in a country where no supportive institutions exist. The first legal, fully free election in Egyptian history affirmed Egyptian rights and dignity; the choice was theirs to make, not ours.
Recently, I’ve become interested in Dublin, N.H., resident Abbott Thayer (1849-1921), who was an artist, teacher and amateur naturalist who slept outdoors year-round, endured personal hardship and loss and suffered from bipolar disorder for much of his adult life. Well-traveled but eccentric, Thayer discovered, through his art, a new way of looking at the world.
Thayer is remembered for his theories on natural camouflage in the animal kingdom. Called by some the “father of camouflage,” he conducted extensive studies into “countershading” in nature.
Thayer realized that in witnessing nature realities could be revealed beyond the normal range of human perception — if one looked for them. The Qur’an, in the second chapter, speaks of its being “a guidance for those who believe in the existence of that which is beyond human perception.”
God’s creation, offering guidance.
Guidance to that which is beyond human perception — unless you look — and believe.
When Abbott Thayer lifted the veil of common perceptions from his eyes he found hidden truths in creation — truths designed for protection, for wonderment and for our delight.
I’m reminded of how often we fail to challenge common perceptions, how often we forget to lift the veil, when I witness how Americans are responding to recent turmoil in the Middle East.
Demonstrations, deaths of protesters and power-grabbing decrees by President Morsi don’t give me pause to doubt my embrace of the Arab Awakening — democracy is a messy process. I trust Egyptians to get it right in the end.
Just as Americans do — sometimes!
We often forget the long, tortuous and muddy road we have traveled to get to December 2012.
Democracy is messy: Slavery, exploitation of Native Americans, prejudice against the Irish, Jews, Catholics, Mormons, Muslims and others, the Civil War, presidential assassinations, battles over voting rights for women and minorities, and struggles over the Constitution and Bill of Rights, states rights, civil rights, gay marriage rights and rights for the disabled in a United Nations treaty confront us still.
Democracy is messy: Lynchings, WMDs, drone attacks targeting American citizens, Gitmo, extraordinary renditions, indefinite detention, Patriot Act, poll taxes, battles over religious liberty — all these struggles have occurred over a continuum that has extended well over 200 years; and many continue to this day.
Democracy is messy: Sometimes I feel like Billy Joel in “We Didn’t Start The Fire”:
“I can’t take it anymore
We didn’t start the fire
It was always burning
Since the world’s been turning
We didn’t start the fire
No we didn’t light it
But we tried to fight it
We didn’t start the fire
But when we are gone
Will it still burn on, and on, and on, and on”
Americans get impatient when other countries don’t immediately get everything right, don’t solve all their problems simultaneously — to get to where we are today, and I remind you that we still have a long way to go — in a matter of a couple of months or years.
We obsess over Iran, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Palestine and Israel: We want them all to be like us.
Which “us” would we like them to be like?
Even today, as 2013 approaches, an alliance of Christianists, creationists, climate-change deniers, U.N. treaty opponents, white supremacists, vote suppressionists and others are still at work trying to deny some Americans rights and liberties to which all are entitled.
Be humble, otherwise the world will remain a closed book.
Be encouraged that a wide range of activists — secularists, students, judges and even some conservatives — have taken to Egypt’s streets to oppose President Morsi’s attempts to expand presidential power without parliamentary oversight.
Be encouraged, and humbled, that Syrians daily continue to leave their homes to protest the brutal Assad regime, knowing many of them will never see their family again. Be fearful that chemical weapons remain under Assad’s control and that he has the potential to use them against his citizens.
Be concerned that after the state-affirming vote on Palestine at the United Nations that Israel responded by announcing new settlements on the West Bank that, if implemented, would end any hopes for a two-state solution. Remember, too, within those concerns, the hubris that compelled President George W. Bush to push for democratic elections in Palestine — and Hamas won.
Democracy can be messy.
Pray that President Obama will fully embrace the righteous promise of democracy and freedom for all peoples — and extend that promise to all peoples, including Palestinians.
Be mindful, humbled and supportive that our government is treading cautiously through the treacherous minefield where the struggle for freedom and democracy is taking place: From Iran and Bahrain westward to Libya and Morocco citizens are raising their voices. Remember, we can inspire but not interfere: We cannot own those revolutions.
Peace: The struggle for beauty is taking place.
Listen today, on the second Sunday of Advent, to “Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.” — Psalm 85:10.
Check out the “countershading.”
Kiss. Embrace beauty.
This column appeared originally in the Portsmouth Herald.