By Osama Diab
Activists in Egypt should look to the hippy movement of the 1960s for a successful model in bringing about long-term social change.
Since the establishment of the Kifaya (Enough) movement in 2004, the Egyptian political scene has changed dramatically. If this continues, political resistance in Egypt is likely to become much more dynamic than it has been since the 1952 revolution, which overthrew the monarchy and established a republic.
Movements such as Kifaya, the April 6 youth movement and the national coalition for change headed by Mohamed Elbaradei, have all played their part in making the political life of Egypt less stagnant. They have managed to increase the margins of freedom and push for political reforms and will continue to do so, but they can't do it alone.
These groups all focus on short-term political gains. Their demands focus on short-term goals – constitutional change, free and fair elections, putting an end to emergency law – but they often ignore the most important element that could drive real change in the future: social change.
With a society that is reversing social progress and embracing conservative values, the drive for democracy and equality may find few supporters. Many in Egypt still do not recognise the equality of women and embrace discrimination against religious and ethnic minorities. Some discard democracy and human rights as a western invention and as part of an imperialist agenda. What Egypt needs, rather than a few groups preaching against the current regime and political system, is a durable social movement that decades from now can influence politicians and decision-makers.
Look, for example, at the social and political impact the hippy movement had in the US and, arguably, the entire world. Some argue that America wouldn't have had a black president if it wasn't for the social progress and momentum built in the 1960s.
The reason behind the hippies' success in changing the course of history is not only their anti-war sentiments, care for the environment, or their criticism of middle-class values and big corporate practices. These are values that were all preached by others long before the hippies.
No, what made the hippy movement attract millions of youth in the United States and globally was the subculture to carry their messages, rather than the value of the message itself. Their hip and exotic fashion, music and lifestyle is what appealed to tens of millions of young people confused by the Vietnam War and examining the values of their parents. The new fashions they created, and the focus on art and culture in their movement, made it easier for their message to spread.
Whether we agree or disagree with the values of the hippy movement, one can't deny that it had its own distinctive culture, creating one of the strongest social revolutions in history. Its emphasis on equality and environmental and pacifist values still influence the world today, and its subculture became part of American mainstream culture in the 1970s.
Here in Egypt, a country that puts so much emphasis on people's gender, social class and religion, a strong grassroots social movement and a subculture needs to emerge with a list of social, political and environmental demands. Ayman Massoud, the keyboardist of the Arabic rock band Massar Egbari (“Compulsory Direction”), explained to me what they mean by the name of the band. In his view, society draws a compulsory direction for us to take in order to fit society's idea of what is proper and successful.
“If someone wants to become a drummer, their parents will tell them to finish college first and then they can do whatever they want. But after they finish college, society will force them to find a job and practise their hobby on the side. After that, they will become too drained from their jobs and gradually forget about their old dream,” says Massoud.
Egyptian dissidents don't have to – and should not – follow in the footsteps of others, but establish a culture that will make it easier to promote their beliefs. I wrote before in Egypt Today about how an underground music scene is emerging in Egypt focusing more on societal issues. This appeals to those who are tired of a pop scene dominated by attractive singers chiming love songs to western beats: music that avoids issues facing Egyptian youth today. This can be the root from which a new subculture can stem.
A movement like this would likely face huge social condemnation. It is inevitable it will be described as a threat to national security by the regime and a threat to society and its values by religious groups, but new ideas and social change are often faced with resistance.
Khaled Diab pointed out in Brian Whitaker's book, What's really wrong with the Middle East, that Egypt has a million Mubaraks – meaning that authoritarianism in Egypt exists not only in the political leadership, but also in families, schools and workplaces. As long as people themselves don't believe in the values of democracy and liberty, no number of political groups lobbying for change will succeed in pushing for reform.
This column appeared in the Guardian newspaper's Comment is Free section on 17 July 2010. Read the full discussion here.