Protest: Egypt, France, Venezuela
Like many, I have been captivated by the news and images coming from the Middle East over the last month or two. It has been fascinating to watch the virus of vocalized dissatisfaction spread from city to city, region to region, country to country. I say with a bit of shame and awe, it took me completely by surprise. I never had the thought in my head that things in that region might change so dramatically over such a short period of time.
I was on the phone with my father about two weeks ago, just after Mubarak finally resigned, and we were talking about Egypt. He chuckled and said, “I bet you are half glad to be somewhere else, but half really wish you were there right now.”
It’s true. It must have been a sublime three weeks in Egypt – at times frightening and disheartening and at other times intoxicating. Only someone who has actually lived through a revolution could really understand what it was like to be there, to experience the swell of energy that doesn’t just recede but breaks with enough force to create true change.
And while of course I am grateful to be in a safe and democratic country, I also am left so curious as to what it has really been like for people living through these tumultuous weeks. I try to imagine the feelings pulsing through the cities as things move up and down and back and forth, drama after drama unraveling. I try to imagine the surge in will and determination that leads people into the streets day after day. I try to imagine how frightened and impotent people must feel as their governments use harsher and harsher methods to control the protests and stifle the dissent, as people’s capacity to communicate with the outside world diminishes or ends altogether, as people are killed. I try to imagine the moments of defiance, of hope, of fear, of exaltation, and then (at least in the case of Tunisia and Egypt) of euphoria.
But the truth is I can’t. I do not know what it feels like to be so oppressed and to have so much at stake, nor have I ever been anywhere at the precise moment of the emergence of momentous change.
The closest I’ve come perhaps was being in New York on 9/11 or Paris when France won the World Cup in 1998.
In both cases I was part of an entire population brought together with a common feeling. There was a sense of complete shared experience, in shock and tragedy in one circumstance, and celebration and pride in the other.
But these situations were so different because they were the experience of living through something that happens to a community, rather than something that a community makes happen.
How is it that things can go on one way for so very many years and then suddenly, over the period of a handful of days, change completely? What is it that comes together to make that moment so different than all the moments that came before? What makes the perfect balance of specific factors that combine in a chemical reaction that cannot be reversed?
I guess what I wonder is how that moment, the moment on the way to change really happening, the moment just before the tipping point, FEELS to the people inside it, creating it? When you are in the middle of it, part of it, riding the flow of it, do you have a sense of what is happening? Do you feel as you act, as you watch, as you listen, that something is really happening, that you are in the middle of history in the making? Is there a consciousness to it, or is it more raw and blind than that? Do you act because you can imagine your actions having a positive outcome, because you can feel deeply that all of it is going somewhere, that there could be a breaking point right there in front of you? Do you know somehow deep inside? Or is there a need to move and act, not because you feel the outcome, but just because you and those around you must, because you are carried along by an energy, a wave, a swell that must break some way or other for better or for worse?
Ostensibly I currently live in a country of protest; I would guess that the French strike more than any other nationality in the world. As I said I have never been in a country during a period of true upheaval and dramatic change – but I think I can safely say that I believe that THIS is what it feels like to be in a country that is NOT on the verge of revolution. THIS is what it feels like to be in a place that is not changing dramatically anytime soon.
In France, strikes happen all the time for one reason or another. But every now and then (like much of last Fall) they will get really serious. And the results? Flights will be cancelled, trains will be held up, roads will be blockaded. There might be some shortages of fuel, maybe less fresh produce available in the grocery stores. And if things get REALLY bad, garbage won’t be collected for a while. People will get irritated, inconvenienced, and the government will get mildly perturbed, wondering how much it will cost them this time.
There is something so traditional about French strikes, like national clockwork. It is not really progressive at all; the people march less to change things, as much as to keep them how they already are or to make them ever so slightly more agreeable.
The French government constantly must weigh every choice and decide if it is important enough to face the consequences of upsetting the people. While on the one hand this is obviously a far superior system than a dictatorship, it also limits the government’s capacity to make any long-term choices that may be for the ultimate good of the country but might also, in the short term, inconvenience people or cause them some small discomforts.
While I think France does a lot of things really well, what I object to is how many people take it all for granted and are still dissatisfied, and don’t seem to recognize that sometimes small sacrifices are essential to the greater good and to a better future. They protest, they complain, they show their anger, not with courage and idealism and a desire to start fresh, but a kind of pessimism. They seem to be saying, “it’s still not good enough and it’s only going to get worse.”
Occasionally there is a different sort of protest here – a more sudden, explosive, destructive sort, where young men run around setting things on fire, breaking things and acting generally angry and disruptive. It’s usually disaffected young men from immigrant communities – they may be French, but are treated like ‘the other’, unaccepted and undervalued. These young people are angry – but as of yet it has always proven to be a somewhat directionless and vague anger, a kind of lashing out without any real goal apart from expressing rage.
Someday if this anger were to be channeled into real ideas about the changes that could be and should be in France in terms of multiculturalism, in terms of immigrant rights, in terms of religious rights, in terms of actually confronting the racism in France, well perhaps there could be a kind of revolution.
What would it be like if the immigrant community here really found a voice and found common ground and decided what they were fighting for? It could be very powerful. But the people who currently feel disenfranchised and disaffected are not anywhere close to that. They do not quite seem ready to find a common voice in order to verbalize what they want changed.
Apart from the immigrant community however most people in France don’t have a whole lot to complain about, although they relish doing so. France currently feels like an arthritic sort of country – you just can’t expect it to move much or very quickly anymore. France of today is going to be a lot like France tomorrow and France next month and France next year. But Egypt? Tunisia? Libya? What shape will they take in 5 years, one year, even one month? We can only guess. I guess it’s precisely that – the numerous possibilities, both good and bad, that is what is both exciting and frightening about countries in flux.
This perhaps is what drew me to Venezuela. I think I wanted to go somewhere in the throes of change – somewhere that wasn’t predictable, somewhere where something dramatic might happen.
I went to Venezuela in the months leading up to the presidential elections – what would become a second win for Hugo Chavez. I think a lot of foreigners went to Venezuela at that time with a kind of “if shit is going to go down, I want to be there” attitude, expecting some kind of fireworks or intrigue during the elections. I think I felt a little of that myself.
It turns out they were pretty normal, above the board elections. Chavez won fair and square, his popularity at that time still very, very high.
At this point the opposition marches were still mostly composed of the upper-middle class, strolling through the streets of Caracas wearing their sunglasses and polo shirts, and delicately waving their flags.
These seemed more marches to show disdain than anything else, and greatly contrasted with the fervor of a Chavez march – which was more like a big party – everyone eating and drinking and clapping and singing and chanting and smiling and laughing.
But over the last few years there’s been a big shift as younger, more genuinely middle class people have gotten involved, particularly students. A lot of these people never could feel part of the stodgy, old-fashioned opposition, whose only talking point seemed to be “no more Chavez,” and yet had either become disillusioned with Chavez or had never supported him in the first place. This group became angrier, more vocal, more political, more idealistic, and more aggressive.
Thus the nature of the opposition marches has changed. They have became more angry and violent. Clashes between students and the police have become the norm.
On protest days, during my last year in Venezuela, you could hear the sound of rubber bullets and smell the tear gas from my window.
I left Venezuela two years ago – but even then I felt a mounting energy, like we were all sitting on a powder keg, and like every day a bit of gunpowder was added to it. All that potential energy might remain dormant, or it might someday, given a spark of some kind, explode.
But the energy I felt there wasn’t the mounting energy of revolution like in Egypt in which a government is cast aside by surging will of the majority of the people. It was a much more muddled chaotic energy. The risk I felt there was not so much that the people would rise up against the government but that – given the right series of events that might give a light to the fuse – the people would rise up in violence against each other.
There is a deep divide in Venezuela between those that support the government and those that do not (currently estimated to be roughly 50/50) that is more and more entrenched every day. While the opposition is certainly gaining in power and influence, President Chavez has a very large, loyal, and passionate base.
Increasing hatred is felt by each side for the other; the differences between these two groups have become much more important to them in general than the many cultural values that they share.
Meanwhile many Venezuelans are armed now with both legal and illegal weapons. Violence is already deeply problematic, Caracas having one of the highest homicide rates of any city in the world.
And life is difficult, stressful and frustrating for many people throughout the country.
What might happen if that hatred and frustration is ignited? If things were to get truly out of control, the fear I feel in the case of Venezuela, is that it might not be Egypt so much as Libya or Sudan – not a case of revolution so much as a potential civil war. But I hope the feeling I had there was wrong. And I hope we never have the opportunity to find out.