It Only Takes a Spark




This euphoric chant by dancing Egyptians rang throughout Cairo’s Tahrir Square. It heralded the unexpected resignation of their president, Hosni Mubarak and enshrined the drive of a people grown suddenly fearless, toward their own independence. This was their moment and the world, in shocked silence, watched it unfold.

The 18-Day Revolution, as it’s been called, demonstrated how the nonviolent actions of ordinary people can overcome entrenched oppressive regimes. In Egypt’s case, one lasting 30 years. The speed with which the Egyptian leadership toppled surprised most and emboldened many. A palpable outcome of these dramatic events was that it breathed life and hope into other populist movements across the region.

The spark that brought about this fundamental, bottom-up change can be traced to nearby Tunisia. On January 4, 2011, Mohamed Bou’azizi died in a rare and tragic case of self-immolation. The young Tunisian man had become disconsolate following abuse he suffered at the hands of the police. When Bou’azizi could not afford to pay off bribes, the police confiscated his only means of making a living—a vendor cart and produce scale. Following his funeral, furious protests erupted and intensified. After just ten days, president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s resigned. By this time, the flames of Tunisia’s revolt had spread. “Don’t burn yourself up; burn up the fear that is inside you” was the message Tunisians sent to Egyptian protesters. “This was a society in fear, and the fear has been burned.”

Although its speed caught the world off-guard, the Egyptian revolt was years in the making. In a near textbook example of nonviolent protest, a loose coalition of dissenters held their first opposition rally at the end of 2004. A crowd nearing 1000 gathered on the steps of Cairo’s High Court. In protest, they had taped over their mouths large yellow stickers emblazoned with the word “kefaya” (enough). Their movement now had a name, a message, and the following year, a symbol—one candle with a solitary flame.

This grassroots movement was heavily influenced by the ideas of Gene Sharp, considered by many to be the father of the study of strategic nonviolent action. He believes that nonviolence is the most effective tool to undermine those who would justify the repression of others in order to protect themselves from violent resistance and actions. Sharp’s guide to toppling autocrats, 198 Methods of Nonviolent Action, is available for download in dozens of languages. Several years ago, the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict began clandestinely distributing this guide throughout Egypt. Observing the Egyptian protesters’ fearlessness and disciplined commitment to nonviolent resistance, Sharp said, “That is straight out of Gandhi. If people are not afraid of the dictatorship, that dictatorship is in big trouble.”

Today, the volatile situation in the Middle East continues. Like a firestorm, it has leapt to Bahrain, Yemen, and Libya. EGM’s Little Town of Bethlehem seems uniquely positioned for times such as these. Contained within this gripping documentary are the personal stories of Israelis and Palestinians; Christians, Muslims, and Jews who use non-violent resistance to blaze a path to peace and forge a greater humanity in the Holy Land.

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Editor’s Note: The situation in the Middle East is both remarkable and historic. While we acknowledge that clear instances of violence, destruction, and lawlessness have occurred, the intent of this post is to highlight the nonviolent foundations behind popular movements that triggered régime change.

EGM’s documentary Little Town of Bethlehem, filmed on location in Bethlehem by EthnoGraphic Media, tells the inspiring true story of three men—one Israeli Jew, one Palestinian Muslim, one Palestinian Christian—in a land gripped by fear, hatred, and division. Expected to be enemies, they instead strive together to end the cycle of violence.

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  • Norm

    Thanks for sharing. What a pleasure to read!