Crisis in Egypt: Their Problem Is Our Problem
The people of Egypt are looking to African Americans for solidarity in their struggle, just as we once looked to them in our own efforts to gain freedom and civil rights. When will we speak up for them?
When protesters in Egypt called for a "Million Man March" to mark the one-week anniversary of their Jan. 25 uprising against Hosni Mubarak's 30-year autocratic rule, they did what many African-American public figures have yet to do: draw on the history and example of the black freedom movement to express support for the ongoing global struggle for democracy. With some exceptions (Cornel West being the most notable), members of the black intelligentsia have yet to provide significant commentary on the democratic aspirations being expressed so strongly and courageously in recent months in Arab countries in Africa and Asia. But even if some of us in America remain slow to take up the mantle of our own historical legacy, people around the world are taking note (just as Black History Month commences, no less).
Freedom fighters in Egypt wasted no time. They seized on the example of the 1995 Washington, D.C., Million Man March, organized by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, to galvanize their own compatriots in drawing attention to their plight and generating momentum for their struggle. The Egyptians' adoption of the Million Man March is not the first time the black freedom movement or its strategies have inspired struggles abroad; nor has this historically been a one-way exchange -- especially in the case of Egypt.
Long before Egypt was a partner of the U.S. government in its foreign policy objectives in the Middle East, Egypt was a partner with black America. Egypt has figured in the black religious imagination for centuries, and more recently in the work of African-American historians and political activists throughout the 20th century.
The Old Testament story of Hebrew slaves' exodus from the oppression of a wicked pharaoh provided Africans enslaved in America with a coded language in Scripture and song. They used it to talk about their own yearnings for freedom from their white slave masters. Later, Egypt would become the source of pride for African Americans as Afrocentrist scholars claimed a kinship with the African identity of Egypt and its contributions to Western civilization.
Even President Barack Obama underscored this kinship when visiting the pyramids of Egypt after his 2009 Cairo speech. Looking upon some of the hieroglyphics, he remarked about one drawing of a man with prominent ears: "That looks like me!"
Midcentury, as Egypt was throwing off the remnants of British colonialism, it continued to inspire political activists. In a speech Martin Luther King Jr. delivered in Montgomery, Ala. (pdf), to mark the success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1956, he included the "nationalistic longings of Egypt" as an example of a new age where "[a]s a result of their protest more than one billion three hundred million … of the colored peoples of the world are free today. They have their own governments, their own economic system, and their own educational system."
Interestingly enough, President Obama commemorated King's birthday this year with remarks that referenced this very same King speech. King's address in Montgomery is noteworthy for another reason: According to Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a comic book called The Montgomery Story, chronicling the nonviolent direct action of the 1955-1956 bus boycott, may be inspiring some of the pro-democracy activists in Egypt.