I have always been obsessed with history. As a child, I used to wonder what the history books would say about my lifetime: would it be like the Roaring 20s or the Great Depression? Would I live through another World War, or a Renaissance? Would I get my chance to be the equivalent of a suffragette? Or to march from Selma? And how would I know when it was the time?
I was in ninth grade when 9/11 happened, and a junior in college at the beginning of the Great Recession. While these events shifted the course of my entire generation, I then found myself in Cairo during the Egyptian Revolution in 2011. As an American, I grew up idolizing the Revolutionary War, but I didn’t realize that revolutions could happen outside history books. And yet, there I was, incredibly humbled to witness the Egyptian people — suffering under police brutality and repression — take their future into their own hands. After 18 days of protests, they took down their President of 29 years.
I moved back to the United States determined not to let such a precious life experience go to waste. I studied finance and worked on Wall Street, patiently gathering the skills to be able to devote my career to increasing private sector investment in the Middle East. But then something happened. A revolution began brewing at home, and I realized that there was work needed to be done here.
This post is not to talk about me or my career, but the rest cannot be written without first unpacking the fact that that my voice is a white one. As a white woman I speak and write from a place of great privilege. White women have been the white man’s greatest ally in the history of repression of Black and brown bodies and voices, for in their every act of repression they become less female, and more male. It is self-reflexive misogyny in the name of gaining power.
I have always prided myself on not being “one of them.” But the reality is — no matter how conscious I try to be — those Amy Coopers and white female Trump voters are my responsibility. If I do not speak with them, who will? So I vow not to rest until I reach as many of my peers as I can.
I encourage you all to spend the time unpacking your own truths. And in that spirit, I seek to share context that I believe is desperately critical to understanding the moment that we Americans find ourselves in. I am writing to tell you that this is the time. What we do in the coming weeks and months will fill the pages of the history books.
As compared to Egypt, in America there are a lot of safety nets we take for granted. We don’t really have to vote, know the names of our local officials, or understand policy — life ticks by pretty easily for a lot of people. But the problem is, that’s not how democracy works. You cannot opt out of democracy. And what we are starting to see, the cracks that are being exposed, is the result of years and years of Americans opting out. Years and years of Americans voting for “smaller government,” or not voting at all. The structural inequalities that are being exposed were designed that way, and we have done nothing about it.
But despite all of that complacency, a small awakening began in the United States. The same awakening I saw in Egypt started creeping through the cracks of my own country. Whether it was the work of Thomas Piketty and Gabriel Zucman — showing us how dramatically income inequality had eroded the American dream — or the senseless murder of seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin — people started rubbing their eyes in disbelief: “How can that happen, in America, in the 21st century?”
One of the first books I read as revolution spilled out onto the streets in Cairo was Crane Brinton’s Anatomy of a Revolution. Originally written in 1938, it provides a comparative analysis of the English, Russian, French, and American revolutions. I read it with haste, expecting to reach the end and find a conclusion about what would happen in Egypt. But what Brinton’s analysis of those revolutions demonstrates is that humans are inherently resistant to change. The very definition of “revolution” is to revolve, to turn in a circle, not to move forward. In most cases, the revolutionary movements provide significant steps forward, only to double back on progress and end in dictatorship. In France, Napoleon was the response to their revolution, in Egypt, it would be Sisi.
Brinton notes that the American Revolution did not follow the same path to dictatorship as the other revolutions he analyzed. But just because the United States kept electing presidents after George Washington, doesn’t mean that dictatorship wasn’t permanently enshrined in American society. We can chart a clear path of the legalization of repression throughout the history of the United States. The abolition of slavery and the end of the Civil War led to a Reconstruction hijacked by the Jim Crow laws, voter suppression, and lynching. Tara Westover says it most poignantly in her book Educated when she writes that she thought it was a typo in her textbook, that the Civil Rights Act came 100 years after the end of the Civil War. No, not a typo, but a revolution, a complete circle.
Colin Kaepernick kneeling was a peaceful protest, but he was denied a platform. Martin Luther King, Jr. championed peaceful protest movements, but was assassinated. Black Lives Matter was founded as a peaceful movement, and despite the odds, has done this successfully and articulately for the majority of its existence. What, therefore, has changed in the past few months in America that could lead to the widespread looting and destruction that is going on in our cities today? For starters, forty million Americans have lost their jobs. Americans are angry, they feel helpless. Despite the fact that the majority of the protests remain non-violent, the reality is protesting is far more complicated than we idealize it to be (or how the history books retell it). One of the biggest lessons I learned from Cairo is that protesting is disorganized and messy, with competing interests, disparate outcomes, and power vacuums. And if we don’t unite, the status quo will win.
I lived in Cairo about a twenty minute walk from Tahrir Square, but I never once got caught in a protest by accident. Through a network of WhatsApp, Twitter, and Facebook, we almost always knew where there was violence brewing and how to stay clear. That said, my American family and friends thought I was living in perpetual, imminent danger. I cannot even begin to understand the stress they felt watching American news, thinking that I dodged bullets on my way to work every morning. It was a serious lesson on the potency of the framing of a news camera. That same framing is happening now — remember the incentives of the news media and stay vigilant. Read firsthand accounts, not headlines.
There were many outsiders who hijacked the Egyptian Revolution, from camels, to thugs (known as baltageya), to the rabble-rousing football fans (the Ultras), but the most dangerous hijacker ended up being the Egyptian military. Therein lies the lesson: ask yourself, who benefits the most from protest violence? After years of protests in Egypt, the average Egyptian was so tired of upheaval, so desperate for security, they acquiesced to military rule. And now Egypt finds itself in a situation worse than it could ever have imagined.
Will we allow ourselves to be blinded by the violence and anger, and miss our opportunity for change? Or will we organize, vote, and push for systemic overhaul? If any country can do it, it is America. We have a strong history of civil society organization: elections for mayors, county attorneys, district attorneys, state attorneys. The democratic foundations of the United States are actually quite powerful, but they haven’t been working for the people because the people haven’t been participating. Election turnout in this country is embarrassingly low. So instead, corporations and special interest groups have been participating on our behalf through lobbying and super PACS, lining the pockets of politicians. But united, we are stronger and louder than all of them. We can vote them out. But we have to show up.
So this is our time. You may not want or be able to protest right now, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have a role to play.
Get involved — start small and locally: figure out who your elected officials are, what are their positions on key issues, when are the next elections? Vote. You can also vote with your wallet. Figure out the policies of your local police department: do they require body cams, is there a history of violence or collaboration with the community? Volunteer; figure out what the local need is, and do a little bit each week. Talk to your neighbors, friends, and family — and most importantly — listen to the opinions of people who don’t look like you, or come from the same background as you.
Here I turn to the poignant words of Nikole Hannah-Jones in her Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times podcast 1619. Referencing the cycles of revolution that have continued to shape and improve the United States, she explains how “it would actually be those very people who were denied citizenship in their own country, who were denied the protections of our founding documents, who would fight the hardest and most successfully to make those ideals real, not just for themselves but for all Americans. It is Black people who have been the perfectors of this democracy.”
Black Americans do not have the privilege to trace their ancestry back to Ellis Island. The ancestors of Black Americans were brought to this country against their will, and forced into unimaginable living conditions, some of which continue until this day. But it is from Black Americans that we see the true light of the American dream. It is from them the rest of us can learn just how beautiful this country could be if it actually exemplified the freedoms upon which it was founded. The United States has from its beginning been a grand experiment: a series of revolutions, change, and regression. It is up to all of us to keep it moving forward.
Despite all the uncertainty of the past few months, one thing remains the same: our time on this planet is limited. What will we do with the time that is given to us? We have a chance now to rise up and rewrite our stories together.
I know which ending I will fight for.
Many thanks to my dear friend and inspiration Henry Agbo for his input and editing support on this article; with whom the journey began in Cairo over a decade ago.