This was a very good weekend for SDUSA. We participated in two events, one in Buffalo and one in Pittsburgh, both very much oriented to the SD’s core mission.
The first event was the annual awards dinner for the Coalition for Economic Justice. It was held at the Convention Center in Buffalo on Friday evening. As its name implies, the CEJ is a coalition of labor unions, community groups, and public officials who are dedicated to raising the standard of living in Buffalo by reducing the outsourcing of good paying jobs to other countries and by raising the wages of typically low paying jobs. During the past year CEJ succeeded in getting a living wage ordinance passed in Buffalo and organizing janitors at HSBC Bank (a large institution that owns a high rise office tower and a sports arena). It’s now moving on to new challenges. The affair was heavily attended by local union leaders, and politicians who are seeking election this week. The SD was represented by local Buffalo member and YSD chair, Michael Mottern, and me, National Co-Chair Rick D’Loss, who drove up from Pittsburgh for the event. Michael did a beautiful job of organizing our participation, and the table as well. It was impressive! We made good contacts and enjoyed ourselves in the process.
And then on Sunday afternoon, SDUSA co-sponsored a speaking engagement at Congregation Ahavath Achim in Carnegie, PA, near Pittsburgh. About 50 attendees listened to Dr. Youssef Ragheb talk about his personal experiences growing up in Cairo and protesting the Nasser government in 1968. Then he compared his experiences with the recent revolution. He said that the government security force in Egypt has about 1.4 million police, and everyone lives in fear. A person can disappear for simply saying the wrong thing in public. But he shared with us an encounter that he had last year that demonstrated that things had changed. He was visiting Egypt on vacation and talked with a waiter at his hotel. The young man had a masters degree in engineering but unfortunately was waiting tables in order to make a living. He was extremely frustrated about his job prospects and not afraid to say so, even though a co-worker warned him to keep quiet. “Egypt is a pot that is ready to boil over”, the waiter said. True enough, on January 25 of this year, a million people walked into the streets knowing very well that they could be shot by the police.
What was the difference that made this revolution successful? “Electronic media”, said Dr. Ragheb. “In 1968, I smuggled a book called The Founding Fathers past Egyptian security outside the library of the American University by wrapping it with the cover of a medical text book. Today, young people can get everything they need directly from the internet. The government is ignorant of all of this— they are censoring TV and radio”. In a story that is now well known, Google executive Wael Ghonim created a Facebook page to broadcast atrocities being committed by Egyptian security forces. He was arrested and beaten. His captors repeatedly asked him for the password to Youtube, even though he told them that you don’t need a password to look at Youtube. Anyone can see it! But they beat him repeatedly until he made up a password and gave it to them. “The authorities are old men who don’t really understand any modern technology. They don’t even understand the power of cell phones, let alone the internet”, said Dr. Ragheb. “Yes, it will take time for the revolutionaries to establish parties and democratic systems, but they have a lot of support. The U.N. has programs to teach democracy in emerging countries and is already training Egyptians right now. And I can tell you, these young people are more aware than you think. They know who Thomas Jefferson is”.
The audience was also impressed with Dr. Ragheb’s knowledge of Egypt’s neighboring countries as well. “Libya will not be sorted out for another 5 years. It is a different story than Egypt. Libya was once 3 different countries divided along tribal lines. What you are seeing right now is a civil war between these tribes. NATO would have had better advised to intervene in Syria instead of Libya. Syria’s revolutionaries will not be successful in the short term without outside help. The Syrian people are not ready like the Egyptians were. Assad will be able to put them back in their place by force.” Dr. Ragheb caused a buzz in the room when he predicted that the next successful revolution will be in Saudi Arabia. And furthermore, he predicted that women, not men, will lead that revolution! The timeline? “Less than 3 years”, he stated confidently. He said we should all pay attention to how the Saudi government panicked during the Egyptian revolution and started handing out lots of money to the people for no particular reason. “What NONE of these governments understand is that the people want Karama كرامة , personal dignity, and you can’t buy that”. The image below is from a common banner that was carried in Medan El Tahrir (Liberty Square) in Cairo. The large black type reads Karama. Underneath, it reads, “dignity to the citizen is dignity to the nation”.
Regarding Israel, I, and I believe others, were surprised by Dr. Ragheb’s tone. Because he had already explained that the revolution in Egypt was about internal problems in Egypt, I expected him to be neutral or ambivalent about Israel. Instead, he referred to Israel as the “stem cell of democracy” in the Middle East. “Young people in Egypt know about Israel. They know that there are a lot of tech companies doing business in Israel. They know that Israelis have education and good jobs. They know that Israelis have a life style that is much freer than their own. And they want that.” Consequently, he predicted that there will be no problem with the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. If anything, he anticipates more cooperation, not less.
As with the Buffalo event, SDUSA had a display table at the Ragheb program. While many of the attendees know me personally, most didn’t know of my position in SDUSA. So this event provided an opportunity for me to promote the SD and to answer their questions.
Social Democrats USA has a list of principles, and a list of goals as well, but all of them can be boiled down to two main themes: support organized labor and support democracy at home and abroad. After this weekend, I am thinking that maybe even these two themes could be boiled down to one—karama.