Egypt: A teaching moment?

Those living under occupation must look to Egypt’s uprising in order to find their own path to freedom.

Egyptian Protests
 Fears that the Egyptian uprising might incite riots in the West Bank prompted Jerusalem police to restrict access to Friday Prayers on the Temple Mount.

If you live in Washington, DC, the question of what does the Egyptian Revolution mean for Palestine might seem like a strange question. The question du jour here is what does the Egyptian Revolution mean for Israel? The subtext to that second question is what does the Egyptian Revolution mean for Israel’s continued occupation and its denial of equality to non-Jewish citizens and residents. Of course, both questions show an Israel/Palestine-centric view of the world.

Yes, the denial of Palestinian freedom has been an iconic issue of concern not only for Arabs and the larger Muslim world, but also for the Global South and persons of conscience around the world. And once upon a time, the Palestinian struggle for their rights did symbolise the heroism of a people demanding justice for themselves.

But today that mantle lies with the Egyptian and Tunisian peoples. Today, they are the teachers and the rest of us are the pupils. Today, the Arab people of Egypt and Tunisia, and those demonstrating for the same goals throughout the Arab world are providing all of us, including Americans, with hard fought lessons that decades of useless peace-processing and support for authoritarian leaders have let us forget. Here are at least four lessons that have been thrown in our face:

Will of the people

First, the state and the government exist as a consequence of the will of the people, and not vice-versa. It was clear in Hosni Mubarak’s speech yesterday that he has conflated the state of Egypt with himself. His well being is that of Egypt. Attacks on his rule, in his mind, are attacks on Egypt. But Mubarak is not alone in this delusion. 

Saddam Hussein saw Iraq in the same way. Listening to the Palestinian rulers in Gaza and Ramallah who administer some of the Palestinian cities under Israeli occupation, you would think that Palestine has become those administrations. 

Millions of people marching throughout Egypt today and for the last two weeks have shown us what Egypt actually is – it is the self-determination exercised and demanded by those millions of individuals.  Egypt is not an abstract concept tied in to a corrupt rule, it exists because the people today have resurrected themselves and in so doing have resurrected their state.

Palestinians in the first Intifada had tried something very similar but the exercise was ultimately hijacked and ended up in an agreement that actually restricted even further Palestinian space (anyone who lived in the West Bank or Gaza before the Oslo Agreement can tell you it was easier to travel throughout all of historic Palestine before “peace” than after). 

Worse, the Palestinian identity was further constrained. Rather than representing Palestinian values and interests throughout the world, being Palestinian became a consequence of being a Ramallah native, a Nablus native, a Gazan. 

Palestinians in Israel, in the Diaspora, and elsewhere were asked to only play a supporting role. This is not much different than a narrow elite in Egypt claiming to represent the concerns of Egypt. Today that elite is subsumed in the millions of brave Egyptians, Muslims and Copts, religious and secular, equally demanding a citizen state and true democracy.

Power not with US

Second, the key to victory has always been in the hands of the people – and not in Washington. Yes, that is a blow to those of us who have worked so hard for so long to convince the US to act in its own self-interests in the Middle East. Ultimately, that may still come about – but the real actors, the real decision makers are the people in Tunisia, in Egypt and ultimately in historic Palestine. 

The Palestine Papers leaked to Al Jazeera and now on the internet show clearly that the United States government has never been able to stand for its own political values – or even its own policy pronouncements – when any Israeli government disagreed. Yet, the entire exercise in Palestinian negotiations have been predicated on the ability of the United States to represent itself and the assumption that there was an overlap in American and Palestinian interests. 

Yes, the latter is true, there is an overlap in American and Palestinian interests, but the United States has not been able to represent itself in the face of Israeli intransigence. Watch the Tunisian and Egyptian people. Watch them. They are not demanding the US to do anything. They are demanding actions of their own army, their own leaders, their own people. 

The US government is watching and responding to them with courage, it wouldn’t have had last week and that would have been unthinkable a month ago. That courage in US loins is a result of Egyptian courage – not vice-versa. How can Palestinians do less?

Understanding freedom

Third, freedom may be hard to define but you know it when you see it. Listening to the military regime in Egypt attempting to fool the people with promises of constitutional changes and words of respect combined with those of contempt, I could not but help be reminded by the language of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. 

The Israelis too have promised the Palestinians many roadmaps, many transitions, many easily revoked concessions including even discussions on something called “statehood.” Just like the promises of the Egyptian regime, everyone who lives under Israeli rule knows that they lack content. Everyone knows there is no sincerity when the basic premise of a Palestinian state is simply a place to corral Palestinians to ensure a Jewish majority in the remainder of the territory.

Without a recognition of the basic humanity and equality of Palestinians to Jews, everything else is a farce. Egyptians today are raising their voices so that even the most deaf can hear them – they know what freedom is and now will demand nothing less. How can Palestinians continue to remain confused between concepts of statehood or government and the human aspiration for freedom and equality?

Peaceful revolt

Fourth, the loudest voice is the moral voice. The means do not justify the end – the means actually help determine the end. What if Egyptians, instead of resorting to amazing self discipline and mass peaceful protest, had instead resorted to terrorism – the use of violence against civilians and other non-combatants in order to achieve a political end? 

Yes, the regime had used such violence against the people, but the people remained amazingly disciplined, amazingly brave, amazingly peaceful. The regime must have been praying for violence, because for the power that possesses all the means of physical coercion, terrorism and other forms of violence justify the full use of their advantage in force against the demands for freedom. 

Tunisians have done the same. It is time for Palestinians to humbly acknowledge that moral leadership in combating injustice has moved from Palestine to Egypt and Tunisia and perhaps elsewhere. When you see leadership, and when you can’t provide it yourself, the least you can do is to follow it.

Rebirth of Palestine?

Egypt and the Arab world remain a work in progress. We don’t know the outcome but we know that if you are an Arab, you have reason to be proud today, perhaps for the first time in a generation.  Palestinians in the Occupied Territory, in Israel, in refugee camps, in the Diaspora, everywhere can stand stunned today watching the rebirth of a people and possibly of a nation.

And then they can start participating in it. The Palestine Note wants to hear from you about how Palestinians can re-enter history as actors in charge of their own destiny. What do you think the Egyptian Revolution means? What should Palestinians do now? What should Israeli Jews of conscience do? Let us decide the future again – let us envision our freedom and reach out for it.

Amjad Atallah is the Executive Consulting Editor for the Palestine Note, Director of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation and an editor for the Middle East Channel at

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.