where the writers are
What Could Be Better Than Freedom?

I've been mesmerized by a five-minute video shot in Cairo's Tahir Square, part of the Zero Silence documentary project, focusing on young people using new forms of organizing to change authoritarian regimes in the Middle East.

In the clip, an unseen interviewer questions an unnamed young woman in the midst of a vast sea of protestors carrying signs, some in English, some in Arabic. Her face is a map of the emotional world, fear living side-by-side with elation, determination with hope, wide eyes taking in the world, a crystalline intelligence sharing words of fierce clarity.

What could be better than freedom?

The new activism of the Middle East, powerfully expressed today in a One Million March in Cairo, still gathering as I write, is a dance on the edge of a precipice. The world is following, breath held, as each of us performs the same dance in our own heads and hearts. The desire for freedom is eternal and intrinsic to human life; and so is the fear of freedom. When they dance, who will lead?

The role of such a brilliant young woman—clearly Westernized in her command of English, her long hair flowing in the breeze, her T-shirt reading "I love my country"—is especially poignant. Right now, women like her are marching side-by-side with women with covered heads, with male university students used to the sound of an audacious woman's voice, and other men perhaps not quite so comfortable with the new boldness that even a taste of freedom foreshadows.

Her response to the interviewer's first question goes directly to essence. It's not about Mubarak per se, she says, not merely wanting a different individual in office. "We want a constitutional amendment or something saying that the next president of Egypt will be chosen by the people. It doesn't mean we don't want Hosni Mubarak as a person and be stuck with someone else who is imposed on us. We want to choose our president, because we want to take this country into the future."

What could be better than freedom?

The great educator Paolo Freire understood both the desire for freedom and the fear it may ignite. In putting forward his concept of "fear of freedom" in his masterwork Pedagogy of Oppressed, Freire explained that after long subjugation, humans may come to internalize the view of their own capacity held by those who oppress them. They may see themselves as powerless, in need of guidance. They may adopt a self-understanding that matches the social roles imposed on them, coming to see their chains as a kind of crutch. To be propelled suddenly into the possibility of self-determination can bring an overwhelming terror, a rapid retraction to the comfort of one's cage.

Or if the cage no longer exists, the response can be a frantic determination to recreate it, as we have seen in Iran and other countries where a revolution that frees people from a dictator morphs into a fundamentalist society in which the great thirst for freedom is shrunken to the requirement to behave as the authorities dictate, or risk everything.

The brave, articulate young woman in the video clip embodies the antidote to fear of freedom: awareness of the real relations of power, of one's full potential, of the subtle and not-so-subtle tricks those in power use to colonize minds with fear. There is a terrible irony in her risk: if the new regime arising in Egypt is rooted in any sort of fundamentalism, this popular revolution may usher in conditions that deprive women of the very voices they lifted to call for freedom. Yet in the end, there is no life-affirming choice but to take the risk.

What could be better than freedom?

All of us in the rest of the world can help by continuing to watch, to assist in the free flow of information which is the lifeblood of freedom, to call for our own government to put its shoulder on the side of right (as by seconding Fareed Zakaria's call to President Obama to ask Mubarak to step down), by supporting the brave people of Egypt, of Tunisia, of the whole region, in their sacred quest.

We can also think about the fear of freedom that makes us, here in the United States, cynical about taking action in the interest of greater liberty, equality, and justice. The plain truth is that we possess all the rights and freedoms for which Tunisians, Egyptians, and others in the region are now risking their lives. Our failure to make full use of them is a kind of voluntary oppression: sad to contemplate, except that each of us had the remedy close at hand. By standing with those who desire freedom in their own nations, may we remember the preciousness of our own liberty, and act every day to make it real.

Here are some resources on Egypt:

Free Dimensional is an organization that works with artists and activists across the globe, advocating for victims of represssion and spreading information about those working for freedom. Here's FD's page of links to stay updated.

Here's a link to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, an independent Egyptian human rights organization dedicating to promoting many of the rights needed to ensure Egypt's freedom. Non-governmental organizations will be key to the vitality of civil society as authoritarian regimes begin to topple.

FreePress.net is conducting a campaign to investigate US companies that have helped Egypt shut down the Internet.

Sheila Musaji's wonderful Website, The American Muslim, has a constantly updating collection of articles. She is an astute and knowledgeable observer and commentator; her sense of what is worth noticing is valuable in such a rapidly changing, confusing moment.

Here's Richie Havens singing "Freedom" at the Woodstock Festival in 1969. What could be better than freedom?