Medea Benjamin is the co-founder of the peace group Code Pink and the founding director of Global Exchange. For over 20 years, she has supported human rights and social justice struggles around the world. With a delegation of nine activists, she was in Egypt during the revolution that overthrew Hosni Mubarak. Here she talks with FPIF’s Hope Kwiatkowski about the reception of Americans in Tahrir Square, the future of revolution in the region, and how the U.S. government should react.
Hope Kwiatkowski: Was it difficult to arrange your trip to Egypt? Did you encounter any difficulties with the authorities?
Medea Benjamin: When I left, they were cancelling flights to Egypt. I ended up having to stay in Europe for an extra few days to get another flight because they were not flying in planes during the curfew hours that the Egyptian government had established. Also, there was a general uncertainty about whether planes were flying in at all. In that sense, it was difficult. It was also a bit crazy when we got to the airport in Cairo because so many people were trying to leave the country. The airport was very chaotic. It was hard to make my way back into Cairo because roadblocks had already been put up in the street.
Hope Kwiatkowski: What types of people were involved with the protests in the areas where you ventured overall?
Medea Benjamin: It was amazing how diverse the people were. It was just a cross-section of Egyptian society – it was young and old, religious and secular. Also, about 20 percent were women. I was surprised by how many people were middle and upper middle class, protesting not out of economic need but because of a lack of political openness. Yet, on the other hand, there were many people from the poorer classes who were protesting around lack of jobs and low pay.
Hope Kwiatkowski: How did people react to you as foreigners and as Americans?
Medea Benjamin: There was a lot of government propaganda about how the foreigners were instigating things. The police in the streets were particularly seeking out journalists and foreigners in general. We got stopped many times and had some pretty severe situations. We had our taxi commandeered by plain-clothed people with guns. Three people from our delegation were held for 12 hours by the military and were blindfolded, and one person from our delegation was beaten up. So, there was a lot of targeting of foreigners. Yet once we got into the Square, people were really happy to see international support. We held a banner that read “Solidarity with the Egyptian people.” They would run up to us and there was lots of hugging, kissing, and clapping. When they heard we were Americans, we got even more support. It was interesting that there wasn’t an anti-American or anti-foreign sentiment at all with the protestors.
Hope Kwiatkowski: In one of the press releases, you commented that the tear gas used to deter the protestors was “Made in the USA.” Was there a feeling of mistrust towards the United States because of this implication?
Medea Benjamin: There was resentment toward the U.S. government for having propped up Mubarak for 30 years and for supplying the tear gas, rubber bullets, and other material that was used to repress the protestors. But that didn’t translate into opposition to us as individual Americans. There was also general unhappiness that Obama hadn’t done more to support the democracy movement once he got into power and how he was very slow to support the protestors once the movement started.
Hope Kwiatkowski: What was the overall feel while you were in Egypt? Did people seem united- glad to be a part of the movement? Or were they angry at the lack of progress? When you were there, were the people hopeful that Mubarak would resign?
Medea Benjamin: People were absolutely determined that they were not going to stop until Mubarak resigned. I kept thinking that they could be stuck camping out in the Square for months and worried that the movement would fizzle out. It was really quite surprising and remarkable that they accomplished his resignation in just 18 days. The fact that they had one clear goal — the ouster of Mubarak — gave them great unity of purpose. And some people said that it was good that Mubarak didn’t leave right away, since it gave the activists more time to build and strengthen their movement.
Hope Kwiatkowski: Some believe that the occupation of Tahrir Square should be continued while others are in favor of the army’s newfound control. How will this division affect the long-term and short-term outcomes?
Medea Benjamin: Most people were ready to leave the Square after 18 intense days. But they have called for weekly actions on Fridays in Tahrir Square, which I think is a great idea because it keeps the pressure on. But in this next phase, I don’t think it will be possible to keep up the same level of intensity as they had during the first phase.
Hope Kwiatkowski: What is your response to the new protests that are focused on demanding higher wages?
Medea Benjamin: There is a long history of labor protests in Egypt, but this new uprising has opened the floodgates. Now people feel more freedom to voice their demands and we will probably see more labor unrest. That’s going to be tough for those in power because it’s not like there are suddenly more resources available. But I think it’s very positive that workers are feeling freer to voice their demands.
Hope Kwiatkowski: What role does the United States play now in Egypt- should it support the military led government? What action can the United States take the promote democracy in Egypt?
Medea Benjamin: We want to stop our government from meddling in the internal affairs. I know that there are people in government and particularly in Congress who want the United States to stop the Muslim Brotherhood from gaining a significant role in the new government. I was in the congressional hearings last week and I was appalled to hear congresspeople grilling the administration about their plans to make sure the Muslim Brotherhood does not come to power. We need to make sure the Egyptians have the space they need to determine their own future. As far as U.S. aid to Egypt, it is tough because the military has played a relatively positive role in all of this and yet many progressive U.S. groups have been calling for an end to military aid.
In the larger context of progressive politics in the United States, I don’t think our government should be supporting militaries overseas in general. Therefore, I think it is still right to call for an end to U.S. military aid to Egypt. I think a tougher question is whether we should support U.S. government aid for democracy-building. There is a sense in Egypt that when the U.S. government starts giving money to a group, the group loses a lot of its legitimacy. The question is whether we even want our government supporting the democracy movement or if we want our government to simply step aside and let the Egyptian process proceed.
Hope Kwiatkowski: Is promoting democracy in the Arab world a staple of U.S. foreign policy today?
Medea Benjamin: We have not been promoting democracy in the Arab world; in fact, some of our closest allies have been repressive governments like in Jordan and Saudi Arabia. I think that we as people should be promoting democracy movements. Our government should be cutting off its support for repressive governments and that in of itself will help democracy movements to flourish.
Hope Kwiatkowski: Already the army has ordered people out of Tahrir Square, banned further labor strikes, and ordered news services (such as Al-Jazeera) to stop filming the square. These examples show that Egypt is still a long way from being free. What do you think the long-term implications of Mubarak’s resignation are?
Medea Benjamin: I think it could go several ways. It could go in a very negative way with the military clinging to control. Or if the elections are fraudulent or held before the democratic groups can organize, we might see a continuation of the regime without Mubarak. And of course there is a danger that Islamists gain too much power. But I actually have a lot of hope. It is going to be a difficult but I think there will be enough people power to put pressure on the military and organize free and fair elections, and I think the majority of Egyptians want a secular state.
No matter what happens, things have changed irrevocably in Egypt because people now feel empowered. They will not let the police be as repressive as they were; they will force the military to grant their most important demands. And I don’t think there will be as much corruption in Egypt as there has been in the past.
Hope Kwiatkowski: What about the rest of the Arab world? Already protests have begun in Algeria, Iran, and Yemen. What do you see for the future of this region? Do you think that the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt have inspired many more countries to affect change and do you think that their efforts will be successful?
Medea Benjamin: Already we are seeing an upheaval throughout the Arab world, but it is not clear whether or not it will build to the level of people power and revolution that Egypt had. We are seeing leaders already making changes to try to appease the population and prevent the kind of mass mobilizing that occurred in Egypt. So, whether it is the king of Jordan dismissing his cabinet or the government of Bahrain giving over $2,500 to every family to try to buy its way out of upheaval, it remains to be seen how effective governments will be at preempting uprising and how effective these protests are going to be.
But one thing we do know: The Arab world will never be the same. Change is in the air, people are losing their fear. There will undoubtedly be new democratic openings through the region.
Hope Kwiatkowski: What role do you see CodePink playing in the next few couple of months as the fight for democracy in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East continues?
Medea Benjamin: We will continue to build our contacts in the region, including taking new delegations to Egypt and organizing a group to monitor the upcoming elections. We plan to strengthen our connections in other countries, such as Yemen, Bahrain, and Algeria. And we will be taking our cues from leaders of these democracy movements.
We will also play close attention to the policies of our government, particularly the ways that Congress will be trying to stop democracy movements in the Arab world. There are Republicans and Democrats who are more concerned about their misguided notions of U.S. national interest and the interest of Israel than they are about the interest of the people themselves in the Arab world. So I think stopping the meddling of our government will be an important focus.
Hope Kwiatkowski: How do we go about stopping this meddling?
Medea Benjamin: We can meet with members of the administration and the state department to express our concerns. We can bring representatives of Arab democracy movements to the United States to amplify their voices. We can put pressure on individual members in Congress, as well as on the committees that are responsible for the Middle East. And we can educate and mobilize the public, since an informed citizenry is key to building a foreign policy that truly supports democratic ideals.