by Ron Kenner
February 27, 2011
WISDOM OF THE STREET
DUMMERSTON, Vt., Feb. 17, 2011 -- Did you believe that it was going to happen this way?
Did you believe that a leaderless, semi-organized revolution could topple an entrenched dictator in less than three weeks?
Did you believe that this revolution would end as began, peacefully?
Feb. 11, 2011, will be a day that will live forever in the hearts of Egyptians - the day that Hosni Mubarak finally swept into the dust heap of fallen tyrants.
The bravery shown by ordinary Egyptians against incredible odds was amazing to see. But more impressive was how they came together to show the world that people of all ages and backgrounds could come together for a common purpose.
This was People Power, and 25 years ago this month, we saw it in action in the Phillipines.
The scenes of the millions who rallied to Corazon Aquino's side during what became dubbed the "People Power Revolution" of February 1986 that ousted tyrant Ferdinand Marcos.
Marcos tried to steal the presidential election Aquino had clearly won, and ordinary Filipinos would not let them. Through the power of massive and resolute nonviolent resistance, the culmination of three years of non-violent revolt, the people prevailed and Marcos fled.
The ripples from the Philippine revolution spread around the world. Other nations, inspired by the moral courage of the Filipinos, would topple repressive regimes through People Power.
In South Africa, one year before Aquino's election, the Apartheid government of President P.W. Botha offered Nelson Mandela his freedom on condition that he "unconditionally rejected violence as a political weapon."
Mandela refused, and that moment in February 1985 marked the turning point when armed struggle was replaced by nonviolent resistance. Perhaps the Egyptians noticed that their revolution's climax came 21 years to the day that Mandela was released from prison and a new future was ushered in for South Africa.
Other intractable conflicts started to unravel with the rise of People Power. In Central America, the Esquipulas Peace Process was launched by Costa Rica's Oscar Arias in the spring of 1986, with the region's five presidents agreeing a year later to peaceful resolution of conflicts and new structures of economic cooperation. The civil wars and violence that wracked the region in the early and mid-1980s was over by decade's end.
At about the same time, the governments of Ireland and England had signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement, with Dublin affirming rights of the Protestants in Northern Ireland and London affirming Dublin's role. It would take more than a decade to settle the conflict, but after years of bloodshed and violence, the Irish people themselves seized the initiative in a peaceful process that culminated in the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
A few months before Aquino's victory, Mikhail Gorbachev was elected head of the Communist Party in 1985. Did he realize what the energy that rose from the streets of Manila meant to the future of the Soviet Union? He didn't right away, but the nations under Soviet control in Eastern Europe did.
The events of the miracle year of 1989 - "Solidarity" rising again in Poland, the "Peaceful Revolution" in East Germany and the razing of the Berlin Wall, the "Velvet Revolution" in Czechoslovakia - was fueled by throngs of nonviolent protesters in streets and squares. And two years later, the Soviet Union itself was gone.
People Power doesn't always prevail. The Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 stands as the cautionary example that power sometimes refuses to recognize the moral power of nonviolent resistance to tyranny.
But the words that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said in 1961 in a speech before the AFL-CIO sums up why People Power ultimately prevails:
"There is a little song that we sing in the movement taking place in the South. It goes something like this. 'We shall overcome. We shall overcome. Deep in my heart I do believe we shall overcome.' And somehow all over America we must believe that we shall overcome and that these problems can be solved. They will be solved before the victory is won.
"Some of us will have to get scarred up, but we shall overcome. Before the victory of justice is a reality, some may even face physical death.
"But if a physical death is the price that some must pay to free their children and their brothers from a permanent life of psychological death, then nothing could be more moral.
"Before the victory is won, some more will have to go to jail. We must be willing to go to jail and transform the jails from dungeons of shame to havens of freedom and human dignity.
"Yes, before the victory is won, some will be misunderstood. Some will be called Reds and Communists merely because they believe in economic justice and the brotherhood of man. But we shall overcome.
"I am convinced that we shall overcome because the arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.
"We shall overcome because Carlisle is right when he says, 'No lie can live forever.'
"We shall overcome because William Cullen Bryant is right when he says, 'Truth crushed to earth will rise again.'
"We shall overcome because James Russell Lowell was right when he proclaimed: 'Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne, yet the scaffold sways the future.'
"And so if we will go out with this faith and with this determination to solve these problems, we will bring into being that new day and that new America."
That's the spirit behind People Power. That's the spirit that has inspired change from the streets of Manila to Tahrir Square in Cairo over the past 25 years, and brought down brutal regimes without bullets and bombs. It's a spirit that can be temporarily held at bay with guns and repression, but can never be totally crushed for long.
The story is not yet finished in Egypt. But people in other nations saw what happened there, and saw how social change can be achieved without terrorism or mindless killing.
It's a trend I hope will continue.
AR's Chief of Correspondent Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.