Montreal protest in support of Egypt, Jan. 28, 2011. Photo: Sarah Ghabrial

On Friday afternoon, starting around 2 p.m., 175 people gathered in front of the Egyptian consulate in Montreal to show their solidarity with the Egyptian protesters who have been calling since Tuesday for the end of Hosni Mubarak’s regime.

Montreal supporters chanted for three hours in French, Arabic, and English, calling for an end to rampant poverty, police brutality, torture, corruption, economic stagnation, and dictatorship. “The youth want liberty and dignity!” they cried. “Down with Mubarak and all dictators!” Their signs and banners showed solidarity with the Tunisian movement that was seen to have sparked the protests in Egypt.

Similar solidarity gatherings have been taking place this weekend in front of the Egyptian embassy in Ottawa and Dundas Square in Toronto. Demonstrations in Egypt, meanwhile, are not likely to slow down anytime soon, since Mubarak has thus far refused to recognize the demands of the Egyptian people that he not just redecorate the regime but move out for good.

The significance of these Days of Rage is deep and shattering, and cannot be overstated. Egypt is in the 30th year of Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship; the man is 82 years of age, and due to chronic health problems has largely shunned public life in recent years. Nonetheless, he is the country’s undisputed autocrat-in-chief.

Egyptians have not voted for their state leader since electing Nasser president in 1952. Protests of this scale, and with so much at stake, have not erupted since the nationalist uprisings against British occupation in 1919. As many others have already pointed out, Egypt’s size and geopolitical influence means these displays of anger will resonate (and have resonated already) throughout the region.

Added to this is the sheer surprise of it all. Few people saw the Tunisian uprising coming; fewer still could have predicted that Egyptians, who appeared to accept the glacial pace of change for so long, would finally reach a breaking point of their own.

What is different now? Theories abound. The “Tunisia effect” is clearly in play, as was the grizzly torture and murder of whistle-blower Khaled Said by Egyptian secret police. The first round of protests was organized by a Facebook group inspired by his bravery and named in his honour.

But discontent had been long brewing, due to, among other elements, increasing income disparity as an outcome of trade and economic liberalization since the late 1990s; a “blocked elite” pushed to the edge, as Professor Juan Cole has proposed; a generation of frustrated young men without jobs or hope, and a generation of educated young women tired of waiting for gender equity in both the public and private sphere.

This is a generation whose children’s futures seemed less certain than their own; a list of grievances similar, in many ways, to other parts of the world devastated by the global recession. To this list of pressures we may also add the fraudulent parliamentary elections of this past fall, and the sense of trepidation surrounding the upcoming presidential elections.

Many have put their hope in Nobel Peace laureate Mohammed ElBaradei, but this hope seemed too easily extinguished, as bureaucratic barriers were thrown in the opposition’s way, and rumours spread that Mubarak’s son Gamal was being groomed to inherit the presidency. But “the Pharaoh” may not have been so ready to relinquish his throne. Following the New Years Eve suicide bombing of a church in Alexandria that killed 21 Coptic Christians, Mubarak the elder issued a speech calling for national unity. Despite the widespread sentiment that this tragedy confirmed the regime’s loss of control on domestic security, it became evident that Mubarak was himself considering “running” for another term. All in the name of stability in these uncertain times, of course.

As much as Egyptians may have surprised themselves and their neighbours, no one seems more caught off guard by this recent turn of events than members of western mainstream media and political officials. The western media appear bewildered, their commentary halting and unsure. Perhaps this is because, for so long, news agencies have stacked their rolodexes with analysts on the Middle East whose area of expertise lay primarily in terrorism and religious fundamentalism. They now seem ill prepared to comprehend this past week’s events, which have been so free of religious rhetoric, much less offer any insight on what the world may expect to come next. More than one commentator has remarked on the possibility of an Islamist take-over in Egypt and elsewhere, as though for lack of anything else worthwhile to say. Some appeared at a loss as they reported that protesters were not shouting “Death to America.”

The response to civil unrest in Egypt has been strangely unlike the response to the Iranian would-be “Green Revolution” of 2009. Because Iranians were standing up to a long-hated Islamist regime, their struggle was immediately embraced in the west across the political spectrum.

By contrast, western observers in the cultural mainstream have been hesitant about the Days of Anger, as they lack a clear and ready-made approach for identifying and understanding Arab discontent. This is probably due in part to the ostensible “secularism” of these regimes, and because instability in the Middle East is seen as a breeding ground for terrorism. Ironically, most terrorists out of Egypt are largely a product of the Mubarak school of stability — imprisonment, repression, and torture. But apparently the alternative is more horrifying: a scenario in which Egyptians may choose their own government. One can picture the Egyptians who populate the imagination of policymakers and journalists: a pious and incorrigible bunch, impelled in the direction of fanaticism as though by gravity.

This narrow and irrational view of civil unrest in the Middle East reflects the paradigm that informs western foreign policy as well. Noting the “Tunisia effect” rippling through Egypt, Yemen, Jordan, and Lebanon, Germany’s defense minister, Karl-Theodor Guttenberg, made reference to a sinister “infectious momentum,” adding that, “We are looking very closely, we are concerned, that’s for sure.” Members of the Obama administration like Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden stated their abiding support for “reform,” but delicately avoided any use of two crucial D-words: democracy and dictator. When put the question directly, Biden told PBS News that he “would not define [Mubarak] as a dictator.”

Shortly after Mubarak’s non-resignation speech, U.S. President Barack Obama delivered his own message, in which he issued stern reprimands to Mubarak and his security forces and a warning to put political will behind his promises of reform. The teeth behind this warning was a “re-evaluation” of the nearly $2 billion the Egyptian government receives annually from the U.S. in (mostly military) aid. But the message itself strayed little from the script of American foreign policy toward its friendly dictators in the Arab world. For the past 10 years of U.S.-Egyptian relations, calls for slow reform have been volleyed and received, volleyed and received, in a comforting ritual. As others have noted, the Obama administration clearly felt caught between the “freedom spreading” foreign policy objective and appeasing a crucial ally and friend of Israel in the region; a classic choice between democracy and “stability.” And in this instance they chose the latter.

What is truly tragic is that the very nature of these protests shows that this choice is false. What this civil unrest shows the world, above all, is how deeply misguided and injurious these cynical policies have been. The truth is that Hosni Mubarak has been as dependent on the ultra-conservative Islamist element to maintain his dictatorship as he has been on American support. For many years, Mubarak used the Islamist factions, and in particular, the Muslim Brotherhood, as a foil for the police state, propping up his own claim to uncontested power.

The State of Emergency that has been in place since 1981, when his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, was shot to death by militant members of the Brotherhood; the extension and strengthening of the Emergency Laws last spring; the brutal torture and imprisonment without trial of countless young Egyptians based on the faintest suspicion of Islamist sympathies; these have all been justified by Mubarak’s claim to being the only line of defense between “stability” and an Islamist take-over.

These Days of Rage prove beyond doubt what many have suspected for a while now: that the fanatical boogieman is just that. Much to the befuddlement of western observers, the Muslim Brotherhood stood in irrelevance on the sidelines as protestors took to the streets, joining in only as latecomers. The Brotherhood has a renowned capacity for swift mobilization, and has thus been used in the past as a vehicle for expressing mass frustration, but it is clear that they do not speak for the majority of Egyptians. Or at least, it should be clear by now.

We can only speculate on how the Mubarak regime and its western allies will react to these revelations. Will the west continue to see the Middle East through a prism of religion, fundamentalism, and instability? And will this Orientalist framework continue to shape the foreign policy of otherwise “democracy-loving” western governments? If the answer to these questions is yes, the dictators stand to gain power, and the terrorists recruits; meanwhile, the people stand to lose even more than they already have.

What Egyptians are demanding, and what they deserve, is the world’s confidence and the chance to make these choices for themselves — not on the U.S.’s or Israel’s schedule, but now. On Al-Jazeera’s online video stream on Friday night, an Egyptian BBC reporter showed cameras a spent teargas shell with the stamp “Made in the USA.” What a fitting illustration of Egyptian exasperation not only with the Mubarak regime but with American disingenuousness.

In a spirit of respect for the Egyptian protestors themselves, who chose to speak not through parties or institutions, but as impassioned individuals and (virtual) communities, let us demonstrate our solidarity in a similar fashion. Let us shout loudly for and with the Egyptian and other Middle Eastern peoples now putting their lives at stake for justice, democracy, and freedom from oppression, by joining in protests, sending letters to embassies, joining virtual communities, adding our names to petitions, and refusing the cynical and destructive paradigms of our leaders.

Sarah Ghabrial is a PhD Candidate in History at McGill University and a daughter of Egypt.