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Anthony Strano Headshot

Free or Not to Be? That's the Battle

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Arriving in Tahrir square I was expecting it to look like Syntagma Square in Athens but the Egyptian Square was far more dilapidated, devastated and showing far greater signs of wear and tear than its Greek equivalent. Both uprisings were tenacious but the Egyptian one was certainly more ferocious -- although some quarters are predicting that an equally ferocious uprising is expected in Greece.

With tanks, horses, camels and guns that killed hundreds and injured thousands the Arab Spring in Egypt has been a bloody one. Does Europe have its Spring also? Is it more of an economic one which has begun in Greece and has also emerged in Portugal, Ireland, Italy and Spain ? A break-up of political, social, as well as economic, systems that do not operate justly and transparently, is being evidenced in both Europe and the Middle East, triggered by different reasons but fundamentally the same reason: indifference to and ignoring the plight of fellow citizens. This insensitivity to others' needs has always been a characteristic blindness of the human species, no matter the constitutions they have had, and nearly always some kind of revolt was needed to redress the situation. The revolt may have been violent or not depending on the issues and people instigating it.

Tahrir Square is known for its demonstrations: in 1919, in 1952, the bread riots in 1977 and now 25 January 2011 and onward. Tahrir means Liberation. Every country on the globe has a day, a square, a bridge, a song or a statue commemorated to freedom. Freedom is a deeply cherished instinct within the human spirit. To revolt against oppressive forces which violate that natural freedom has often been seen as a necessity when no other alternative has worked.
In Tahrir Square the statue of Omar Makram looms in front of the Mogamma building, a bleak administrative government office, which often closed when rioting reached its peak. Omar Makram recalls Egypt's resistance to Napoleon, another autocrat bent on domineering ownership. The Mogamma is an ugly, communist-looking building which was a gift by the Soviets who tried to manipulate a footing in Nasser's Egypt. However the Egyptians were wary of the Soviets bearing gifts. And they, luckily, did look the gift horse in the mouth and realized the trap. Unfortunately, selfless generosity is not a characteristic of most human-made systems, especially politics.

The huge, shapeless grey horse houses the Tax Evasion Investigations Office. However it begs the question whom did they actually investigate? Certainly not the elite in power. A great part of the Egyptian revolution was because of the crushing, ongoing poverty, selective biased tax collecting (a Greek echo here) and blatant nepotism (another Greek echo).

In Cairo when speaking with people, one gets different versions of the actual why, how and where things are going when describing the revolution. Like the ancient Egyptian myths, there are four or five versions of the same story. It is difficult to gauge the truth of events. Some speak of the revolution being hijacked by the army and Muslim brotherhood, who waited in the background after the youth and middle class activists had spent their focus and energy. A wall off the Square has graffiti drawings of many young men with wings honored as martyrs of the Revolution. However one thing is clear that everyone was outraged with a callous government that showed no real concern for the country's 85 million people.

The Pharaoh mentality of the deposed leaders alienated, it seems, not only the youth and middle class but also the army who allowed the revolution to evolve. However, as things were getting out of hand, it stepped in to show they were needed to quell the chaos. A brutal show of force that was simply an orchestrated game, so I am told. It seems the game is continuing as all are waiting and are asking what is the relationship of the army with the Muslim brotherhood and with the fledgling government? What will the new constitution look like? Will it be truly functional or only giving lip service to democratic demands? It is a long wait till June or July. A few protest tents remain in the square but will they keep waiting there? Most protesters have gone home. However in their homes it seems many are waiting and certainly hoping for a better, freer and just Egypt.

The battle for truth and rights has been going on for a long time in many countries and in ancient Egypt the great struggle for these values was embodied in the battle between Horus, the young rightful heir and his old, tyrannical uncle, Set. At the moment the younger, revolutionary face of Egypt has many tyrannical uncles whether from the army, the Muslim brotherhood, politicians and the hidden ones, who many say, exist in an incognito mode.

Autocracy by an individual and/or group and its accompanying reckless ambition destroys both coherence and transparency. Horus relied on his mother Isis, who in turn relied a great deal on the god Thoth, the one, who through his wisdom and honest methods was able to mediate and redress the balance between the uncle and his nephew. However, the gods like Thoth disappeared long, long ago but surprisingly even such people who could and should do such work seem to have disappeared.

Why is it that people in governing positions become so addicted to rulership that they do not care a straw about the lives of their people? It seems only through a system of checks and balances that the depravity in governance can be controlled. So the new constitution hopes to have a president who can be monitored and controlled by executive power in the newly formed Parliament. But who are the members of this upper and lower houses of Parliament? Is it made up of a variety of uncles that deceive the rightful heirs to a free and new Egypt? People are waiting for some kind of benevolence.

Speaking of rulers and authority, opposite to the Mogamma building, there is the orange colored museum of Cairo, majestic and gleaming. It houses many magnificent ancient relics of Egypt. I went in and seeing the beautiful display of the Tutankhamen rooms, the sphinxes of pharaohs such as Hatshepsut, I decided to go to the mummies room to find the mummy of Ramses II, called by his people, "The Great Ancestor." This great pharaoh immortalized himself by constructing huge statues, obelisks and monuments throughout the country. Displays of supreme authority were common in ancient Egypt but Ramses topped the list; he had about 66 years of rule to vigorously spread his fame and name and, it seems, he didn't waste a minute. Absolute rulers inevitably succumb to the ostentation syndrome. Deluded by a sense of infallibility that in time becomes their downfall, although Ramses did not seem to experience such a downfall and lived to a ripe old age. He was an exception to the rule.

Entering the room, startled by the ancient, twisted cadavers of Pharaonic mummies I felt a disrespectful intruder. To peer at their dead bodies, for which I paid 100 Egyptian pounds entry, I felt was most inappropriate. Suddenly I came face to face with Ramses who was lying stretched out flat in a glass case. Here he was: shriveled, shrunken, almost hairless, slit eyes shut, decayed teeth, withered bandaged hands suspended in the air. This had been the Great Ancestor and I remembered Shelley's poem (in Greek, Ramses was called Ozymandias):

"And on the pedestal these words:
'My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'"

Ramses is not confined to Egypt. One of the obelisks he had built is found in Paris. It originally stood in Luxor at the entrance of the temple to Amun-Ra but now stands in Place de la Concorde. In that place, which was once called Revolution Square, where the guillotine indiscriminately and cruelly meted out its violent justice to the betrayers of equality and freedom, stands this pharaoh's monument. The obelisk quite contrary to the revolution's spirit recounts the power, supremacy and the unique personal glory of the man. Justice, freedom, well-being, honor depended on his word and whim. What if he was in an off mood one morning?

Do people learn? The arrogance of self keeps rearing its head again and again abasing everything. If we can learn from history and I know it may sound like a big "IF" but if we can then we see that adverse situations require not merely political and social solutions but also spiritual, ethical ones. Learning, realizing, remaining aware, whatever we like to call it, is very often curtailed by both personal and collective amnesia. Is it that people conveniently forget? Is it that we really forget? Is that we are so caught up in the moment that consequences are not thought about -- how to hold onto the lessons of the past so that our present and future society is inclusive, just and peaceful?

The obelisk symbolized a petrified ray of light, of the Sun god, Ra. That light symbolized life and strength. I decided to visit the oldest obelisk in Egypt, in ancient Heliopolis, called On by the ancestral Egyptians. It had been the supreme cult center of Ra. The city is now in the suburb of Mataria, and has completely vanished except for a lone obelisk. In its heyday it was the greatest stronghold of priests and priestesses in all of the country.. We could call it the Vatican of ancient Egypt. It is also here in the sacred city that the famed Bennu Bird (phoenix ) came to die and be reborn from its cremation fire. This myth together with others proved lucrative to the ancient clergy as people came from far and wide on pilgrimage.

On finding the obelisk it did not seem that impressive, especially since we were not allowed within its precincts. What impressed me more was the flurry of the tiny, three-wheeler taxis, called "tuk-tuks" as they dashed and rushed around just as they do in India and Thailand. Our driver with a calm dexterity was able to maneuver herself around at least 10 possible collisions before we finally arrived.

Actually these petrified rays of sunlight are found all over the world: In Italy there are said to be 11 of them -- in the UK, in Turkey and in New York's Central Park. The one in Central Park, the twin of the one in London, originally stood in ancient Heliopolis and though built by Thutmose III, Ramses, a few hundred years later, chiseled himself and his deeds on the great pillar. Our friend Ramses could not resist!

And speaking of Central Park and America we remember the Declaration of Independence which justified the right to revolution. Its most memorable words include:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

These words have been a beacon for human rights over the decades. However many of the signatories of the Declaration at that time did not apply it unequivocally. It did not apply to most of the 'Negroes' who continued to be kept as slaves nor to the native Indians nor to women. Often ideas are accurate and true but there is a blindness that does not allow people, even the creators of those ideas, to see the reality or necessities of the situation.

Sometimes immediate political or social needs override and farsighted, inclusive applications are overlooked. Undeniably the Declaration was a great and necessary start to creating the awareness of the need to install the sanctity of the individual and his or her rights above and beyond an elitist, oppressive regime. It inspired Abraham Lincoln in his fight to abolish slavery. The spirit of that revolution became one of the inspirations for revolutions in Europe, particularly the French one. So much so that France gave the Statue of Liberty, the Roman goddess of freedom, as a gift to America about a hundred years later.

We need something more than simply political, economic or social policies; it now requires a tapping into the humaneness of being human. We can call this spiritual or ethical but it means a genuine respect for the self and others so that collective well-being is realized. Otherwise ideas and formulas, no matter how right they are in themselves, can just be beautiful words that disguise the overwhelming necessity for personal and collective transformation in the ways we think and behave.

Light is needed not as stone symbols but as a symbol of knowledge and understanding that removes our delusions, whether personal or social, whether of superiority or inadequacy.
Without a change in consciousness and an education in applied spirituality then we inevitably return to the same point... a brutal insensitivity to the needs and rights of everyone, including Mother Earth. Never to forget our humanity in spite of circumstances.

When individuals and communities create a silent, non-violent revolution inside themselves a creative change takes place. A transformation in consciousness where ego, greed and anger are recognized and conquered after which it certainly then filters into our social living.

Genuine spirituality always has a positive social impact. Applied spirituality is the great need at this moment. Spirituality is a humane concern for the inclusive benefit of others, an application of ethical values in daily life that creates a transparency, which in turn engenders trust in relationships. People from all walks of life have demonstrated this: Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Mother Theresa, Philothei of Athens, Francis of Assisi, Florence Nightingale, Maria Montessori and many others have shown how compassion, concern and care make a crucial difference. A difference that is emulated by posterity, a difference whose benefits are honored because they are inclusively respectful and long lasting.