Nothing Spontaneous About It

It looked spontaneous. Thousands of people poured into Tahrir Square in Cairo on Jan. 25. Was it an instinctive social surge in a country with a repressive regime or a carefully planned resistance movement that chose a strategic time? In more than a dozen countries people have taken to the streets to demand political and social reform. In Egypt, the "18 days of revolt" -- as a nonviolent movement for social change -- has been years in the planning.

Nonviolence is not new to Egypt. The 1919 campaign for independence from Britain was one of massive nonviolent civil resistance. On April 6, 1919, Mohandas Gandhi called for the first all-India day of nonviolent civil disobedience. Aware of Gandhi's mass protests in India and earlier in South Africa, 10,000 Egyptians marched on Cairo's palace in defiance of British martial law. Women leaders in traditional veils led hundreds of women in open opposition to British occupation. Activists organized labor strikes and boycotts of British commodities, and delivered thousands of petitions to foreign embassies demanding support for the nationalist movement. When organizers chose both the Christian cross and the Muslim crescent as the movement’s symbol, thousands more joined the cause, which won limited independence for Egypt. While violence (mostly from the British) occurred, the nationalist movement was predominantly nonviolent.

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