Florence Nightingale & The Arab Revolutions

Florence Nightingale once wrote:

“[The] Arab would be the most thriving man in the world under any government but this. He will be beaten almost to death, as they often are, rather than give up.”

Thursday marked six moths since the beginning of the Syrian uprisings. Despite the systematic brutality of the regime – leading to 2,600 civilians deaths, according to the United Nations – protesters refuse to surrender. The regime has, with great ignorance, exacerbated the problem by murdering and torturing their own people.

Indeed, if there is one thing that the world should have learnt from the Arab spring – especially the dictators residing in the East – it is that Arabs, as Nightingale said, will not “give up.” True, many Arabs are protesting because they have been deprived of basic rights for decades, but what’s keeping them going now is the hatred of the regime that has killed their friends and family members. Perhaps in the case of Syria, the torturing and killing of children.

Nightingale travelled to Egypt in the mid-19th century when the country’s political conditions were despotic and corrupt. The rule of Mehmet Ali had just come to an end and one of his grandsons had just succeeded him (a clear example that nepotism is not a recent phenomena in the Arab world). Neither, in fact, is police brutality, as Nightingale remarked upon seeing a young boy being mistreated in Cairo:

“A police officer, who seized a miserable boy, threw him down, and dragged him away. The boy’s white turban came undone, and streamed upon the wind; the bastinado stick appeared: the Secretary (our friend) tried to interfere, but could do nothing. It made one quite sick, as all the details of government do in this horrid country.”

During Nightingale’s sojourn in the Arab world, her profundity helped her perceive certain truths – serving as a reminder of the stark similarities between the Arab world then and now.

While it might seem that not much has changed over the last 150 years – since the beginning of this year, we have seen: Tunisia’s Ben Ali, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi all toppled respectively. But what really has been achieved?

Although Tunisia could well be on its way to a healthy democracy, parliamentary elections and the constitution will not be finalized for a year. Hosni Mubarak has been replaced with his crony – Field Marshal Mohammed Tantawi – who seems shy of reform. In Libya, many are dubious over the role the west will play in the country’s affairs. Syria has yet to see a high-profile ranking official defect – neither has there been any sign of discord within the Alawite sect that rules supreme. America has yet to completely denounce the regime in Yemen, as President Abdullah Saleh refuses to loosen his grip on power. And the smaller protests in Bahrain, Iraq, Morocco, Jordan, Oman, Kuwait, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Sudan have not led to drastic changes.

This should not undermine the progress that has taken place, however.

While it is true that the protesters have initiated change in the Arab world, ultimately, it is the callousness of the regimes that have caused their own downfall. As we have seen in Syria and Yemen – where protestors are continually gaining momentum – when human beings are treated inhumanely, protests turn into revolutions.

Nightingale, Florence. Letters From Egypt: A Journey on the Nile: 1849 – 1850. Selected and Introduced by Anthony Sattin.

Omar Shahid

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