One of the challenges to turning an incident into a movement is finding the single thing that will cause multitudes to connect with the issue at hand. When you live where the issue is happening that single thing is often an incident that symbolizes all that is wrong. In Tunisia it was an act of self-immolation, in Cairo the beating death of a man at the hands of police. News of these acts travelled quickly around their respective countries thanks largely to social media. In fact, Egypt’s fear of the power social media can have to spread word and organize quickly resulted in the government shutdown of all internet service and mobile phone SMS at the height of Thursday and Friday’s protests.
Galvanizing the support of those outside a region is another matter.
The news reports surrounding an area of conflict can fill the headlines for days, weeks, even months without resulting in any large public outcry. Just as there needs to be a moment of galvanization at the birth of a movement, there must also be a moment when all the outsiders peering in via CNN, BBC or Al Jazeerah see some singular moment or image that changes everything.
Dorothea Lange’s photo of migrant worker mother during the Great Depression created a public outcry that forced the government to provide aid to our most impoverished. When thinking of protest in America I think of the photo from Kent State, an image that took anti-war protests from campuses to our nation’s capital and leading to the only nation-wide student strike in America’s history. At the end of the 90’s Tiananmen Square and a single image of a man facing off a column of armored tanks galvanized the world’s attention and became an enduring symbol of protest.
The photo above was taken during an incredible moment during a long protester’s siege of the Kasr Al Nile bridge in Cairo. The protesters appeared to have pushed the police across the bridge when a redoubled and reinforced effort including a water canon began pushing back. In the face of that effort the protesters knelt in prayer while the police continued their attempt to clear the bridge. Its hard to imagine a more stunning image of the clash between peaceful protest and brute force.
The days and weeks ahead will tell whether this image becomes a lighting rod for global support and results in increased pressure on Mubarak to make meaningful change for the people of Egypt. It certainly brought it home for me.
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