Whenever Ben Livingston, the founder of the Cannabis Defense Coalition, talks about the mission of the organization, he likes to say that it’s to “bear witness” to the injustices that take place when prosecutors go after authorized medical marijuana patients. While the act of sitting in a courtroom may seem inconsequential, it lets judges and prosecutors know that they’re being watched. During the Bruce Olson trial, the presence of CDC volunteers – and the media coverage that followed – appeared to fluster both the prosecutors and the judge in that case. Olson’s victory in that courtroom might still have happened without those “witnesses”, but Kitsap County’s approach towards prosecuting medical marijuana patients changed after that. They immediately dropped charges against Glenn Musgrove, a quadriplegic who had to be wheeled into the courtroom on a gurney, and have appeared to scale back their attempts to go after patients.
What’s happening in Egypt is happening on a significantly larger scale and with significantly direr consequences, but the same dynamic is in effect. Mass killings of innocent people by a government have happened before, and to some extent, we saw what happened in places like Srebrenica, Tiananmen and Darfur. But unlike those cases, we’re truly “bearing witness” to what’s been going on Egypt over the past 10 days. Technology that allows average citizens to film their surroundings, along with Facebook, Twitter, and an influx of new media outlets able to broadcast this uprising in real time to the whole world, presents an unprecedented challenge to regimes who prefer to operate in the dark.
There’s been a lot of discussion about what role the internet plays in starting these revolutions. But to whatever extent it does, that’s not its most valuable attribute. The more vital role is how it allows the world to bear witness to these events in depth, and to provide the context that encourages more people to stand in solidarity with those who are suffering from the extreme injustices being witnessed. The primary value to the internet is not its ability to allow for greater organization. Even with the internet shut off, millions of Egyptians continued their protests just fine. Its primary value is to provide that window into what’s actually happening – as it’s happening – to the rest of the world.
The latest news out of Cairo is that plain-clothed security forces are now more aggressively rounding up foreign media as they escalate the amount of violence directed at the anti-Mubarak protesters. They fired live ammunition at the unarmed protesters and hurled molotov cocktails from the rooftops of nearby buildings. Aggressors in this battle are being exposed as members of the Mubarak regime’s paid security forces. Others have admitted to having been paid by the regime to suppress the protests. Reports from numerous news outlets have confirmed that the regime is behind the violence, not that it’s even hard to figure out simply by seeing the timing and nature of the attacks.
So what happens next? We watched protests similar to this 18 months ago in Iran, and the crackdown eventually muted the calls for regime change. Even though we were able to bear witness to that, it wasn’t enough to make a difference. But Egypt is not Iran. We have leverage against the Egyptian government that we don’t have against Iran. And as I watch the violence escalate, I wonder when Obama finally starts playing those cards.
The Mubarak regime has taken decades to form itself into an immovable object – along with that necessary dose of hubris that allows them to believe that they can get away with anything. I find it amazing that in just two weeks, Mubarak has gone from being seen as a pro-American ally presiding over a country with good ties to the west, to unleashing his forces against his own people, the press, and foreigners, and using the same tactics and language used by the Iranian government in 2009 and Saddam Hussein in 2003. As we look around the Middle East today, it’s a good reminder that the biggest difference between Hosni Mubarak and Saddam Hussein was never a matter of character. It was a matter of circumstance.