It may be a hard road and sacrifices may have to be made, but the sweet taste of freedom is a privilege that shouldn’t be traded for anything in the world, writes Francis Ventura, 21, a Commonwealth Correspondent from Melbourne, Australia.
The hotel receptionist looked at me with a mix of humor, astonishment and amazement when I walked inside to check in.
After introducing myself and saying that I had a room for the next few days, he understood that I was for real and arranged a key for me. I quickly realised that there wasn’t even a single other guest in the hotel.
Over a million tourists, including about two planeloads of Australians, had been evacuated before my arrival. There were two tanks parked outside the hotel as we were just around the corner from Tahrir Square. Awesome!
I couldn’t resist, I had to ask the young guy working at the hotel what he thought of Mubarak. ‘I respect him’ was his blunt and straightforward reply, so I got the hint not to pursue the matter further.
It had already been an eventful start of the trip. Just a few hours before, I had to pay a professional smuggler just to get myself into Peshawar International Airport in Pakistan, then was upgraded to business class for the first leg to Bahrain because I told them that I was from Melbourne (where Pakistan won the Cricket World Cup in 1992).
I had taken my seat on the plane when it hit me. I’m a 20 year-old university student on my way to Egypt, the scene of a large democratic revolution, having just paid a smuggler to get me into the airport, and now sitting in business class. To call this feeling weird would be an understatement.
It was only the afternoon, so I decided to go for a walk, or rather a discovery, to Tahrir Square. As soon as I arrived, it was immediately evident that the Egyptians, particularly young people, were serious and weren’t about to give up. For years, they had lived under tyranny and economic hardship and the sweet taste of freedom was at the tips of their tongues.
Just the day before, then Vice President Omar Suleiman had declared that Egypt was not ready for democracy, and of course Mubarak was still in power, so the protestors were considerably fired up. The day before, police had shot to death an unarmed, innocent civilian in Alexandria who had his hands up, so the feeling was also quite tense.
A human guard had formed on the streets connected to Tahrir Square. After a body-search and showing them my Australian passport, I walked through to the epicentre of the revolution. If I had to compare the atmosphere to anything, I’d compare it to a summer street festival, but obviously with a more serious edge. There were people camped out; groups of friends sipping tea; children selling sweets, bread and water; musical instruments being played; dancing; chanting and children playing on deserted tanks. The atmosphere was actually one of hope, joy and the sense that a better future was near. The revolution had inspired people from all walks of life, including women, men and children. It was a true people’s uprising.
Having grown up in prosperous, peaceful and multicultural Australia, I have always felt fortunate, especially after having travelled to countries which don’t share the same benefits. To see the grassroots desire of people yearning for freedom reinforced my belief that democracy and freedom are the best systems to guarantee economic prosperity, human rights and fairness.
The Egyptians were willing to spill their own blood for it, and they ultimately won. Libya fought a civil war. Al-Assad’s brutal crackdown has so far claimed around 3,500 lives. People everywhere have always, and always will, yearn for freedom and peace. One of the things that truly amazed me was the sense of unity that people shared. They all had the attainment of freedom as their purpose. To my surprise, my friend Maha pointed to the Muslim Brotherhood’s stage and said that Christian prayers had been held there the day before.
While the Arab Spring provided hope to millions of suffering people, especially after dictators Mubarak, Ben Ali and Gaddafi fell, the unfortunate truth is that progress has been stymied, if not moved in a negative direction. In Syria and Yemen, thousands of people have been murdered yet the regimes live on. In Libya, the new interim government has removed a first wife’s right to oppose her husband marrying multiple wives and also her right to divorce. Tunisia has seen democratic elections, yet tensions still remain high about the details of the constitution. And Egyptians have continued to protest due to the military’s slow-paced transition to democracy.
This reinforces the point that democracy and freedom cannot occur over a period of a few days or weeks. It needs to be earned and fought for. As Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin points out, it took Europe centuries to get to the stage it is at now. However one thing is certain, that freedom is and will always be the main desire of all humanity. Sadly, some people have to suffer first before achieving it, however as a result they are able to appreciate it more when it does come. On the back of my door there are two posters. One is a picture of Nelson Mandela with his quote ‘Let freedom reign’. If there is one person who understands the pain of living under tyrannical rule, it is Mr Mandela.
In Australia, which I believe to be one of the pinnacles of hope for the world, we also had to fight long and hard for justice. The White Australia policy operated until the late 60s and Aboriginals were not allowed to vote until about the same period. Even today, our Indigenous brothers and sisters have lower life expectancies and incarceration rates, and standards of life measures such as health and education are lower. This is a continuing issue which strikes at the very soul of Australia and her people. Despite over a century since Federation, when Australia became a nation, reconciliation with our First People is still in process.
The point is that democracy has to come from within; from the ground-up. It also needs to be nurtured and developed. The words of Professor Danso-Boafo, the Ghanaian High Commissioner to Britain whom I interviewed recently, hold true. His country, which swapped between military and civilian rule at various times over the second half of the twentieth-century, told me that after all that suffering, the Ghanaian people had decided that it was time for their nation to transition to democracy, but this time permanently.
Professor Danso-Boafo then made the point, as a political scientist, that once nations make that step into democracy, it usually strengthens rather than revert back to autocracy. I hope this will be true for Pakistan, a nation in which a part of me will always live.
My message to everyone who lives in a democracy is savour and cherish it. Only with the support of the people can it flourish and exist for it is the people who own the democracy. For those living under not-so-free circumstances, don’t give up the fight, ever. It may be a hard road and sacrifices may have to be made, however the sweet taste of freedom is a privilege I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world.
“G’day! My name is Francis Ventura and I am currently studying Politics and International Relations at the University of Melbourne. I am also the youth director of the Australian Republican Movement.
“As Melbourne is the sporting capital of the nation, I have a keen interest in cricket and Australian Rules football. I also love exploring Australia’s beautiful environment. After my studies I would like to dedicate my life to human rights, with a focus on protecting civilians living in war zones or under totalitarian regimes.”
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Commonwealth Youth Programme. Articles are published in a spirit of dialogue, respect and understanding. If you disagree, why not submit a response?
To learn more about becoming a Commonwealth Correspondent please visit: http://www.yourcommonwealth.org/submit-articles/commonwealthcorrespondents/
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