From an Israeli Prison to Tahrir Square
The Impact of Prison
Prison did not further radicalize Sami in the ways one might expect, nor did it stoke a desire for revenge or for the further use of violence. Instead, locked away, he began to develop a worldview grounded in principles of nonviolence, democracy and equal rights. Undoubtedly, he was influenced by a collection of speeches he came across by Martin Luther King Jr., as well as the teachings of Gandhi that he read. But much of the human being that Sami grew into emerged from the society the prisoners had painstakingly created, with its emphasis on reading, discussion, reflection, democracy, solidarity and equality.
Sami speaks with nostalgia of the weekly “criticism” meetings that the older prisoners in his cell facilitated. He approached the first such meeting with trepidation. No one, after all, likes to be scolded for doing something wrong.
He was taken off-guard when the prisoner-facilitators started the meeting by criticizing themselves. Then, turning to the younger prisoners, they began with positive feedback, noting, for example, who had participated actively in group discussions. The prisoners were also given the opportunity to critique each other, but only after each had criticized himself first.
Sitting in those meetings, Sami came to realize that much of the goal of this prison society was, as he puts it, to build the humanity of the young prisoners. Political books and discussion provided intellectual stimulation, literature engendered empathy and compassion, and carefully facilitated discussions fostered connection and solidarity.
Prison as a place of study is hardly unique to Palestinians. Though in the United States prison is notorious for intense violence, political prisoners worldwide have historically used their time of incarceration to educate themselves. Malcolm X famously taught himself to read and write in prison. Long Kesh prison in Northern Ireland, where many Irish Republican Army volunteers were jailed, was regularly referred to as “the university of Long Kesh.” While locked away on Robben Island for twenty-seven years, Nelson Mandela received a Bachelor of Laws degree from the University of London.
What was suprising to me, however, was the intricate community built by the Palestinian prisoners, with enormous care taken to nurture and educate the young. The path that Sami set out on, while in prison for constructing a bomb, led him to an unshakable belief that Israelis and Palestinians can and must work together to build a common future of peace with justice. I had never considered the possibility that a decade in prison might not harden a prisoner against his jailers but provide him with the intellectual and emotional tools to become a passionate advocate for reconciliation.
Prison was instrumental in shaping Sami’s worldview and his growth as a courageous and critical thinker, thanks not just to his determination to study but to the fact that older political prisoners viewed the development and education of a younger generation as their primary human and political task. Sami’s own proudest moment, he would later tell me, was when it was his turn to become a teacher.
From Israeli Prison to Tahrir Square: connecting the dots
As I watched the events in Tahrir Square unfold, leading to President Mubarak's ouster, I experienced the same excitement and inspiration I first felt when Sami began describing his prison experience to me. There are striking parallels between the two in terms of solidarity, human connection and incredible organization.
For example, neighborhoods in Cairo organized their own volunteer guards to make sure their streets and homes remained safe; people set up ad hoc clinics in Tahrir Square; demonstrators banded together to protect the Egyptian Museum and its priceless treasures from regime-friendly thugs and looters. And according to a Democracy Now! report by Sharif Abdel Kouddous, when a group of demonstrators associated with the Muslim Brotherhood began to chant “Allah Akbar!” the crowd drowned them out with the chant, “Muslim, Christian, we are all Egyptian!”
But I watched with dismay the way the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority (PA) responded to the protests. It seems reasonable to expect that those who struggled for their own people’s freedom would be quick to support an Egyptian nonviolent struggle for democracy. Yet the PA banned and suppressed solidarity demonstrations in the West Bank—and such repression of political expression was no isolated incident. The once revolutionary Fatah movement has become the corrupt, authoritarian and self-serving Palestinian leadership we see today.
There are complex reasons for this transformation, including the fact that, though some of Sami’s former cellmates now hold high positions within the PA, much of the current Palestinian leadership is drawn not from the revolutionary prison generation, but from PLO members who returned from exile in 1996 after the signing of the 1993 Oslo Accords. In addition, those accords created the Palestinian Authority as a quasi-government without a state. The political goals of a national liberation movement and the political project of nation building were absorbed by an entity (the PA) that had functionally become a subcontractor for the Israeli occupation.
Beyond the specifics, there is the issue of the nature of power itself. Once a regime—any regime—is in power, its tendency is to do whatever it takes to cling onto, consolidate and expand that power, even at the expense of the very ideals it came to power to uphold.
Whatever the mixture of reasons, if there is a parallel to be drawn between the incredible Palestinian political prisoner community of the 1980s and the inspirational people’s revolution emerging like a tidal wave in the Arab world today, there is also a warning to be offered. Today’s Palestinian Authority provides a lesson for the people of Egypt. It is not enough to struggle for freedom and democracy against an authoritarian or dictatorial regime (or, in the Palestinian case, an occupying power). Once the revolutionaries obtain power, the struggle for those same core values becomes even more difficult and critical.
May Palestinians and Egyptians gain strength and solidarity from one another as they demand freedom as well as a meaningful political voice. May they learn from each other as they build enduring institutions of democracy and pluralism. May they continue to nurture hundreds of thousands of courageous, critical thinkers.
The people’s revolution is still unfolding in Egypt and all over the Arab world, including the occupied Palestinian territories. Where it will lead is unknown. If, however, it maintains (or, in the case of the Palestinians, rediscovers) its roots in ideals about a caring community that nurtures the humanity of its young, as in Tahrir Square and as in the Israeli jail where Sami Al Jundi went to “university,” then genuine social change in the Arab world is inevitable.