Much about the Egyptian people’s uprising is deeply moving. But with huge, historic stories like these, it’s easy to lose site of the humanity while trying to keep up with quickly unfolding events. The cacophony of information (and opinions) easily overwhelms the voices of people who are truly driving things; I know I struggle to hear them. But a story in yesterday’s New York Times gave a glimpse of the real lives I’m curious about. The story describes how volunteers have stepped in to fill the civil service gaps that Mubarak’s regime has let fall during the protests. (Many believe Mubarak has deliberately derailed basic services—from security to ATMs—in order to make the protests seem destructive.) As an Alexandria resident told the reporters,
“We want to show the world that we can take care of our country, and we are doing it without the government or police,” said Khalid Toufik, 40, a dentist. He said that he also took shifts in his neighborhood watch, along with students and workers. “It doesn’t matter if one is a Muslim or a Christian,” he said, “we all have the same goal.”
“I am glad, that they are all on the streets to protect us from robbers,” said Hannan Selbi, 21, a student. “We are sure that it’s in the interest of the government to create chaos.”
The Times story profiles a group primarily concerned with protecting private property and keeping public safety. But as it notes, “The streets are filled with volunteers.” In other words, people are relying on community to hold society together. We see this happen every time there’s a situation in which our governments fail, or refuse to work—in Haiti after the earthquake, in New Orleans after Katrina, on uncounted blocks in U.S. cities where both public and private services long ago disappeared, and now across the Middle East as American-supported dictators fall. Each time, community spontaneously steps in to fill the void. People automatically begin working together, rather than in competition, for the greater good.
It’s notable as well that corporate media is surprised every time this happens. The conventional wisdom, in the U.S. particularly, is that people left to their own devices will turn on one another; that we are naturally competitive and ready at any moment to devolve into violence in pursuit of one another’s property. The opposite is true. Indeed, capitalism has to work mightily to pit people against one another (usually allowing a very few to succeed in hoarding resources amid the supposed competition, but that’s another discussion). When the trappings of capitalism break down amid crisis, community always naturally replaces it.