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Politics, Theology and Christian Humanism

Lotus rising

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Egyptian blue lotus

Egyptian blue lotus

The prominent Egyptian opposition leader Saad Eddin Ibrahim has nicknamed the popular uprising that has taken Egypt by storm the Lotus Revolution (ثورة اللوتس Thaurat el-Lotus). Naming popular revolutions after flowers has been the In Thing since the 2003 revolution that swept Mikheil Saakashvili to power in Georgia was dubbed the Rose Revolution (ვარდების რევოლუცია Vardebis Revolutsia), after his supporters demonstrated against the former president’s opening of parliament while holding roses to declare their peaceful intent. The meme continued with other popular uprisings (most being more-or-less peaceful). Ukraine had its Orange Revolution, which while not a flower (and not the fruit either) is comparable. After the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, Lebanon experienced what is known as its Cedar Revolution (ثورة الأرز Thaurat el-Arz), after the national symbol. Back to flowers, Kyrgyzstan had its Tulip Revolution and Burma its Saffron Revolution (although that was named after the colour of the robes of the Buddhist monks). Briefly back to simple colours, Iran experienced its unsuccessful Green Revolution. Now, 2011 is definitely saying it with flowers, with Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution (تورة الياسمين Thaurat el-Yasmin) and now Egypt’s Lotus Revolution.

The lotus in question is the Nile lotus, or Egyptian water-lily. The lotus was a greatly valued flower in ancient Egyptian religion and culture. Its two varieties — white and blue — symbolized the duality underlying so much of Egyptian thought, and the white lotus is the basis of the hieroglyph numeral for 1000. For a mass uprising the hieroglyph numeral is apt, and the water-lily that rises above the water as it blooms represents well the Egyptian people‘s sudden waking from dormancy. Most of all, the Nile lotus is an ancient symbol of Egypt. It is not an Islamic or a Coptic symbol, it has no stance on international relations with the US or Israel, but it is purely about Egypt.

The Lotus Revolution is a sign of great hope. Yes, the Jasmine Revolution of Tunisia has wafted its scent eastward, but it would be churlish to suggest this be some domino effect. Unemployment on the rise has stirred discontent after years of growth. The tiredness of Hosni Mubarak’s lengthy rule is obvious, and his powerlessness to act decisively over the attacks on Coptic Christians over recent months. The response to those attacks was a vigorous expression of pan-Egyptian solidarity that has fed powerfully into the protests of this past week.

The hope and human spirit in the face of intransigent authoritarianism is inspiring, but looking back on these other popular uprisings with their flowers and colours tells us that hope is not always enough. Saakashvili seems increasingly authoritarian given pressure from Russia and within Georgia. Viktor Yushchenko, swept to power in the Orange Revolution, was voted out last year in favour of the reinstatement of Viktor Yanukovych. It is telling that, while revolutions call for total change, a complete break with the past is impossible, and old money and power do not submit quietly to the new order. However, this also demonstrates to me that allowing Mubarak to ‘manage’ the transfer of power as he is suggesting will not lead to the liberty and new beginning for which many of the Egyptian people hope — the only way is without him.

The lotus is fragile, rising up from the Nile, yet even if forced back below the surface it will rise again.

Author: Gareth Hughes

A priest of the Church of England, who is Chaplain of Hertford College, Oxford, and doing Syriac research at Oxford University.

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