There was neither an obvious
leader nor any political vision of the movement. Yet, Egypt's peaceful,
youth-led mass social uprising dethroned an entrenched dictator in a mere 18
days. The developments in Cairo's Tahrir Square
were testimony to the declining global influence of the US media as well as
government. This was Al Jazeera's moment just as the 1991 Gulf War was CNN's
: the Arabic channel played a more influential role in promoting democracy in Tunisia and Egypt than anything
done by westerners.
Should Egypt's larger meaning be anchored in the
revolutions that swept eastern Europe in 1989,
Iran's Islamic revolution in 1979, or the anti-regime upheaval in Iran in 2009?
Strikingly, instead of fanatic death chants, the dominant narrative in Egypt
expressed hope, pride, nationalism and eventually , exhilaration. A proud
people, their past defiled , present compromised and future mortgaged, reclaimed
their destiny. This was not anti-others but pro-themselves. As the old song
says, freedom's just another word for "nothing left to lose", which in turn
explains their loss of fear.
Images from Tahrir Square brought tears to
many eyes and joy to many. Powerlessness has been displaced by ownership, but
this does not mean that deprivations will disappear. A revolution can devour its
authors and lead to even greater tyranny —witness the reign of terror after the
French, Russian, Chinese and Iranian revolutions. Or it can lead to a republic
founded in laws and ruled by democratic consent, as in America and eastern
Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
It therefore behoves analysts to be prudent and cautious and not succumb
to irrational exuberance —there is no despot so vile that a violent uprising
cannot produce a worse tyrant. Even so, the world should adapt to the wisdom of
Benjamin Franklin. Those who would sacrifice the essential freedom of a people
to the temporary stability of a dictator deserve and will get neither freedom
Egypt is the intellectual, cultural and political hub of
the Arab nation. This is why Tahrir Square will reverberate across the world's
last remaining stronghold of authoritarianism whose legacy includes brittle and
fragile rule, political repression, economic stagnation and disorderly,
high-risk transitions of power. The once-proud post-colonial Arab state is
crumbling under assault from the Arab street. Tunisia and Egypt have fallen,
Algeria and Yemen
are quaking, and Jordan, Libya, Sudan, and Syria vibrate to the
distant but approaching tremors .
The Arab internal security state has
been propped up by the US national security state with American bases on its
territory, weapons for its military and training for police. Shortterm
expediency trumped long-term vision and in a lazy stereotype, the Arab world was
simply used as a vast oilfield. Egypt's stagnation under Hosni Mubarak's
three-decade rule was mistaken for stability, a conflation that extended to
other key pillars of western interaction with the Arab world. Lacking clear
guiding principles, the freedom agenda was not converted into a freedom
Barack Obama seemed determined to prove the rightness of
Winston Churchill's cutting remark that the Americans can always be depended on
to do the right thing —having tried everything else first. But in this case,
most western governments were equally culpable. While the west succumbed to
cultural relativism, which held Arabs incapable of democracy, Egyptians embraced
the universal values of the essential dignity of every human being.
every two hesitant steps forward, Washington took one frightened step back.
Obsessed, first with the comatose Middle East
peace process and secondly with Iran, Washington took Egypt's stability for
granted, failing, despite the origins of some of the 9/11 hijackers, to grasp
Egypt's social stagnation and political decay. Too many bought the line that
Mubarak's continuance in office was a guarantee of stability.
Israel and the west
have legitimate concerns , should Islamists capture Egypt. Israel lives in a
dangerous neighbourhood and faces real existential threats; a single strategic
mistake would be fatal. Calls will intensify from the Arab street for an end to
Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory, colonization of Palestinian land
and confiscation of Palestinian property .
But anti-Israeli outcomes
must not be made self-fulfilling by adopting anti-Arab policies. The democratic
future of 340 million Arabs can no longer be surrendered to the convenience of
seven million Israelis. The west must somehow reconcile commitment to the Jewish
state with its own democratic convictions. It would be a cruel irony to suppress
Arab democracy and then justify unconditional support to an isolated Israel as
the region's only democracy. Iran, China and Myanmar too will be
unsettled by the latest proof that people power is the irresistible force that
shifts immovable regimes.
Democracy provides many safety valves for
venting popular anger. Indians do not suffer from an excess of civil obedience
and political passivity. The 'Indian street' exploded in fury after 26/11 at the
political elite's incompetence and venality. Surprisingly, Prime Minister Manmohan
Singh has been almost as tone deaf as Mubarak in his inaction and silence on
the surging cascade of mega-corruption scandals. Beware the people's rage.
This was a made-in-Egypt revolution of, by and for the people, not one
rooted in UN tutelage or US training and money. Tomorrow, reason will return and
reality will reassert itself. Today , let emotion run free as the world embraces
the elation of the Egyptians.
writer is a professor of political science at the University of Waterloo, Canada)