When I was a young man in Cairo, we voiced our political views in whispers, if at all, and only to friends we could trust. We lived in an atmosphere of fear and repression. As far back as I can remember, I felt outrage as I witnessed the misery of Egyptians struggling to put food on the table, keep a roof over their heads and get medical care. I saw firsthand how poverty and repression can destroy values and crush dignity, self-worth and hope.
Half a century later, the freedoms of the Egyptian people remain largely denied. Egypt, the land of the Library of Alexandria, of a culture that contributed groundbreaking advances in mathematics, medicine and science, has fallen far behind. More than 40 percent of our people live on less than $2 per day. Nearly 30 percent are illiterate, and Egypt is on the list of failed states.
Under the three decades of Hosni Mubarak’s rule, Egyptian society has lived under a draconian “emergency law” that strips people of their most basic rights, including freedom of association and of assembly, and has imprisoned tens of thousands of political dissidents. While this Orwellian regime has been valued by some of Egypt’s Western allies as “stable,” providing, among other assets, a convenient location for rendition, it has been in reality a ticking bomb and a vehicle for radicalism.
But one aspect of Egyptian society has changed in recent years. Young Egyptians, gazing through the windows of the Internet, have gained a keener sense than many of their elders of the freedoms and opportunities they lack. They have found in social media a way to interact and share ideas, bypassing, in virtual space, the restrictions placed on physical freedom of assembly.
The world has witnessed their courage and determination in recent weeks, but democracy is not a cause that first occurred to them on Jan. 25. Propelled by a passionate belief in democratic ideals and the yearning for a better future, they have long been mobilizing and laying the groundwork for change that they view as inevitable.
The tipping point came with the Tunisian revolution, which sent a powerful psychological message: “Yes, we can.” These young leaders are the future of Egypt. They are too intelligent, too aware of what is at stake, too weary of promises long unfulfilled, to settle for anything less than the departure of the old regime. I am humbled by their bravery and resolve.
Many, particularly in the West, have bought the Mubarak regime’s fiction that a democratic Egypt will turn into chaos or a religious state, abrogate the fragile peace with Israel and become hostile to the West. But the people of Egypt — the grandmothers in veils who have dared to share Tahrir Square with army tanks, the jubilant young people who have risked their lives for their first taste of these new freedoms — are not so easily fooled.
The United States and its allies have spent the better part of the last decade, at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars and countless lives, fighting wars to establish democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now that the youth of Cairo, armed with nothing but Facebook and the power of their convictions, have drawn millions into the street to demand a true Egyptian democracy, it would be absurd to continue to tacitly endorse the rule of a regime that has lost its own people’s trust.
Egypt will not wait forever on this caricature of a leader we witnessed on television yesterday evening, deaf to the voice of the people, hanging on obsessively to power that is no longer his to keep.
What needs to happen instead is a peaceful and orderly transition of power, to channel the revolutionary fervor into concrete steps for a new Egypt based on freedom and social justice. The new leaders will have to guarantee the rights of all Egyptians. They will need to dissolve the current Parliament, no longer remotely representative of the people. They will also need to abolish the Constitution, which has become an instrument of repression, and replace it with a provisional Constitution, a three-person presidential council and a transitional government of national unity.
The presidential council should include a representative of the military, embodying the sharing of power needed to ensure continuity and stability during this critical transition. The job of the presidential council and the interim government during this period should be to set in motion the process that will turn Egypt into a free and democratic society. This includes drafting a democratic Constitution to be put to a referendum, and preparing for free and fair presidential and parliamentary elections within one year.
We are at the dawn of a new Egypt. A free and democratic society, at peace with itself and with its neighbors, will be a bulwark of stability in the Middle East and a worthy partner in the international community. The rebirth of Egypt represents the hope of a new era in which Arab society, Muslim culture and the Middle East are no longer viewed through the lens of war and radicalism, but as contributors to the forward march of humanity, modernized by advanced science and technology, enriched by our diversity of art and culture and united by shared universal values.
We have nothing to fear but the shadow of a repressive past.
By: Mohamed ElBaradei, Op-Ed Contributor, The New York Times-February 11, 2011
Circulating through the streets of Cairo tonight, with families packed into cars honking their horns in celebration and everyone strolling to Tahrir Square, I heard so many celebratory chants, but none more accurate and powerful in its simplicity than this one: “The people of Egypt made the regime step down.’’
The overwhelming sense of personal empowerment here, by a people so long kept down and underestimated by their own government was a sight to behold.
Tomorrow we can all talk about how hard this transition will be, how many pitfalls and uncertainties lie ahead for Egypt, but to be in Tahrir Square tonight, to feel the energy and pride of a people taking back the keys to their country and their future from a tired old dictator, was a privilege. As a group of men who had commandeered a horse and buggy bellowed as they crossed the Nile Bridge: “Hold your head up high. You are Egyptians.’’
My guess right now is that there are a lot of worried kings and autocrats tonight – from North Africa to Burma to Beijing. And it is not simply because a dictator has been brought down by his people. That has happened before. It is because the way it was done is so easy to emulate. What made this Egyptian democracy movement so powerful is its legitimacy.
It was started by youth and enabled by Facebook and Twitter. It was completely non-violent and only resorted to stone-throwing when faced with attacks by regime thugs. It drew on every segment of the Egyptian population. There was a huge flag in Tahrir Square today with a Muslim crescent moon and a Christian cross inside it. And most of all, it had no outside help.
In some ways, President Barack Obama did the Egyptian revolution a great favor by never fully endorsing it and never even getting his act together for how to deal with it. This meant in the end that Egyptians know they did this for themselves by themselves – with nothing but their own willpower, unity and creativity.
This was a total do-it-yourself revolution. This means that anyone in the neighborhood can copy it by dialing 1-800-Tahrir Square. And that is why my favorite chant of all that I heard coming back from Tahrir tonight was directed at the leader next door, Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya. It said, “We don’t leave Tahrir until Qadaffi leaves office.’’ Hello Tripoli, Cairo calling.
In many ways, what we have witnessed in Egypt today is the real decolonization of this country. That is, after the British left Egypt, the country was ruled by an incompetent king and then, since 1952, by a stifling, top-down military dictatorship. For the first time in modern history, “Egypt is truly in the hands of its own people,’’ remarked Egyptian political scientist Maamoun Fandy.
And the sense of liberation is profound, or as another sign in Tahrir said: “Mubarak, if you are Pharaoh, we are all Moses.’’
Egypt has always been the center of gravity of the Arab world and because it drifted these past 30 years, so too did the whole Arab world. One can only hope with this liberation that Egypt can now start to catch up with history and become a leading model for Arab development. If it does, others will follow. If it does, the Arab world will have two emotional hearts, not just one.
There will always be Mecca in Saudi Arabia, where Muslims will make the pilgrimage to be closer to God. And there will be Tahrir Square, where people will come to touch freedom. For that to happen, though, Egypt will have to take this freedom it just earned and run with it – to show that it really can improve the lives of an entire nation. That will not be easy, and it will not happen overnight.
This country has a lot of catching up to do. But if Egyptians show just half the creativity, solidarity and determination in the next year of nation-building that they showed in Tahrir Square these last 18 days, they just might pull this off.
By: Thomas L. Friedman, Op-Ed Contributor, The New York Times, February 11, 2011