Sunday, February 13, 2011

Euphoria in Egypt

In just eighteen days, young Egyptians waged a peaceful revolution and brought down the 30-year dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak and his failed police state. Inspired by Tunisians, empowered by social media and emboldened by a fierce yearning for freedom, they tore down the wall of fear and made Egypt free.

“I look at our society with a critical eye and find nothing extraordinary in the people I see,” wrote Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006) during a bleak moment in his life. How the Egyptian Nobel Laureate (Literature, 1988) would have exulted if he could see his people making history in Tahrir Square! They were extraordinary in every way, in their courage and discipline and the way they took control of their destiny without resorting to violence, even though Mubarak’s paid goons killed more than 300 of them.

The path to full democracy is long and arduous and there are many uncertainties along the way. The power, after all, has shifted to the Egyptian military. But the armed forces played a positive role in the people’s revolution and there is hope that there will soon be a lifting of the state of emergency, the dissolution of the illegitimate People's Assembly and Shura Council, the formation of an independent legal committee to amend the constitution, and the lifting of laws restricting political freedoms so that Egyptians can vote in a free and fair election.

But these uncertainties must not keep us from celebrating the extraordinary achievement of the Egyptians. They have lived in economic and political darkness for decades but in a matter of days, the light from their revolutionary flame raced across the globe and illumined us all. It is not only other Arab and Muslim countries suffering from corrupt governance and plutocracy that can take a cue from Egypt, but also countries like Myanmar and North Korea whose people have been languishing for decades as well. In our connected world, the transition from a Saffron revolution to a Jasmine revolution can occur in an instant.

I gained valuable insight into Egypt’s revolution from someone who was there in Tahrir Square during the fateful days. Suhaib Webb (, an American, is a Muslim scholar who spent seven years studying at Al-Azhar University. He saw firsthand how the young heroes of Tahrir Square transformed stagnant Egypt into a land of hope and possibilities almost overnight.

When Mubarak sent his thugs to terrorize the protesters and their families, including the Cairo neighborhood where Webb lived, he saw Egyptians - secular and religious, poor and middle-class - form cordons around homes and buildings to keep attackers at bay. Seeing how united they were, the thugs withdrew in less than a day.

Webb saw the young knights of Egypt, aimless and despondent only weeks ago and smoking marijuana on streets, transformed into fearless freedom fighters. They visited mosques to seek Allah’s help and vowed never to give up until Mubarak resigned. “We have recovered our honor and dignity,” they told him. “We have a sense of identity now. We have a purpose in life.” Web was reminded of the Quranic verse: Allah does not change the condition of a people until they change what is in their hearts. (13:11)

Among Egyptians, Webb found a middle ground between secularism and fanaticism. They were determined to sacrifice themselves before they would even consider sacrificing or hurting others. They were committed to eradicating corruption, poverty and inequality from their society rather than to any grand ideology. The compassion he witnessed between Muslims and Christians moved him. A leading Coptic priest in Cairo asked his congregants to guard mosques during Friday Juma prayers. Likewise, an Imam asked Muslims to protect churches during Sunday services. Webb’s apartment sentry, a Christian, offered to defend him at any cost were he to run into any trouble.

Webb feels that Muslims, particularly American Muslims, should be grateful to Egyptians for the good name they brought to Islam through their non-violent revolution. In March, Republican Congressman Peter King of New York, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, plans to hold hearings on the radicalization of American Muslims. He claims that American Muslims are prone to violence and cannot be trusted. “Egyptian Muslims have taken the wind out of the sails of Islamophobes like King and the stalwarts of FOX News,” said Webb.

But what Suhaib Webb came to realize most strongly during the revolution was that we all have inner Hosni Mubaraks, tyrants within us who oppress our spouses, our children, parents, relatives and subordinates. These inner pharaohs destroy the soul as surely as pharaonic rulers destroy lives. We must defeat our inner demons if we want to change ourselves, because change without can come only from change within.

Although it will take years to put the Egyptian revolution in perspective, several lessons are already clear. Here are a few:

1. If history teaches us only one thing, it is that no one is indispensable. Tragedy occurs because those who deem themselves indispensable become immune to the lessons of history.

2. A revolution must be organic to succeed. Freedom and democracy cannot be exported or imposed by military might. Eight years after the U.S. invaded Iraq to spread “freedom and democracy” in the Middle East, the country is in ruins and the cost of the war has hit the $3 trillion dollar mark! In contrast, Egyptians brought about their transformation in less than three weeks, a peoples’ revolution that was of, by and for Egyptians.

3. The United States has to rethink its foreign policy. Investing in security at the expense of peoples’ right to govern themselves inevitably leads to disaster. As a columnist put it, America must define its foreign policy by the strength of its values, not by the value of its strength.

4. The days of dictators who suppress the will of the people – Neroes playing flutes while capitals like Tunis or Cairo burn - are numbered. An unforgiving future awaits them. Enslaved people have witnessed how the impossible can become possible when fear gives way to resolve and there is no longer any tolerance for suffering in silence.

5. The Web is woven into the fabric of modern life and the power of the social media to mobilize people transcends borders and nationalities. Although many young people are web-savvy, there are many more who cannot exploit the power of social media. They can post tweets and share anecdotes with their Facebook friends, but launching a campaign or organizing a demonstration eludes them. All it takes is some practice and a keen sense of trends, keywords and justice. There are hundreds of worthy local causes. Pick one - a fundraiser, a school event, a town-hall meeting - and try to do it over the Internet. You never know when history will beckon.

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