Postcard From a Free Egypt

Op-Ed Contributor


Published: February 11, 2011


Circulating through the streets of Cairo Friday night, 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 Myanmar 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 Qaddafi 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.

This column is available exclusively for readers of

Source: The New York Times – The Opinion Pages

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