Five (Early) Lessons from the Egyptian Revolution
Today’s dramatic events in Cairo and the departure of Hosni Mubarak from power may bring to a close the first stage in what is nothing short of a revolution in Egypt’s politics and society.
What have we learned from these extraordinary last eighteen days? I can think of five immediate lessons worth thinking about.
First, People Power achieved this victory. For those of us who have lived in Egypt, what was always most impressive about that fascinating but impoverished country was the energy, optimism and resourcefulness of a people who had been dominated by royal and military rulers for the last century. Their idealism, passion and steadfastness during the last eighteen days overcame all of the power, privilege and cynicism of the government and overwhelmed it in the end. The role of Facebook, Twitter, Al Jazeera and CNN in magnifying the voices and faces from Tahrir Square was breathtaking and surely indicative of a new brand of politics in this still new century.
Second, the next stage of the revolution begins tomorrow morning and it may very well be as turbulent and unpredictable as the last two and one half weeks. For all of the joy in Cairo, Alexandria and Suez tonight, transitioning to a nascent democratic state and society is going to be an enormously complex undertaking. If the Army is to be the steward of the coming transition, its greatest service will be to give the Egyptian people the space and freedom to build a civil society, new political parties and the time to prepare for a national conversation and debate. And, the Army will need to reveal quickly its true intentions in this transition–will it permit Egyptians to begin an open and democratic debate about the future of their country? Or, will it quell the differing voices that have been stilled for so many decades in an attempt to maintain a militarily-dominant authoritarian state? We don’t know yet the answer to that crucial question.
Third, the surge of reform that has swept through the Arab world from Tunis to Cairo in just one month is unlikely to stop there. Today’s triumph in Egypt is already ricocheting around the Arab world and will reach into every corner of this previously austere and authoritarian region. Egypt is and has always been the keystone of Arab culture and politics. Its example has already prompted Saudi women, Palestinian students and even Syrian professionals to begin to dream what they might do in their own countries to sweep aside the ossified restrictions that have left them as spectators of the social and political progress in nearly every other part of the world since the end of the Cold War.
Fourth, President Obama’s careful and steady juggling of our diverse and often contradictory interests in Egypt since the crisis began has been vindicated by Mubarak’s departure after thirty years in power. I never agreed with the barrage of criticism from right and left that President Obama was either too protective of Mubarak and the regime or too willing to throw them under the bus. This was the most truly difficult and complex foreign policy challenge we have faced in years. It demanded that President Obama do two things well: speak up for reform and a democratic future for Egyptians while, at the same time, using our considerable influence behind the scenes to quietly and persistently push a discredited Mubarak out the door. The President did both well and effectively in an impressive demonstration of what modern diplomacy is really like–being effective behind the scenes with difficult partners and being convincing before the spotlight of the international press.
Fifth and finally, shouldn’t we now question the global conventional wisdom from Davos and elsewhere that the U.S. is a declining power that has lost its global influence, especially in the vital Middle East? This drama demonstrated, once again, that we still inhabit a world with just one superpower. When a true crisis erupts in any part of the world, the U.S. finds itself, for better or worse, as the country called on to play the central international role. China was invisible during the entire drama as were India and Brazil. They are all rising to power but are still nowhere near the U.S. in global influence. Its many critics who have predicted confidently in recent years that the U.S. is past its prime might well reconsider those rash judgments in light of the leading role Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton have played in Egypt.
It is impossible to know where the revolution is heading or whether it has already crested and might stall in the weeks and months ahead. One thing is certain. The U.S. will need to stay involved as Egypt’s friend to help influence the public and private debate. Our leaders will need to be steady in safeguarding our considerable interests in maintaining Egypt’s peace with Israel and Egypt’s help in blocking Iran and defeating Al Qaeda. Most importantly, Americans can offer to the Egyptian people Jefferson’s vision of an Empire of Liberty as our most vital contribution to the coming debate in Tahrir Square–people deserve liberty and freedom and the support of the United States during rare and historic times such as this. Because he has recognized that, in the end, this is not our drama and that we cannot and should not claim the center ring, President Obama’s stewardship of the American role in this extraordinarily inspiring and complex crisis, is promising for the trials and challenges ahead.