The under reported fall of a small North African country called, Tunisia, sent ripples throughout the region and nowhere has the sound resonated more than in Egypt. With its 80 million inhabitants, economic girth and long cultural history, Egypt is perhaps one of the most significant leaders of both the Middle East and Africa. Its central position between the two regions also controls the doorway between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean, the Suez Canal. The only other way to navigate between the two bodies of water would be to circumnavigate the continent of Africa.
The country was among the first in the Middle East to recognize and attempt relations with Israel. The move so enraged Egypt’s Arab allies that they expelled Egypt from the Arab League and the decision proved lethal for the leader who had the courage to make it.
President Anwar Sadat was assassinated two years after signing the 1979 Camp David Accords that made peace with Israel. An attack squad of Islamic extremists opposed to Egypt’s path of peace with the Jewish state leapt from a military vehicle during a parade celebrating the Suez Canal and in a firestorm of thrown grenades and machine gun fire, they murdered him in front of thousands of people.
Now cue the entrance of the recently deposed authoritarian ruler President Hosni Mubarak. He seized emergency security powers and preserved the peace with Israel in his succession. Both were maintained for the next three decades.
Mubarak may have had the title of president, but his position and term of power has been dependent on the centralization of executive authority to the point of a police state. Over the decades his government has consistently violated just about every imaginable basic human right or civil liberty by using those longstanding emergency powers to control dissent, often in the name of preserving stability.
This combined with a number of other factors added up to a lack of opportunity for many of Egypt’s frustrated, lower classes which contributed greatly to fanning the flames of revolution.
Being able to watch the unfolding events in Egypt in our incredible age of mass media has been a rare historic opportunity for the average person to witness (in high definition if you want, even). The sparks to the revolt even incorporated the latest of social inventions such as networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. In 18 days, a popular movement inspired by a revolution in Tunisia swept hundreds of thousands of motivated protesters into the streets and toppled a seemingly stable, yet authoritarian, government.
I know we’ve all been watching it on the news, but I can’t help but feel I’m not appreciating the spectacular display of democracy and liberty before me. All achieved through relatively peaceful and defiant civil disobedience. I think even Martin Luther King Jr. would be proud of the restraint so far used by revolutionaries, especially in a region many westerners see as being relatively more violent.
But the toppling of an aging dictator is among the first of countless monumental tasks now before the emerging leadership, from the developing and vital role of the military, to the creation of a new constitution and fair elections. However the most challenging of times can be a country’s finest hour.
I can’t help but think of two other revolutions, perhaps the grandfathers to modern democratic reform movements: the American and French Revolutions. Hopefully you’re aware of the toil our founders faced – long years of war followed by an eventual peace with Great Britain. Unlike Egypt, we had to battle our path to independence, but during the conflict and in the aftermath America seems to have done pretty well in organizing itself. We’ve had a fairly consistent and functioning system since. Though not perfect, we still remain true to our basic democratic ideals 300-plus years later.
The French Revolution saw popular revolts by the lower classes against the aristocrats. Though inspired by good democratic intentions, the revolution turned into the Reign of Terror. Unfortunately for the French, the violence and instability paralyzed and weakened positive reforms and eventually led to the installation of a military dictator, Napoleon Bonaparte. Hopefully that won’t be the case for Egypt, but make no mistake: creating a new nation that survives the test of time and preserves its people’s interests is far more difficult than toppling any dictator. America’s founders, thankfully, understood this. If you need to understand the challenges in setting up a democracy, look at how much time, money and lives the Untied States has spent on attempting to achieve exactly those goals over the last decade in Iraq and Afghanistan. There, long term results of these super-powered efforts remain unseen and their current accomplishments mixed.
If nothing else though, the surge of democracy in the region is the anti-ideology to that of Islamic Fundamentalism. That doesn’t mean an extremist movement can’t hijack the reforms, it means that peaceful protests and diverse groups coming together to file grievances on human rights and poverty is a far cry from a brainwashed suicide bomber killing infidels.
Though surrounded by risks, it would be a mistake not to realize the profound opportunities the Egyptian people and the U.S. now have available.
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