Just when you think the Egyptian uprising is dying down, more Egyptians than ever waited in long lines on Tuesday (February 8, 2011) to get into Tahrir Square to ask President Hosni Mubarak’s regime to go.
One reason the lines get so long is that everyone has to funnel through a single makeshift Egyptian Army checkpoint, which consists of an American-made tank on one side and barbed wire on the other. I can never tell whether that tank is there to protect the protesters or to limit the protesters. And that may be the most important question in Egypt today: Whose side is the army on?
Right now Egypt’s respected army is staying neutral — protecting both Mubarak’s palace and the Tahrir revolutionaries — but it can’t last. This is a people’s army. The generals have to heed where the public is going — and today so many Egyptians voted with their feet to go into Tahrir Square that a friend of mine said: “It was like being on the hajj in Mecca.”
The army could stick by Mubarak, whose only strategy seems to be to buy time and hope that the revolt splinters or peters out. Or the army could realize that what is happening in Tahrir Square is the wave of the future. And, therefore, if it wants to preserve the army’s extensive privileges, it will force Mubarak to go on vacation and establish the army as the guarantor of a peaceful transition to democracy — which would include forming a national unity cabinet that writes a new constitution and eventually holds new elections, once new parties have formed.
I hope it is the latter, and I hope President Obama is pressing the Egyptian Army in this direction — as do many people here. For that to unfold, both the Egyptian Army and the Obama team will have to read what is happening in Tahrir Square through a new lens. Mubarak wants everyone to believe this is Iran 1979 all over, but it just does not feel that way. This uprising feels post-ideological.
The Tahrir Square uprising “has nothing to do with left or right,” said Dina Shehata, a researcher at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. “It is about young people rebelling against a regime that has stifled all channels for their upward mobility. They want to shape their own destiny, and they want social justice” from a system in which a few people have gotten fantastically rich, in giant villas, and everyone else has stagnated. Any ideological group that tries to hijack these young people today will lose.
One of the best insights into what is happening here is provided by a 2009 book called “Generation in Waiting,” edited by Navtej Dhillon and Tarik Yousef, which examined how young people are coming of age in eight Arab countries. It contends that the great game that is unfolding in the Arab world today is not related to political Islam but is a “generational game” in which more than 100 million young Arabs are pressing against stifling economic and political structures that have stripped all their freedoms and given them in return one of the poorest education systems in the world, highest unemployment rates and biggest income gaps. China deprives its people of political rights, but at least it gives them a rising standard of living. Egypt deprived its people of political rights and gave them a declining standard of living.
That is why this revolt is primarily about a people fed up with being left behind in a world where they can so clearly see how far others have vaulted ahead. The good news is that many Egyptians know where they are, and they don’t want to waste another day. The sad news is how hard catching up will be.
The Arab world today, Mohamed ElBaradei, the Egyptian opposition leader and Nobel laureate, remarked to me, is now “a collection of failed states who add nothing to humanity or science” because “people were taught not to think or to act, and were consistently given an inferior education. That will change with democracy.” It will unlock all the talent of this remarkable civilization.
Indeed, it is no surprise that the emerging spokesman for this uprising is Wael Ghonim — a Google marketing executive who is Egyptian. He opened a Facebook page called “We are all Khaled Said,” named for an activist who was allegedly beaten to death by police in Alexandria. And that page helped spark the first protests here. Ghonim was abducted by Egyptian security officials on Jan. 28, and he was released on Monday. On Monday night, he gave an emotional TV interview that inspired many more people to come into the square on Tuesday. And when he spoke there in the afternoon, he expressed the true essence of this uprising.
“This country, I have said for a long time, this country is our country, and everyone has a right to this country,” Ghonim declared. “You have a voice in this country. This is not the time for conflicting ideas, or factions, or ideologies. This is the time for us to say one thing only, ‘Egypt is above all else.’ ”
That is what makes this revolt so interesting. Egyptians are not asking for Palestine or for Allah. They are asking for the keys to their own future, which this regime took away from them. They are not inspired by “down with” America or Israel. They are inspired by “Up with Egypt” and “Up with me.”