In the end, President Barack Obama made a hugely important but unintended contribution to the democracy revolution in Egypt. Because the Obama team never found the voice to fully endorse the Tahrir Square revolution until it was over, the people in that square now know one very powerful thing: They did this all by themselves.
That is so important. One of the most powerful chants I heard in the square was: “The people made the regime step down.”
This sense of self-empowerment and authenticity is what makes Egypt’s democracy movement such a potential game-changer for the whole region.
This could get interesting—for all the region’s autocrats. Egypt’s youthful and resourceful democrats are just getting started. Up to now, the democracy movement in the Arab world was largely confined to the U.S.-led liberation of Iraq, which, because it was U.S.-led, has not been able to serve as a model for emulation. If Egypt can now make the transition to democracy, led by its own youth and under the protection of its own armed forces, watch out.
Some people worry the Egyptian Army will strangle this Egyptian democracy movement in its crib. I think the army leadership is a little afraid of the Twitter-enabled Tahrir youth. Anyone who tries to put it back in that little cage will get his head bitten off. And, any politician who tries to ride the tiger for his own narrow interests, not for the benefit of Egypt, will get eaten by it as well. Iran, the other day, issued a declaration urging the Tahrir youth to make an “Islamic revolution,” and none other than Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood told Tehran to get lost because the democracy movement here is pan-Egyptian and includes Christians and Muslims.
But here’s the big question in Egypt now: Can this youth-led democracy movement take the power and energy it developed in Tahrir Square and turn it into a sustainable transition to democracy, with a new constitution, multiple political parties and a free presidential election in a timely fashion? Here, the movement’s strength—the fact that it represented every political strain, every segment and class in Egyptian society—is also its weakness. It still has no accepted political platform or leadership.
“They have to have a vision of what Egyptian education should be, about agriculture policy and human rights,” cautioned Rachid Mohamed Rachid, the liberal former minister of trade and industry, who declined to continue serving in Mubarak’s Cabinet before the revolt happened.
Ever since this revolt started, America, Israel and Saudi Arabia seemed to hope that there were two choices here—one called “stability” that would somehow involve Mubarak, and the other called “instability,” which was to be avoided.
Well, let me put this as plainly as possible: In Egypt, stability has left the building. For which I say: good riddance. Or as Ahmed Zewail, the Egyptian-American Nobel Prize-winning chemist, put it to me: Egypt was stable these past 30 years because it had no vision, no aspiration and was “stagnating.”
That’s why Egypt has before it only two paths, and both are unstable. One is where this democracy movement falters and Egypt turns into an angry Pakistan, as it was under the generals. And the other is the necessarily unstable, up and down transition to democracy, which ends stably with Egypt looking like Indonesia or South Africa.
This will be hard. Many tough days lie ahead, but they will be made much easier thanks to the self-confidence bred here among Egypt’s youth in recent weeks.
Watching so many Egyptians take pride in their generally peaceful birth of freedom—to listen to them say in different ways to themselves and each other, “I am somebody”—was to witness one of the great triumphs of the human spirit.•
Friedman is a New York Times columnist. Send comments on this column to [email protected]