By Khaled Diab
By toppling their dictator, Egyptians have made history, but now they need to ensure that this revolution does not become a footnote in their history.
Saturday 12 February 2011
One day, I couldn’t believe he was staying. The next day, I could hardly comprehend that he was actually going. Hosni Mubarak’s vacating of the presidency reminds me of that old song by The Clash:
Despot, come on and let us know
Why do you stay; when will you go
It’s always seize, seize, seize
You’re happy when we’re on our knees
After his obstinate performance on Thursday night when he refused to step down with whatever shreds remained of his dignity, I was so downhearted, and I’m hundreds of miles away from the action, that I can only imagine the overwhelming wave of frustration, anger and despondency that must’ve torn through the hearts of all the protesters on Tahrir square and massed elsewhere across the country.
By the next morning, I’d penned an open letter to our dictator who obviously thought it was beneath him to be dictated to by his “sons and daughters”, thereby ensuring, with his undignified refusal to exit left (or any other direction), that Egyptians would only ever remember the worst about him.
I told him – not, of course, that he was likely to be reading this open letter or any of the others I’d written to him over the years – how much Egyptians loathed him and how he had “the extraordinary knack for snatching mediocrity from the jaws of greatness”. I warned him that “Egyptians have discovered their own latent power” and that they would “write their own future”.
And the very next day, on Friday 11 February, the millions of Egyptians who have taken to the streets did just that, when Mubarak’s resignation was announced unceremoniously by his recently appointed vice president and intelligence chief and palace executioner, Omar Suleiman.
Just as our wise former leader warned, he’s departure has left chaos in its wake: a beautiful, sweet, intoxicating chaos in which millions are partying to the beat of their own freedom. It was the chaos of a football crowd after the biggest win in its history; the euphoria as high as if a third-division club had somehow won the World Cup. To borrow again from The Clash, the news rocked the midan and thousands of midans, streets and alleys across the country, not to mention the region and the world.
Even here, so far away from the action, and even though I contributed little to the revolution beyond my sympathy and words, I was gripped by joy, elation, a slight sense of disbelief and relief that he was finally over. I was overwhelmed that Egyptians managed to dethrone their dictator after three decades and convince the army that it was time to deliver on its six-decade-old promise of a transition to democracy in under three weeks. My brother jokingly says he wants to write a book entitled The guide to overthrowing a dictator in just 18 days.
It just goes to show that the mighty are not as mighty as they seem, and that the regime’s power had been hollow for years and it survived simply because not enough people realised this or believed it. So, thank you Tunisia, and Egypt’s savvy youth, for convincing ordinary Egyptians that the opposition was not fighting a losing battle and that true freedom was not a lost cause.
But the party will soon be over, and the revellers will wake up with a hangover when they realise what a monumental wreck the regime has left behind. Revolutions succeed when they overthrow the old order, but they cannot cry victory until they have replaced it with something better. So many past revolutions ended in disappointment, disillusionment, frustration, or even the creation of a worst monster than what went before it. To avoid this fate, after the Egyptian revolution, there must come evolution, not devolution, on every front: the political, the economic, the social and the cultural.
The challenges ahead are truly mind-boggling in their complexity. How do you manage the transition to democracy? How do you convince the army, after almost 60 years in power, to return to their barracks and leave the country to the civilians to run? How do you neutralise the once-might state security apparatus and ensure it is not resuscitated or does not go renegade?
How do you ensure that the civilians who take over don’t replace one dictatorship with another? How do you shore up the institutions of the state so that none have excessive power? How do you guarantee that the will of the people is done, while ensuring a fair society and justice for all, including religious minorities and non-believers, women, not to mention those with other sexual orientations? Exciting as the revolution was, it was costly in human and economic terms. How do you prevent the need for future ones by not only responding to the will of the people but creating a clear and transparent mechanism for the regular transfer of power?
Then, there are the massive economic challenges. The desire for decent jobs and economic dignity were among the primary reasons that brought people out on to the streets, particularly the young, the unemployed and underemployed, the poor and the lower middle classes. How do you create enough opportunities for such a large population in a relatively resource-constrained country? How do you build greater economic equality, or at least bridge the yawning chasm, between the haves and the have-nothings? How do you deal with the dictatorship of the global marketplace and the economic imperialism of the great powers and large corporations in a way that does not harm the people?
On the social and cultural fronts, the challenges are no less perplexing. How do you weed out the corruption that has seeped into every layer of society? How do you get people to live within the system rather than parallel to it or through its backdoors? After this dramatic period is over, will Egyptians remain politically active and pay taxes responsibly (particularly the wealthier)?
Will we replace the current wasta-ocracy with a meritocracy? How about Egypt’s attitude to authoritarianism? Will we rise up against and neutralise all the mini-Mubaraks stifling the country’s creative and innovative energies? Will we invest more and better in education? Will Egypt finally make full use of its abundant youth? Will Egyptians free their minds or allow them to be held back by the suffocating brand of religion that has swept through the country in recent years?
Young as it is, the revolution has already answered many questions regarding the ability of Egyptians to rise up and be counted, stand up for their rights, and instigate a process of peaceful change. But, as you can see from the above, many more questions loom on the horizon.
Whatever the future holds, one thing is for certain, Tunisians and Egyptians are in the galvanising process of defining the modern Arabic for freedom, and armed with that houriya, the future is theirs for the taking.