By Khaled Diab
To truly succeed, Egypt's revolution needs to trigger a profound evolution in every strata of society.
Thursday 17 February 2011
Revolutions are things that happen elsewhere. But despite all the talk of Egyptians being too apathetic, docile, cynical or sceptical, or all these combined, here, too, there be a revolution.
And what a revolution it is proving to be. It is almost as though history has woken up, realised it had forsaken Egypt for too long and decided to move it from slow motion to fast-forward by packing a century's worth of events into a few short days.
Though I had expected a standoff between the various opposition groups and the Mubarak regime this year because of the presidential elections, I never in my wildest dreams anticipated anything on this epic and almost universal scale.
For millions of Egyptians, including myself, 25 January marked a watershed moment in our collective identity, and the ride since that fateful day has been an emotional rollercoaster, with elation and pride at the courage and dedication of the protesters; admiration of their solidarity, creativity and goodwill; disgust and despair at the tactics of the regime; and hope and nervousness about the future.
The drama tells a tale of two Egypts. On the one side, there are the protesters, overflowing with vibrancy, irresistible energy, inventiveness and, above all, egalitarianism. On the other side, the dinosaurs of Egypt's Jurassic age stumble around and lash out wildly following the crash of the meteorite that is destroying their world. And the dinosaur-in-chief himself has left the building in what was perhaps the most beautiful moment that any Egyptian alive today could remember.
While debate in Egypt has focused on post-Mubarak politics and, in the outside world, on fears of an Islamist takeover and what the uprising will mean for western interests and relations with Israel, the question of post-revolutionary social change has been forgotten in the stampede.
In the early days of the revolution, I wrote that, though Egyptians look likely to throw off Hosni Mubarak's repressive rule and, hopefully, replace it with a democracy, this would not mark the end of authoritarianism in Egypt, unless they dealt with the million mini-Mubaraks – in politics, in the home, in academia, in business – holding the country back.
So, what are the chances that the Egyptian revolution will spark a positive social evolution? Well, there are some promising signs in Egyptians' obstinate refusal to compromise on their demands, their willingness to speak their minds and their refusal to cower in front of authority. “People in Egypt have changed quite a bit: they now know that they are willing and able to take matters into their own hands,” says and Egyptian friend, Nicholas Accad.
This is epitomised in what some protesters have jokingly been calling the “Free Republic of Tahrir”. Karim Medhat Ennarah, a young protester who was on the square since the very first days, describes it as a “little utopia”.
“The social problems that have plagued Egypt for years seem to have dissolved,” he said of the mood among protesters. “Class distinctions have faded, religious and social tensions have disappeared. There is virtually no sexual harassment. No one feels superior to anyone else, and no one feels disenfranchised.”
But the relative mayhem and anarchy unleashed by Mubarak's supporters and thugs, though it elicited a renewed sense of civic duty and solidarity among many, also shed a stark light on the harsh class divisions within Egyptian society. “Egypt does not just have one dictator, but many little dictators whom you can see every day on the streets, such as the vigilantes who were thoroughly enjoying the new task assigned to them by the absence of police: terrorising Egyptian citizens who dare to waltz into their neighbourhoods, especially the more affluent ones,” Karim observed.
Other Egyptians I have spoken to are divided in their opinion as to how far-reaching the Egyptian revolution will prove socio-economically. During a long phone conversation with one friend, we were both doubtful that a democratic Egypt, though it may improve the lot of the poor, would manage to narrow, in any significant sense, the wide chasm between the haves and the have-nots, as demonstrated by how the army and many better-off protesters have been calling on strikers to go back to work.
This will especially be the case since it looks like there'll be tough economic times ahead – especially if Egypt is punished economically for its democratic choice by the dictatorship of the global markets – and there's been little talk of heavier taxation, fair minimum wages and other re-distributive measures.
It also remains to be seen whether Egyptians will be able to create a better meritocracy, weed out the corruption that has set in like rot, and overcome the culture of ‘wasta'.“Egyptians will be the same. Changing governments won't change mentalities,” says Ahmed Dessouki, sounding a note of caution and pessimism. “We should change from head to toe. The revolution was a good start, but we shouldn't forget ourselves.”
But for many, the most significant change in Egypt has been a revolution of the mind, a discovery of the possible. “The revolution has already changed many Egyptians,” believes Noura Elhawary. “I don't think the Egyptians who participated in the protests will accept to be humiliated by anyone after that, or not ask for their rights after that.”
Events in Egypt have also triggered a major change in outlook among Arabs in general. “Something changed in all of us, I believe. It has shown us that we are not mere extras in a script,” says Khaled Dabbagh, a Palestinian. “May the revolution not only survive but continue.”