Even here in my corner of the world—a little spot in the Southeastern region of the United States—everyone seems a little different today. A little bit kinder, maybe. A little bit more patient, even a little more peaceful. Out on the interstate, people are driving calmly, remembering to operate their turn signals, and making sure not to tailgate their neighbors. We are thinking of other drivers on the road as our neighbors of all things. Probably these observations can be dismissed as the product of an overly sentimental imagination. Maybe in a couple of days when I finish basking in the joy I see projected in the images of Egypt that pervade the popular imagination, I will be embarrassed by the emotion I expressed here. Maybe I’ll even regret blowing the opportunity to provide some kind of sophisticated theoretical analysis. But for now I have to ask: Could anyone have known after the devastating presidential speech of February 10, 2011 that in less than 24 hours you would remake the whole world?
I am not sure that it is possible to overstate the magnitude of what you and the Tunisians have just accomplished. Last night, Rachel Maddow said that:
Days like this remind us that not everything is foretold. That not every fate is sealed. That no trajectory is permanent. That surprises happen… Days like this remind us that we are alive, and we are lucky to be alive to see these days.
I would add that days like yesterday remind us that no political scientist’s regression line is written in stone. That the rational choice theorist’s perspective may dominate political analysis, but it cannot predict the better angels of civic engagement. That a non-violent civilian uprising in Egypt—or anywhere—characterized by selflessness and commitment to the common good really is possible. That millions of citizens can rise up and sacrifice everything because they love their country and each other that much. That a few idealistic twenty-somethings with internet access and media savvy can awaken the poetic instincts in us all. And that billions of people throughout the world can find themselves in solidarity: weeping as you wept, mourning as you mourned, praying as you prayed, marching as you marched, rejoicing now as you rejoice.
Everyone is well-aware that the rebuilding of Egypt will be a difficult–even a Sisyphean—endeavor. While the far-right convulses over the myth of the “Islamist threat” to your nation, the rest realize that maintaining control within a military government will be the true challenge. Despite the cynicism that invariably surfaces, we would all do well to remember that you have lived under a military dictatorship for many decades and understand the struggles to come better than anyone.
How on earth did you do it? Even the logistical challenges of it all are marvelous to behold. That millions of people crammed into a city square for two weeks, and that death came from brutal repression—but not from cholera or dysentery or a whole host of infectious diseases—is itself a wonder. That thousands were injured in government crackdowns without widespread gangrene and amputations is a tremendous achievement. The volunteer doctors, nurses and pharmacists who remained on the scene breathed new meaning into tired phrases like “civil service.” As did the people who lovingly maintained the space in Tahrir Square everyday—sweeping, removing garbage, painting the faces of children, sharing food and water, quietly nurturing one proud liberated zone day after day for as long as it took.
You Egyptians built an entire civic infrastructure out there in just a few days, with minimal resources and in spite of Mubarak’s formidable tools of repression. You maintained a non-violent protest despite the hundreds of lives lost and thousands of injuries sustained. In doing these things, you commanded the respect of the international media, which could easily have become dominated by the paranoid nonsense of the radical right wing. You displayed a hard-edged competency at government sabotage that no one could have predicted. You showed the world’s largest hegemon that it is not about the United States or anyone else—and never has been. You toppled a dictatorship that saw three presidents and half of a century, and you delivered your country to the people to whom it belonged all along. You made the whole world tremble at your unflinching resistance and unwavering strength, and you made the most jaded among us weep with joy.
So maybe it is not at all hyperbolic to point out that you changed everything on February 11, 2011. As so many of us feared a Tiananmen Square event—or even another Hama—you stood your ground, and you made real change. In the course of a lifetime, one rarely gets an opportunity to witness such beautiful ferocity, such depth of commitment, such immeasurable faith. Many of us forget that it is even possible. We are cynical about the potential of social movements. We deride our previously-held ideals: people power, social justice, transformation. We remind ourselves that these are impossible pipedreams. But as the most secular among us praised God for your success yesterday, we had to admit that you just proved this world of ours a place of endless possibility and impossible beauty. That can be so difficult to remember sometimes—that humanity can be something so different from what it usually is.
May your martyrs rest in peace and rise in glory. May your power and courage bless you a thousand fold. The whole world stands with you as you begin the hard-won privilege of rebuilding Egypt. “Fear has been defeated, there’s no turning back.” Al-hamdu lillahi rabbil ‘alamin. And Godspeed.