Saturday, February 12, 2011

A Nation Reborn...but What Now?

It was hard not to get caught up in the euphoria of the historic turn of events of the past two and a half weeks in the ancient land of the Nile. Egypt, for the first time in thirty years, was catching a glimpse of self-government. As the crowds in Cairo's Tahrir Square and in Alexandria swelled to the hundreds of thousands, the world was enrapt with the drama unfolding. At this writing, embattled President Hosni Mubarak has been taking refuge in the resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh for two days, having stepped down from office after three decades of autocratic rule. After days of mixed signals, the entire country erupted into one giant street party at the announcement that Mubarak had definitively left office.

Americans and many other democracy-loving Westerners rejoiced with the Egyptian people. The Obama administration, pressed from all sides, scrambled to come up with the appropriate response to the break-neck pace of events. The result was a series of statements that would confuse anyone -- suddenly an ally of thirty years is being thrust from office by a popular revolt by masses demanding, of all things, democratic reform, the very foundation of the American nation. Even the most seasoned diplomats would be hard pressed to take a consistent stand without angering someone.

I was no exception to those thrilled at the result of nothing short of a revolution carried out almost entirely peacefully. I cannot help being moved by the words and tears of Wael Ghoneim, marketing director of Google Egypt. And speaking of Google, what makes this revolution all the more historic and remarkable is that it is the first uprising of its size to be carried out largely via the internet, and specifically social media. Truly a cultural statement of our time -- in spite of the fact that only 20% of Egyptians have internet access at home.

In the words of a young Egyptian internet entrepreneur, however, approximately one million of Egypt's 80 million people came out to the public squares to demonstrate. What about the other 79 million? Were the protesters speaking for the majority? Did the majority of Egyptians want such a swift transition that no one has any idea how the nation is going to go about forming a viable, healthy democracy? Has Egypt exchanged dictatorial law for marshall law in the struggle for self-direction? While the Tahrir Square masses have the sympathy of most Westerners (and other Arab governments squirming), the next days, weeks and months will determine the wisdom of such extreme demands. The road between here and free and fair elections, presently slated for September, will be frought with challenges, uncertainty, and hopefully, level-headedness.

What is happening before our eyes is not simply a political revolution, but also a cultural and sociological one. And at this point, it's hard to get anyone on Tahrir Square to think past the present exhilarating thought of a new Egypt, whatever it may look like.

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