Read in Japanese (日本語 ).
By Akio Matsumura
For 18 riveting days the world watched the extraordinary drama taking place in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt. Tens of thousands of men and women, young and old, were chanting “Mubarak must go,” as they peacefully demonstrated their anger with the government. Their protests, and those in Tunisia, have started a new period in Egypt and the Arab world. The protesters’ display of courage and persistence in the face of an oppressive regime has now coursed like a raging river through many of the countries in the region. It is difficult with the protests and government responses in Yemen, Jordan, and Libya.
President Obama said “There are very few moments in our lives where we have the privilege to witness history taking place. This is one of those moments. This is one of those times. The people of Egypt have spoken, their voices have been heard, and Egypt will never be the same.”
In our memory, in addition to the uprisings throughout Northern Africa and the Arab Middle East we have seen uprisings in Iran, the Philippines, Tiananmen Square in Beijing, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and movements in Bulgaria and Romania. Common themes pervade each of these historical events, but why this time and why Egypt?
Egypt is a central force in the political puzzle of the Middle East. President Mubarak’s departure is already rocking the region, though the events’ longer term geopolitical effects are yet to be seen. Egypt’s helpful relationship with Israel is a cornerstone of US foreign policy, and the Suez Canal allows global trade flows to continue.
As important as understanding Egypt’s political and economic effects is understanding what allowed such powerful political expression in the first place. Certainly many years of a dictatorship, very high unemployment, corruption, and high prices contributed greatly. But the loudest voices in Tahrir Square were shouting with joy because their voices were now free to shout what they wished. The desire for political freedoms seemed to trump the desire for economic improvements. We in the United States hardly understand the true meaning of freedom of expression. The core principals of the democracy are Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Press. We know this in our head, but we take it for granted. Egypt’s young people have finally earned those three freedoms and celebrate with great hope. This reminds me of a comment that Dr. Elie Weisel, Nobel Peace laureate, made: he said that when he was freed from the Holocaust, his optimistic hope was the highest in his life and after that it declines gradually.
There is no question that Egypt’s young drove Mubarak out. 66 percent of Egypt’s population is under 30 years old. As I’m sure you read, one of the much talked about players in the events was Wael Ghonim, a Google marketing executive who used his business experience to mobilize youth movements in the country. The New York Times reported that more than 100,000 people signed up on Facebook to attend a protest.
There has been much debate over whether new media tools like Twitter and Facebook played a real process in the events and created a network. While they do not often create strong bonds that would allow such events to happen, they do serve perfectly as a method of communication for already existing networks, like the youth movements in Egypt. We have not seen these tools used so successfully before, which is both a testament to their applicability in this case, and the strength of the Egyptian people and fragility of the Mubarak leadership.
Mubarak has left after several decades in power, and the military has taken hold. The military has long been the most powerful institution in the country, so this is nothing new for the Egyptian people. The generals directing the government say that fair democratic elections will be held, but the timeline is vague. Many observers worry about the possibility of the Muslim Brotherhood coming to power in the case of democratic elections. We should remind ourselves of the importance of the democratic process. The process of democracy is as important as the result. Perhaps in another country an autocratic ruler is acting benevolently and treating his people well; this is a fortunate situation, but still comes at the price of freedom of expression and the right to free and fair elections.
It seems to me that in order for a dictator to stay in power, he needs an enemy. Throughout the final days of his regime, Mubarak insisted that the United States and other foreign forces were intervening with his government. Fortunately the US government remained abreast of what was taking place and adjusted its tone accordingly to “be on the right side of history.” And in turn, extremists often rely on autocratic states to set up shop—they are either able to pay off a corrupt leader or threaten their regime with violence. If given the chance to vote, people need to look carefully at candidates and entrust democracy to the rock-paper-scissor balance of powers. The interaction between voting citizens, elected officials, and the effect of the laws they pass determines the efficiency and efficacy of a government and a democratic system. This system only works with great stability and strong, trusted institutions. The United States has a much lauded democratic system, but it is still very imperfect. Democracy is a long, dynamic process.
In watching the uprising in Egypt, I have noticed that nobody is talking of political or religious dogma—these are not the issues at stake. People are not talking about America or Israel. People are talking about their own freedoms and their own future—they are talking about their common future in their country. They have managed to turn the page on a suffocating regime and their history is now in their own hands. We must leave it this way. Their accomplishments must lead to their own future. Egypt is important to American interests, but Egypt is more important to the Egyptian people’s interests. My moral obligation, as an outsider and a member of the older generation, is to encourage more action and a deeper commitment to democracy. We, America, outsiders, failed to create a positive situation for the Egyptian people in the past. I hope we will be able to take a page from their example of a true bottom-up democracy.
This new page in history shows us young Muslims as democratic movers and shakers, away from their negative image in the past decade. After all, they have accomplished this great democratic revolution without military invasion. The change in Egypt has already had deep effects through the Middle East and Northern Africa and is what the world is hoping for. Where will this river rage next?
“There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come.”