Egypt—Got Hope? Three thoughts
What we’re seeing is inspiring: throngs of more or less peaceful demonstrators—at least more or less peaceful until government agents start throwing bombs and shooting—asking…demanding…a voice in their own lives, an end to tyranny.
This is nothing more nor less than a cry for freedom, something that should bring a smile to all of us who believe that ordinary people have the right to shape their own destiny and decide whether their government is serving them or oppressing them.
Yet (sigh!) it’s also more complicated than this. Here are three thoughts to add on to, not replace, our deep pleasure in this challenge to a dictatorship.
First, notice that while a lot of people, including many of the demonstrators, talk about “the people vs. Mubarak,” that actually Mubarak is only one man, and one man can do virtually nothing in a county of countless millions of people. Mubarak may have ruled by intimidation, force, and fear, but he did not rule alone. There are many people—perhaps a small minority in Egypt but a significant number nonetheless—who supported him, aided him, and benefitted alongside him. Who were they? What did they get out if it? What will they do when he is removed? How essential were they to certain critical aspects of the day to day functioning of the country? These questions will help us understand that removing one man is not the same as dismantling an entire system.
Second, nobody knows what the future will bring in Egypt: not the experts, not the U.S. government, not the Egyptians themselves. People will make desperate, heroic, and opportunistic choices, choices based on their own sense of what they are capable of, and their sense of what other people are doing. This could lead to a nascent democracy, to civil war, to a fundamentalist dictatorship (think Iran), or to something we’ve never seen before. It could be great—it could be terrible. Let’s not assume, or pretend, that we know what will happen. Or act as if we are sure it will be good or awful. Let’s admit, for a change, how little we know. (The ability to admit that we just don’t know is a theme of my new book, Engaging Voices: Tales of Morality and Meaning in an Age of Global Warming, due out March 1:http://www.baylorpress.com/Book/249/Engaging_Voices.html)
Third: even if this shining example of people power turns ugly. Even if a new and even worse tyrant or clique replaces Mubarak, we need not despair. Any instance of popular uprising is a good thing, any time the people take history into their own hands human beings are getting one more taste of political responsibility, civic engagement—and freedom. If it doesn’t last long, it will not be forgotten. And in its memory we have the seed of the next revolt, and the one after that.
And of a time when we change towards something better in a stronger, more lasting way.