As popular revolutions continue to overthrow entrenched dictators, Western commentators, as they scramble to critique the evolving situation in North Africa and the Middle East, often miss the mark. Egypt and Tunisia are not going to become radical Islamic states. The flight of Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and the resignation of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak have not yet resulted in the chaos many predicted. Even critics supportive of the revolutions are sometimes mistaken in their critique of America’s policy: we didn’t give Mubarak massive military aid to protect our energy supply—Egypt has very little oil—but rather for his (supposedly) tough stance on terrorism and his role in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. To gauge what has happened in Egypt and Tunisia and may be taking shape elsewhere already, we must look at what the protestors demanded and why. We can only judge how successful these movements are, and will be, in comparison to what they hoped to achieve.
To say that the lack of jobs for highly-educated graduates, widespread poverty, a repressive security state, police brutality, government corruption, and lack of civil rights contributed to the massive protests in Egypt, Tunisia, and other states is to state the bare facts. But life under Mubarak cannot be so easily summarized. A few snapshots from Alexandria, Egypt, where I studied last fall: a college-age student beaten to death by the police, his body dumped into a canal on the university campus; opposition voters intimidated, beaten, and turned away from polling places; votes bought and ballot boxes stuffed in an election with less than 10 percent turnout; holders of Master’s degrees lucky to work in a coffee shop; more than twenty killed and 100 injured by a bomb explosion outside a Coptic Christian church during a New Year’s Eve mass; crumbling buildings in the slums of Cairo crammed with people unable to afford rising food prices; more than 40 million Egyptians living under the poverty line of $2 a day .
Some of the worst details are only beginning to come out now, after Mubarak’s departure from the presidency and the dismantling of the state security apparatus. For example, one of my professors at Alexandria University discovered that his dean had been spying on students and professors for the secret police. Additionally, prisoners reported “escaped” during early February’s unrest have since said they were freed by the police to create chaos and frighten protesters into returning home. Egyptians coming together to clean up their streets, bring order to their neighborhoods, and literally and figuratively rebuild after the protests have belied Mubarak’s assertions that his massive state security apparatus and extension of emergency law were necessary to maintain order in Egypt.
In the first weeks after the end of Mubarak’s reign, there is a glimmer of hope that some of Egypt’s social tensions may also be resolved. Although street harassment is endemic to Egypt for both native and foreign women, women in the streets have reported that the solidarity of protesting Egyptians has created a new environment of respect. Another of my professors who joined the protesters called it “an amazing sense of community. It’s like the government has been bringing out the worst in people for so, so long, and this is finally bringing out the best in people. I mean, there’s no sexual harassment—nothing! Can you imagine that? I finally feel safe walking around the people I’ve been afraid of for most of my life. I’ve been walking in a crowd of men all day, and not a single person has touched me or grabbed me.” Religious tensions have also been eased among the protesters. Egypt’s population is about 90 percent Muslim with a 10 percent Coptic Christian minority, and some have argued that the authoritarian government helped protect the Copts from discrimination and harassment. Yet some of the most moving images from the protests in Tahrir Square were those of Christians protecting their fellow Muslim protesters from the police forces while they prayed.
When history judges the Egyptian revolution, it will not be seen as a mere test of the close ties between the U.S. and Israel. (For what it’s worth, the Supreme Military Council currently in power has pledged to respect all international agreements, including Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel.) Revolution in the Middle East means an end to repression, an opportunity to form a government that is truly of the people. Precisely for this reason, Egypt’s example has inspired those now protesting in Libya, Algeria, Yemen, Iraq, Iran, Jordan, Bahrain, and elsewhere against their own corrupt and/or autocratic governments. If Mubarak’s regime is replaced by another military dictatorship—a very real possibility—the revolution will be just as much a failure as if the new government were a theocracy. What the people of the Middle East deserve and what they have been denied for too long is the real promise of revolution: a government that is truly their own.