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Opinion

Egypt's misguided search for heroes

A change of mind-set about Egypt's history and future is necessary in that country. The history of nations is not defined by heroes in the presidential palace but by heroes on the street. Egypt must focus on building citizen-led institutions to best meet current and future challenges.

By Nabeel Zewail / April 22, 2013

An Egyptian man throws a stone during clashes between rival groups of protesters in Cairo April 19. Several hundred supporters and opponents of Egypt's President Mohamed Morsi clashed near Cairo's Tahrir Square amid a rally calling on Mr. Morsi to 'cleanse the judiciary.' Oped contributor Nabeel Zewail writes: 'Some leaders are better than others, but the notion that someone will come and fix all of a nation’s problems is untrue.'

Mostafa Darwish/AP

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The world has always been in search of heroes: heroes on the battlefield, on the basketball court and, most of all, in our politics, and this desire may be the greatest undoing for Egypt as it navigates its post-revolutionary period. Instead of an obsession with finding the next “hero,” Egypt must focus on building citizen-led institutions to best meet current and future challenges.

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Before the Egyptian revolution, the political conversation in Egypt – whether on talk shows that reach millions of Egyptians, on Twitter, on the radio or in cafes – focused entirely on Hosni Mubarak, his sons, and possible alternatives to them. But regardless of one’s position, the discussion was focused entirely on leaders and looking for the next “great” leader to rescue the people and solve their problems.

The Egyptian revolution came as a shock to those who study Egypt and flew in the face of the theory that what Egypt needed was another “heroic” leader. The revolution was a leaderless one, and in many ways that is why it captivated the attention and imagination of the globe. It lacked the characteristics of a typical revolution – a charismatic leader or a strong army – but was rather the doing of “ordinary” people performing heroic acts. Yet in the months after the revolution, the impulse to search for a savior returned, as the conversation was fixated on the next president or prime minister who would solve all of Egypt’s problems rather than on those who started the revolution in the first place, the people.

The Egyptians’ longing for “heroic” leaders is rooted in a faulty understanding of history that mythologizes the role of a few and ignores the contributions of many. The history of Egypt is not defined by the greatness of the likes of [historical Egyptian leaders] Muhammad Ali or Saad Zaghloul alone, but rather by the heroic efforts of everyday people. If the Egyptian revolution taught us anything, it is that change is not a top-down concept, but rather a bottom-up one in which ordinary people drive change.

Before Egypt, or any other country for that matter, can begin to address current challenges, it needs to understand its past and have a more realistic understanding of it. A search for heroes is a futile one because, frankly, the heroes that people long for do not really exist. Some leaders are better than others, but the notion that someone will come and fix all of a nation’s problems is untrue.

This desire for heroes is not in any way unique to Egypt, as the United States, too, falls victim to this trap. Americans are always in search of leaders to live up to the standard of Lincoln, Jefferson, and Roosevelt. This mythologized narrative that has been constructed about America’s past makes it difficult to have reasonable expectations of our current leaders. The American Constitution is treated like a religious text rather than one written by flawed individuals. Granted, the US Constitution is the longest-standing constitution in the world to date and has helped construct one of the world’s great democracies, but it is also filled with some serious flaws, such as slavery and the exclusion of women from voting.

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