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.
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.
President Obama has often tried to emphasize the idea that change does not come from government, but rather from the people when they demand it. This conception of citizenship is central to the future of Egypt. Nations are not built by leaders alone, but rather by ordinary people pushing leaders to act. Lyndon Johnson did not pass civil rights legislation without the activists in the South, and Egyptian leader Mohamed Morsi did not get elected president without the people in Tahrir Square. An active and engaged citizenry plays a central role in the development of prosperous nations.
Don’t get me wrong: Leaders play an important role in offering a vision and direction for a country, but the key to the future does not rest only in “heroic” leaders, but rather in an involved citizenry and strong institutions. Strong institutions are important because they can withstand the fluctuations in leadership that a country is bound to experience, and the best way to build these institutions is not through the wisdom of one or two people, but rather through a collective effort by the country as a whole to develop institutions that are built on meritocracy, accountability, and the rule of law, rather than corruption.
Just as the Egyptian revolution was a bottom-up revolution started and led by the people, the future of Egypt will rest on the activities of the citizenry at large. From the people in Tahrir Square who are demanding change to those in the small unforgotten towns on the Nile Delta who are beginning the process of community-organizing, Egyptians are engaged in this new conception of citizenship that will focus on the building of strong institutions that will prove foundational for the future. A change of mind-set about the country’s history and its future is necessary in Egypt. The history of nations is not defined by heroes in the presidential palace but by the heroes on the street.
Nabeel Zewail is an Egyptian-American student at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service.