Protests in Egypt are at least a mental liberation for Arabs

Friday's massive protests in Egypt, inspired by Tunisia's revolt, may reflect the biggest turnaround in Arab thinking. No longer must they fear autocratic rule.

Mark the day: On Jan. 28, 2011, the Middle East changed. The region’s most populous Arab nation, Egypt, saw a massive uprising against President Hosni Mubarak that finally broke the people’s fear of his ruthless regime.

No matter how events play out in coming days or weeks, Egyptians now realize they only had to shed their fears – as Tunisians did this month in ousting a dictator – and stand together for clean, representative government and a better way of life. Like waking from a bad dream, they saw that nothing had to change but their thinking.

Friday’s protests give further hope for a huge shift among Arabs demonstrating that they need not put up with the corruption, poverty, and smothered liberties of the region’s autocrats. The fact that these protests were led by huge numbers of young people – not the Muslim Brotherhood, not the Army, not the elite – gives this nascent revolution deep roots of legitimacy.

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Gone are warnings that Arabs aren’t eager or ready for democracy, as was said of Iraqis after the ouster of Saddam Hussein. Troubles may yet lie ahead for Egypt in what could be a difficult transition. But nothing can take away the events of Jan. 28. Any government in Cairo will now have to better reflect the will of the people.

The country’s rigged elections last November, combined with reports that Mubarak or his son might run again, helped break the regime’s facade of legitimacy. Egyptians finally connected Mubarak’s corrupt politics to high inflation and joblessness. And this volatile mix of bad economics and 30 years of political suppression only needed a spark. Tunisia’s revolt provided that.

But the Internet also played a role in spreading cooperation among dissidents. No wonder then that Mubarak cracked down on almost all electronic communication during Friday’s protests.

And Egyptians had also witnessed popular protests in Iran and Lebanon, and Iraq’s democratic elections since 2005.

The Arab world, once dominated by socialism and nationalism, or once aligned with the Soviet Union and tempted by radical Islam, may have turned a corner toward the democratic ideals of the West.

Events in Egypt over coming days will be critical to whether the nation, and the region, take the right course. But the mental change has already come.

Jan. 28 will be remembered as a day of liberty, not just outrage, for Egypt.

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