Like the Tunisians before them, Egyptian protesters are setting a vivid example for the rest of the Arab world. They are showing that a universal cause, even one as simple as the right to assembly, can inspire millions to come together without much leadership – in fact, sometimes with no leaders at all.
Even without cellphone or Internet service at times, Egyptians have flocked to the streets by the sheer pull of good ideas, spread by word of mouth.
“This is a revolution without leaders,” wrote a dissident Egyptian blogger known as Sandmonkey, on Thursday. “Three million individuals choosing hope instead of fear and braving death on [an] hourly basis to keep their dream of freedom alive. Imagine that.”
Many, of course, were united in their grievances against President Hosni Mubarak. They have long had no outlet in Egypt’s political hierarchy. But they surprised even themselves at how easily they have joined together in a spontaneous, grass-roots way. One by one, people of all stripes gave birth to a “movement.”
Leaders and political coalitions will eventually need to emerge, of course, to direct this movement. “There go my people. I must follow them, for I am their leader,” as Mohandas Gandhi supposedly said.
But like other parts of the world that have already achieved democracy, Arabs now see they must first form a social consensus based on honoring the dignity of individuals to participate equally and to make up their own mind on how to govern society. Such ideas are first planted in the heart, and only then can they spread.
The crowds in Cairo have demonstrated the roots of a future Egyptian democracy by securing people’s safety with checkpoints, by ensuring medical care, by letting anyone speak, by making decisions only after widespread discussion, etc.
This is “civil society” without the form of organized civil-society groups. Power is first expressed horizontally, across a people, before it can be made manifest through vertical, elected governance.
The decentralized nature of the protests has frustrated the Mubarak regime’s security forces, which rely on top-down authority and therefore have gone looking for the same sort of structure among protesters – even presuming foreign agitators.
And the secular nature of the demonstrations has initially bypassed the country’s largest private group, the Muslim Brotherhood. That Islamist organization relies on the concept that only a few individuals can claim religious authority over Muslims and that sharia rule must trump secular laws derived by popular consensus.
Egypt, of course, has had many social protests – more than 250 occurred in 2004 alone, by one count – but usually over economic conditions, such as bread prices. And it gained independence from Britain in 1922 after widespread protests.
But protests on the scale seen in the past two weeks – with so little leadership – serve as a reminder of what really mobilizes the masses: the attraction to universal ideals, such as governance based on the inherent worth of each individual.
When even hundreds of elderly Egyptian women – who rarely venture outdoors – can be seen at the barricades in Tahrir (Liberation) Square, then every Arab living under tyranny can take such ideas to heart and easily find other people to join them.