For 18 days, millions of Egyptians of all stripes – from feminists to Islamists, rich to poor, Google execs to illiterate farmers, old to young – gathered around Cairo’s Tahrir Square. They set aside differences that would have once kept them from barely talking or even acknowledging each other on the street. In this giant melting pot, personal divisions by class, age, education, religion, or income disappeared.
The protesters assert a new Egyptian identity based on high ideals – ones that eventually led to President Hosni Mubarak stepping down.
It has been a startling exercise in redefining an entire society, one that has fascinated much of the world – not just other Arab states – in part because so many nations are also trying to redefine themselves.
From China to America, struggles over national identity have found echoes in Egypt’s historic revolution.
One good example is a Feb. 5 speech by British Prime Minister David Cameron. He said Britain is in need of “a clear sense of shared national identity.” He decried policies that encourage “different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and apart from the mainstream.”
The Conservative leader wants to prevent British citizens from being radicalized by jihadists to commit violence. The fear of home-grown terrorists, in both Britain and the United States, has grown as a result of recent attacks, such as the 2005 London subway bombings or the 2009 shooting spree at Fort Hood, Texas, by suspect Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan.
“True cohesion” at the local or national level, Mr. Cameron says, would allow people to say “I am a Muslim, I am a Hindu, I am a Christian, but I am a Londoner ... too.”
His speech comes after recent comments by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel that the practice of “multiculturalism” has failed both societies by allowing tolerance of extremism. And in 2006, then-President Bush urged immigrants to learn English and US civics in hopes that they might help “us remain one nation under God.”
A liberal country, Cameron asserts, “says to its citizens, this is what defines us as a society: To belong here is to believe in these things.” He plans to have government “actively promote” values such as freedom of speech, freedom of worship, democracy, the rule of law, and equality between sexes. And organizations such as Muslim groups that don’t subscribe to “British values” will not receive government support.
In China, thousands of dissidents have signed on to a document known as Charter 08 that calls on Chinese leaders to “embrace universal human values [and] join the mainstream of civilized nations.” A Communist regime that focuses mainly on creating material wealth “has stripped people of their rights, destroyed their dignity, and corrupted normal human intercourse,” the charter states.
In the US, one attempt to redefine America is a House bill that would declare English the official language of the US – in hopes that this would help unify the nation around its founding values. The bill would also require that “all citizens should be able to read and understand generally the English-language text of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the laws of the United States made in pursuance of the Constitution.”
The rise in the use of Spanish has alarmed many Americans worried that Latinos are not assimilating fast enough or absorbing a civic identity. The number of people who speak a language other than English at home has more than doubled in recent decades. And according to a 2008 study by the University of California, Los Angeles, too many Mexican-Americans – unlike earlier European immigrants – aren’t fully integrating into US society. Their low levels of education are leading to “a weaker American identity.”
Identity is an extremely personal concept, one that requires core principles. The more universal those principles are, the more each individual will better help shape society or a nation.
Egypt has not been alone while millions of its people defined their values on the streets of Cairo.
Every day, many others around the world are trying to find that identity. Egypt’s victory is everyone’s.