Egypt's revolution redefines what's possible in the Arab world

The Middle East has been riveted by the success of the grass-roots revolution that ended Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's 30-year reign.

Ann Hermes / The Christian Science Monitor
Egyptians celebrate in Cairo's Tahrir Square Friday, following the announcement that Hosni Mubarak will step down as president.

As darkness fell over the winter-chilled Middle East on Friday, television screens lit up living rooms from Tehran to Damascus to Rabat. All eyes were riveted by the spectacle that just weeks ago seemed impossible: the toppling of Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak after nearly 30 years in power.

The collapse in Egypt took just 18 days of bold protest, inspired by the overthrow of Tunisia’s long-standing strongman just weeks before.

For Arabs used to a heavy hand and little hope, Egypt’s revolution has redefined the possible, before their very eyes.

“Everyone is watching this – hundreds of millions of Arabs, Muslims, and who knows who else?” says Shadi Hamid, the director of research at the Brookings Doha Center, speaking from Cairo.

“The Arab world is never going to go back to what it was. We are going to wake up to a new Egypt tomorrow, and we’ll also wake up to a new Arab world,” says Mr. Hamid.

“What has changed is that Arabs know that they can change their own situation without the help of the US, without the help of the international community, they can just go out on the streets and do it on their own – and no one can take that away from them,” he says.

Across the region, Arabs have watched transformative events unfold day after day, first in Tunisia where a single self-immolation in protest in mid-December sparked weeks of demonstrations and finally regime change.

Then Egyptians began gathering strength on the streets, battled Mr. Mubarak’s security forces, clung on in Tahrir Square in the face of mob attacks, and then simply took over when the regime began losing its ability to control or intimidate the crowds.

“On the psychological and symbolic level, it is a shattering moment,” says Fawaz Gerges, director of the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics. “Remember that Mubarak was the public face of political authoritarianism in the Arab world. He had built one of the most feared security apparatuses, employing five million personnel.”

The forced exit of Mubarak from the presidential palace has sent shock waves to Arab rulers. “Every village. Every neighborhood. Every Arab regardless of how poor, or alienated or marginalized, [now has] a sense of empowerment, a sense of revival,” says Mr. Gerges. “The psychology of the Arab world has changed.”

'Bellwether for the region'

The Arab world was the place where change was once measured in decades, where authoritarian leaders like Saddam Hussein would seize power and hold their populations in abeyance for a generation at a time.

President Obama spoke to that timeline in remarks also broadcast on Egyptian TV and across the Arab world. “Egypt has played a pivotal role in human history for over 6,000 years. But over the last few weeks the wheel of history turned at a blinding pace as the Egyptian people demanded their universal rights," he said.

“[W]e saw a new generation emerge, a generation that uses their own creativity and talent and technology to call for a government that represented their hopes and not their fears,” Mr. Obama said. “A government that is responsive to their boundless aspirations.”

Mubarak was one of those who signified fear, his Pharaonic edifice kept intact by a legion of security forces, paid thugs, and $40 billion in US military aid.

“Tunisia was always seen as an exception, it was too remote, it had its own circumstances,” says Hamid of Brookings. “Egypt is the bellwether for the region, it is the political and cultural heart of the Arab world, and this is going to inspire people in a whole different way.

“If this can happen in Egypt, why can’t it happen anywhere else? Egypt was seen as unlikely a month ago: The regime seemed more unified, more ruthless, with a broader base of support,” he adds.

“The regime had the Islamist card at its disposal – it seemed like Egypt would be very challenging. But the Egyptian people pulled it off. And I think now Arabs know that if they bring people out onto the streets, if they have the numbers, they can accomplish amazing things,” Hamid says.

The 'inspirational' moment

“Fear and political apathy allowed dictators like Mubarak and others to do whatever they want, not only for life, but even to groom their sons,” says Gerges. “In this sense, the removal of Mubarak is truly one of most inspirational moments in the contemporary history of the Arab world. It will fuel new aspirations and hopes.”

The day Mubarak was toppled from power came precisely 32 years after Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution, which shook the world in its day and still reverberates.

Just as that change was brought into the Arab family room by flickering TV sets, the Egyptian revolution is being broadcast across the region. But this uprising is being relayed not just live on television and radio, it's being spread even farther and faster via Twitter and Facebook.

“Iran is no longer the model; clerics and mullahs are no longer the model, neither is Osama bin Laden or Ayman Zawahiri,” notes Gerges. “The model is millions of young Arabs, calling for open societies, for freedom, for transparent elections, for their voices to be heard…. They have really Arabized democracy, and that is why it is such a powerful thing.”

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