The Common Good
April 2011

How Egypt Changed the Conversation

by Jim Wallis | April 2011

The leadership of both our countries has preferred stability to democracy for a long time.

In the aftermath of the world-changing events in Egypt, the story of how the uprising came about was slowly revealed. It was clear that such a thing doesn’t “just happen.” The grievances in Egypt had built up over 30 years of dictatorship. An educated new generation was coming of age. They didn’t fall into the old political categories; rejecting both autocracy and theocracy, they were not willing to settle any longer for stability over democracy.

As I watched them in Tahrir Square each night on television, it also seemed that they knew what they were doing in regard to security, logistics, and tactics. When they were attacked by the street thugs Hosni Mubarak’s government sent against them, they responded with disciplined nonviolence. They brought new social media to the old drama of fighting for democracy against tyranny.

I could see that those who were leading this nonviolent youth revolution had some training. Sure enough, we learned how the best tools of nonviolent resistance had been passed on, over the last several years, between activists across national boundaries. They drew on the work of seasoned nonviolent scholars and tacticians such as Gene Sharp, whose books on how nonviolent action could bring down dictators helped create the playbook for young Egyptian activists. It was clear that these young Middle East protesters were drawing from King and Gandhi, and that focused study, key relationships, and serious training had all preceded the public events.

It also became clear that these protesters were not radical Islamists eager for a new caliphate, but rather were young professionals, secular youth, and radically moderate Christians and Muslims working together, taking to the streets with both courage and discipline.

The Egyptian revolution has changed the global conversation about the Middle East. The uprising in Cairo forced the world, and the U.S. in particular, to be more honest about Egypt and the region. Mubarak was a dictator who had run a brutal and corrupt police state for three decades. Why did it take thousands of Egyptians pouring into the street to get the U.S. government and media to admit that there might be a problem? Why has the U.S. government provided more aid to Egypt’s repressive regime than to any other country except Israel?

The Obama administration, after some early ambivalence, finally did come down on the side of democracy in Egypt. The U.S. will now have to maintain that commitment until free and fair elections are held and real democracy established. Will the revolution in Egypt teach the U.S. that compromising democracy in other nations for our “interests” works not only against the people of those countries, but ultimately against us?

Near the end of the Egyptian protests, I wrote a “Letter to Young Egyptian Activists,” hoping it would find its way to those who were inspiring such hope in me and others. It said:

You have changed the world. And what you have done has just begun. But now that you have won our hearts and signaled what your generation intends to do about democracy, the voices of the establishments, in both your country and mine, wish you would declare victory, go home, and let them work out the details of “transition.” Please don’t do that. The leadership of both our countries has preferred stability to democracy for a long time, and they do whatever is necessary to protect the former, even at the cost of the latter. To let them manage how democracy will come to Egypt is to risk it not coming at all, or only on their terms.

Remember, the United States was not talking about democracy in Egypt, not advocating for it, not saying a transition is necessary and urgent UNTIL you risked your security, safety, and lives for the sake of democracy. You changed the conversation. In countries across the Arab world and beyond, your generational peers are watching what you are doing.

You represent a new generation, a new leadership, and a new hope for the possibility of real democracy. Keep leading. My government, which still calls itself the beacon of freedom, has sacrificed democracy in your region of the world (and many other places) for American “interests.” But they are not really the interests of the American people, but of oil companies, big banks and corporations, and rich and powerful people. Their interest in stability is very different than ours. So don’t be fooled; don’t listen to the so-called “wise” voices that have been part of the old reality and now want to thank you for your service to democracy but are offering to “take it from here.”

Don’t let them. Keep demanding democracy—real democracy. Because, for the rest of us, democracy is the best defense of our “interests” and the best path to genuine stability. For our part, we will do our best to stand with you. That will likely take sacrifice from all of us, because real change always does.

Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.

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