By Dan Hind
Easily daunted but often reckless polemicist, author of “The Return of the Public”
The popular uprising in Egypt is still less than three weeks old. We still cannot know how it will end – whether the ruling party will make some concessions and cling on to power within a new government – or whether a united opposition will sweep away Mubarak’s apparatus. And we cannot tell what kind of regime will emerge.
The revolutions that overthrew the Soviet system in Central and Eastern Europe did not always empower the dissidents who risked the most in the struggle for freedom. Former secret policemen and their allies in organised crime often proved more adept in the years that followed than the idealists they once tormented.
But for all the uncertainty, Egypt has already shaken the region and the world. For those watching in Europe and the US, it has put an end to any lazy notion that the alternative to corrupt dictatorship in the Middle East is chaos or Islamic extremism. The worldly realists, with their regretful talk of the need for moderation, now stand exposed as power-worshipping fantasists. The Christians and Muslims crying “one hand, one hand”, as they call for an end to Mubarak’s tyranny have made a farce of decades of Western commentary and analysis.
Standing as one
The regime itself did all it could to encourage sectarian tension in the country, while its supporters in the West pretended it was a bulwark against religious violence. But, despite all the efforts to destroy civil society through torture and the organised suspicion of a police state, people have found each other.
Millions are being transformed by the experience of a public life without fear. In the words of one of the protestors, Wael Gawdat: “At Tahrir Square you see different Egyptians from the ones you see on the subway or the bus. No fights and no discomfort from the crowded setting. In short, Egypt is more beautiful in Tahrir Square.”
The decision of the Egyptian people to take responsibility for their future – their decision to become citizens – enlivens, even delights. This is a movement that isn’t being orchestrated by leaders in the way we have been led to expect. People are acting as though they are free and so becoming free.
The Egyptians, like the Tunisians – like people all over the world – want a share in the vast wealth that their rulers and a handful of insiders have hoarded for themselves. They want dignity and a life they can call their own. For the moment they are not afraid and they are united. They are showing us the truth of David Hume’s remark that our rulers ‘have nothing to support them but opinion’. The Egyptian people no longer believed the Mubarak regime was as good as any other that might be established. They have seen for themselves that there can be stability without torture.
They do not believe that the distribution of property is just and they do not accept the legitimacy of their government. They have changed their opinion of what is possible and right. Every day of freedom they enjoy is a message to the rest of us; things do not have to be as they are.
So the Egyptians and the Tunisians have swept away the prejudices that have so long confused and corrupted the understanding of people in the West. More than that, they have also reminded Europeans and American what political action can achieve – and what it feels like to be free.
We have long been entranced by the idea that shopping and voting once every four years for one wing or other of the pro-business party would be enough to give us the good life. Vast public relations campaigns fostered the sense that a better future could be had, if only we chose wisely from the list of approved candidates. All the while the rich have taken more and left the rest of us to struggle with insecurity, anxiety and mounting debts. The people in Cairo didn’t look to charismatic politicians or party machines to do the work for them. They moved faster than their leaders.
You can do it, too
In the West, there have been stirrings of dissent as the scale of the economic crisis becomes apparent and the reassurances of the mainstream media – that good times are just around the corner, come to sound ever more threadbare. Students, and young people in particular, have already shaken off the wishful passivity of the previous generation. But for the most part the outrage and sense of betrayal have expressed themselves in ways that pose no real threat to the governing establishment or the opulent minority who control it.
The Tea Party in the United States and Conservatives in Britain promise change while working to ensure that everything that matters stays the same. The right in both countries has benefited from the failure of their centrist opponents to address the fundamental causes of recession, unemployment and social breakdown. It is as though the entire political establishment has adopted the stultifying uniformity of a one-party state. There is a bankruptcy of policy and of principle that will, perhaps, finally compel us to take matters into our own hands.
In the presidential campaign of 2008, Barack Obama never tired of telling voters they were the change they had been looking for. The people of Tunisia and Egypt have turned a clever slogan into an undeniable fact. They did not wait for permission to take action. If we want another world we must all learn from them.
Can we look beyond the stereotypes offered by our media, and see that the Egyptians and the Tunisians are now daring us to be free?
Yes, we can.
Dan Hind has worked in publishing since 1998 and is the author of two well-acclaimed books: The Return of the Public and The Threat to Reason. He is also a regular contributor to The Guardian.
Follow him on Twitter: @danhind