The first lesson from the Egyptian revolution

Salwa Ismail on the fall of the Mubarak regime, and the new politics emerging in Egypt

February 16, 2011
5 min read

It remains too early to draw out all of the lessons of the Egyptian revolution. However, given what has been achieved so far, Egyptians can offer the world a first lesson from their revolution. Undoubtedly, there will be other lessons to be learned especially as the process of revolutionary change continues.

The first and most important lesson is that a peaceful revolution is attainable when the people of an entire nation collectively break down the wall of fear and join hands to protect one another and act as one. The revolution did not have one single leader or one group leading the people. Rather, the people led themselves. It is true that the Egyptian youth spurred on their co-citizens to stand up against oppressive rule, but they did not lead in the conventional sense. Alongside the youth, the people became their own leaders. Egyptians as individuals and members of the nation assumed their historic responsibility to act together to translate their striving for freedom and dignity into reality.

All the people who joined in their millions insisted on maintaining the peaceful character of the revolution and on refusing to meet violent provocations with a violent response. Yes, they were angry, but they were dignified in their anger. Heroically, passionately and in an epic protest which grew everyday and promised to bring out on the street every member of the nation, they were tested in their patience, endurance and resilience. Magnificently, they refused to blink and be stared down when threatened with terror. Steadfastly, they rejected the temptation to return violence with violence.  Armed only with their determination to hold their ground, they confronted police brutality in a fearless manner. Police bullets which cut short the young lives of some of their number only added to their resolve that their rising would not be in vein. In this sense, all the security apparatus’ instruments of control were destined to fail in the face of the popular revolutionary will which asserted itself throughout the national territory.

To understand this resolve and resilience we must consider what the Egyptians set out to do. Their revolution was against Mubarak as an embodiment of a system of government and rule. The protesters’ most powerful slogan “the people want to bring down the regime” captures the essence of their action. The people asserted themselves as historical agents who assumed responsibility to bring about a radical transformation and unleash a process of necessary revolutionary change. Egyptians rose against the corrupting effects of the unbridled greed of parasitic capitalism and against the methods of rule that were undermining the ethics and norms that they valued most: norms of truth, justice, equality, freedom and dignity. They finally spoke as one against the theft of national resources and against humiliation by the repressive police force. Their brilliance has been in their insistence that, as conveyed in another slogan, Mubarak and his regime were batil, meaning illegal and illegitimate.

In doing so, Egyptians rose against the wide scale destruction inflicted on them and on the country by this regime. Living under a system of rule that undermined all ideals of equity and justice and functioned by intimidation and violence, Egyptians came to fear not only for the security of the person but also for the corruption of their sense of ethics and shared humanity.  In recent years, they were confronting conditions of physical and ethical degradation and they considered that they, as a country and a people, were on a precipice and needed to stop themselves from falling. And they did precisely that.

In a long conversation among themselves, Egyptians decided that they did not like how they were being governed and that they wanted to govern themselves differently. In this conversation, they also entered into a covenant of sorts to begin to undo the damage and destruction of thirty years of Mubarak’s regime. In their daily gatherings, they have been forging a language to speak of themselves as citizens free of sectarianism, prejudice and fanaticism. One has only to listen to the Friday sermons in Tahrir Square over the last few weeks to get a sense of the new language being spoken. In these sermons, preachers asserted that the revolution had no religious drive, though it preserved the ethics of the religions of the people– of both Islam and Christianity.  They also underscored that the goals of the revolution are to achieve freedom, justice and democracy. These sermons express the language of politics that was being forged in Tahrir Square and in other squares up and down the land.

As the central space of the revolution, Tahrir Square has been lived as a space of the co-existence of Egyptians of diverse religious beliefs, lifestyles and political leanings. In this space, they have articulated their vision of an inclusive and free society and have worked together on their mission to liberate themselves from oppressive rule. In this revolution, Egyptians turned all their city squares into liberation squares. They deserve their hard-won victory. “The people have brought down the regime”.


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