This is a great day. It is a great day for Egypt, a great day for the Middle East. It is one of those rare days when history is written in dignity instead of blood: the story of the Egyptian Revolution is a story of non-violence as powerful as that of Gandhi’s India in the 1940s and Martin Luther King’s America in the 1950s, though Gandhi and King never had to contend with irony–the irony of a world’s eyes trained on a region whose people are prejudicially associated with violence. The masses of Tahrir Square have proven, and the Egyptian military confirmed, how wrong the world can be, and how peace-loving Egyptians are. No history of change through non-violence can be written without this new chapter from Tahrir Square. “This,” President Obama said moments ago, “is the way real democracy works.”
For Egypt, it’s the end not just of Mubarak’s 30-year dictatorship, but of an era of dictatorships going back to Anwar el Sadat and Gamal abdel Nasser. Egyptians have revolted before, in 1952, overthrowing the repressive monarchy of the day, only to see Nasser impose a one-party state, then a police state, that endures to this day. The military is in charge now. Nothing says that it won’t still be in charge in a year: cosmetic changes overlaying an immovable tyranny have been an Egyptian habit, too, though massive, peaceful demonstrations less so. The surprise, to Egypt’s thuggish state police, is that the demonstrations held to their principles and didn’t buckle under attack. They never compromised their moral high ground, which only sharpened the rot of their opponents’ gutters, Mubarak’s beneath all.
It’ll be a greater day if it turns out to be what it must be: not just the end of Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship, but the beginning of the Middle East’s liberation from a league of dictators holding 450 million people hostage in that crescent of regression from Casablanca to Tehran. Tunisia did it last month. Egypt did it this month. There are still some 20 dictatorships in that dismal crescent. And most of them are American client states: Algeria, Morocco, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, the Emirates, Kuwait, Yemen, Oman, even Afghanistan and Iraq, where only pretenses of democracy remain despite American soldiers still dying on those soils.
Egypt is the most powerful Arab state culturally and politically. It sets the tone. It set the region’s authoritarian tone for decades. It could–it should–set the tone of liberation in the months and years ahead. If it sustains what it has won these last 18 days. It it sustains that moral high ground. If it regains the support of the United States and the West, a support it never fully had.
That’s the other side of this great day: the disgrace of the United States and the West in general playing catch-up to the victories of the people, of the Obama administration–Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in particular–sitting on fences instead of speaking clearly and in concert with the masses of Tahrir for 18 days. Even yesterday, after Mubarak declined to resign, Obama did not call for his resignation. Only today his words regained a sense of moral power. He finally had found his voice: “This is the power of human dignity, and it can never be denied. Egyptians have inspired us. They have put the lie to the idea that justice is gained by violence,” he said. “For Egypt, it was the moral force of nonviolence, not terrorism, not mindless killing, but nonviolence, moral force, that bent the arc of history toward justice once more.”
But it’s too easy to have a voice after the fact. These are the words he should have been speaking all along, the moment masses took to the streets. He never clearly was on their side until they just as clearly had their victory.
Egyptians are going to want their days of reckoning. They’re going to want their truth commissions, and Mubarak’s enforcers held to account. They’re going to want their money back: Mubarak is reputed to have stashed away billions of dollars–many of the same billions Americans have been contributing for three decades–in his Swiss bank accounts. But no accounting will be complete if it doesn’t include the extent to which successive American administrations since Nixon’s have been propping up Egyptian–and Arab–dictatorship. Egyptians have their reckoning ahead. So do Americans. Egyptians have placed themselves on the right side of history. Americans? Not so much. Not yet.