“This isn’t a protest,” a man yelled into a reporter’s microphone, “this is a revolution.”
“I tell the Arab world to stand with us until we win our freedom,” said Khaled Yusuf, a cleric from Al Azhar, a once esteemed institution of religious scholarship now beholden to the government. “Once we do, we’re going to free the Arab world.”
These two comments from the Arab street go right to the heart of the extraordinary events in Cairo this past week.
WEDNESDAY, the United States joined Mr. Yusuf and broke with the Mubarak government. President Barack Obama had demanded that the Egyptian dictator call off his thugs and take immediate steps to create a transition government that would be responsive to the demands of the people. Those were demands Mu-barak couldn’t accept. So Obama threw U.S. support to the revolutionaries.
While the short-term outlook changes from hour to hour, it is now clear that a new Egypt will emerge from the chaos and that the other Arab dictatorships are on short notice to give power to their people — or have power taken from them.
While the world watches, astonished, all of the political and social “truths” of the Middle East are being rewritten. How the new commandments will read can’t be fathomed today and may remain in flux for years.
That Egypt, by far the largest and most powerful Arab nation, will be in the hands of new, young leaders, is now certain and makes Mr. Yusuf’s promise credible. Certainly its rebuilding will take time. Probably the process will move in fits and starts. But whatever shape it takes, the post-February 2011 Egypt will inspire populations in Yemen, Jordan, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia and the other Arab autocracies and plutocracies to also de-mand the individual rights, personal and political freedoms and equalities the Western world considers fundamental in 2011.
When the new Egypt finds its footing, there is every reason to believe that it will work to “free the Arab world” while it is lifting its own people out of de facto slavery and the grinding poverty imposed by the local-issue dictatorships that took over power from the British empire.
WHERE WILL THE U.S. fit into this new picture? Did President Obama press Mu-barak to move aside soon enough? Or will the Arab street only remember that Washington has been Mu-barak’s most loyal and generous ally and look for other friends in the outside world?
Mubarak’s Egypt has been a barrier between Israel and the other Arab nations since Anwar Sadat established relations with the Jewish state. It can be argued that there can be no peace between Palestine and Israel without Egypt’s blessing.
Still, what the Egyptian people want is what America has. The political and social values the United States has preached since its own revolution are what the Egyptians in Cairo’s square are demanding.
Those are the values President Obama cited when he told Mr. Mubarak he should step down if he wanted U.S. support to continue. Egypt’s new leaders, whoever they may be, will know that America will help them create a new order that will meet the aspirations of their people — and that’s the best hope there is for the U.S. and Egypt to continue to work together for a peaceful and prosperous Middle East.