Pop quiz hot shots: How many ex-Presidents has the United States had? If you answered forty-three then you are correct. Forty-three times in less than three hundred years of existence, the United States has transferred power from one person to another. Cabinets have been reshuffled, all manner of employees have been hired or fired, and very little unrest has been felt by its citizens. Many of us go about our daily life thinking very little about this fact and what an incredible privilege it is to live this way.
Yet nobody realizes this more, right now, than the Egyptian people. On Friday, February 11th 2011, with its unified history dating back as far as 3100BC, Egypt received its very first former living President in Hosni Mubarak. Take a moment to reflect on what that means and just how significant this occasion is.
For as long as it has existed, Egyptian history has generally been one of central rule. No doubt certain aspects of ancient life made living under empires a logical affair. If we head towards more modern Egyptian history we see that in the 1880s British colonization shaped a shockingly repressive Kingdom that ruled the country by proxy. This remained firmly rooted for around seventy years. Then, in 1952, the July 23rd revolution ousted King Farouk and a man named Gamal Abdel Nasser took power.
After a shaky start that involved both an assassination attempt and massive political crackdowns, Nasser became extremely popular amongst his people. He became known for making a number of advancements in socialism, pan-Arab activism and investing in the modern infrastructure of Egypt. He was adored, and still is across the Arab world, as a leader who had the best interest of his people at heart. After a devastating blow from Israel during the Six Day War, Nasser actually offered to resign citing his failure to his people. This dramatic move was only redacted when massive demonstrations urged him to stay. Not long after, Nasser died in office.
After Nasser a man named Anwar el-Sadat was elected President. He was also well liked by the people. While still new to office he made a number of reforms to Egypt’s political climate instituting a multi-party system and freeing a number of former political prisoners jailed under Nasser. He also opened Egypt up economically and was hailed for his efforts in the October War of 1973.
In the mid-to-late ’70s, facing opposition across the board, Sadat started shifting his attitude towards Israel. Slowly he opted to make concessions in the name of stability. He signed the Camp David accords in 1978 and then a direct treaty with Israel in 1979. This led to Egypt becoming one of the largest recipients of US foreign aid. These were turbulent times in the Arab world and Sadat’s accommodations were viewed with rage by many of those affected by these policies. Sectarian violence soared and on October 6th, 1981, Sadat was assassinated by extremists. Hosni Mubarak was elected later that month.
Mubarak’s nearly thirty year term isn’t all awful. He did make inroads into expanding education, upholding peace, and the economy of Egypt grew substantially under his rule. However, like most autocrats, his power was abused more often than not. During the past few weeks we have seen the level of his disconnection from the Egyptian people highlighted in his speeches and pointless concessions. His very last address, which happened the day before his resignation was announced, caused almost unparalleled rage in the streets of Egypt. He condescendingly referred to himself as the father of Egypt and the protestors as his children. Demonstrators jammed into Tahrir Square waving their shoes in the air (the ultimate sign of disrespect in Arab culture). A meeting was called between the army’s top commanders and leaders in the government as the situation grew more intense. Then in the early evening of the 11th, the Vice President, Omar Suleiman, made a brief statement announcing Mubarak’s resignation. Fireworks, dancing, and a massive celebration hit the streets as Egypt was, in the words of many protesters, “reborn.”
In the meantime the armed forces have taken over the leadership by dismissing Parliament and suspending the constitution. While for many in the West this transition sounds chilling, in Egypt there has been a concerted effort to establish a relationship between the people and the armed forces. During the protests it was common to see demonstrators handing their babies to men on tanks for kisses; sharing food, tea and water; and even comforting some of the military men. Although not completely without fault, the Army has remained a mostly neutral force, with its focus on breaking up clashes and keeping infrastructure protected.
Different political groups in Egypt are now proposing ideas on how and when to hold elections. Some are giving it a year for campaigning with others arguing that it should really only take a number of months. Most are advocating for a provisional civil council to watch over state affairs, but every single group seems to have democracy and free and fair elections at the forefront of their mind. From the Muslim Brotherhood to former Presidential candidate Ayman Nour, reform and new beginnings are the number one priority.
Still, the vast majority of credit for this amazing event belongs solely to the indomitable spirit of the Egyptian protesters. They paved the way through peaceful actions and care for their community. Substantial attention was paid to the Egyptian Antiquities Museum when it was broken into in late January. Yet relatively very few artifacts were destroyed or stolen. Protesters took to the streets in the millions and could have easily ransacked cultural treasure en masse, but they did not want the destruction of their history and country; they just wanted Mubarak gone. Reports came in that some of Cairo’s street scenes included protesters picking up their own trash, organizing smoking and non-smoking areas and protecting each other while they adhered to their respective religions. Christians formed human chains around Muslims during Salat (prayer) and Muslims returned that favor during Sunday mass.
Even now a number of Egyptians are calling for forgiveness to any citizens who may have participated in the more violent pro-Mubarak riots. After all, reports have been circling that some were paid as high as eighty dollars to take part in the protests. The old clichÃ© that parents will do anything to feed their children is something Mubarak’s security forces weren’t hesitant to exploit.
Meanwhile, communities across the world are celebrating in tandem with the Egyptians. In nearby Arab countries people danced in the streets and honked their horns. In Egyptian communities across Europe and the US, families, some refugees of Mubarak’s brutal regime, broke down in tears and wished they could be there to celebrate amongst their people. Calls are now going out for educated and accomplished Egyptians abroad to return home. It is time, they say, to rebuild the nation. There is a lot of work ahead in the coming months and years, but if the organization and responsibility of the protesters are any indication of Egypt’s future, this ancient land may be looking forward to some of its brightest days yet