Thoughts on Egypt and (the rebirth of) Freedom

First, the obligatory “Where were you when it happened” part:

“Where” was here, at the house in Manila. It was one of those days – not a bad one, but not really a good one, either – and I just finished doing some major flood control at the other house after a major downpour turned the dining area into a small pool. Tiring work, and it was rather humid despite the heavy rain, and doing an hour or so of that after a late night at work is quite distressing.

So after finishing up with flood control I plop down in front of the laptop and fire up all the sites I frequent. Then, a few seconds into it, I remembered how I felt just this morning (Manila Time) about the developments in Egypt. I remember my worry; I even dropped by Greenbelt’s amazing chapel on the way to work to ask God to keep the people of Egypt safe, and one other thing.

So I wanted to know what was happening there, and admittedly there was that thought that you’d be shown scenes of chaos and sorrow, given how the situation was that morning when Mubarak, contrary to everything, still clung to power.

I have to admit: I wasn’t prepared to hear cries of jubilation instead.

But let me tell you that, after a decade or so of soul-crushing news both here and abroad (mostly here), hearing the voices of thousands, if not millions, of people crying out not in fear, not in anger or hate, not in sorrow, but in joy felt amazing.

It’s been such a darkening world, you’ve forgotten how what CNN’s Anderson Cooper called “the sound of pure joy” was like.

———

It came so fast, so sudden, so… unlooked for (as Tolkien would say it) that I was, like, “whoa” for a good amount of time after I turned on the television. CNN was showing the street party of a million or more strong on the streets of Cairo and all my brain could think of was, “whoa.”

And, oh, yes, another thought: “they did it. They actually did it!”

Because I remember the anger and frustration of the days past. Those eighteen days of the Uprising wasn’t exactly all about epic tales of heroism and courage. There were at least two times there when the thinking was dangerously leaning to “this is a lost cause,” and that palpable sense of impending violence just a night or two ago after Mubarak didn’t step down.

It was a good thing, then, that the people of Egypt are far more steadfast.

If I’m right, the discussion now has shifted to the “so, what (do we do) now?” questions. There are the hopes that, because of the way this Revolution began, spread, was nurtured, reinvigorated and ultimately triumphed, what we’re seeing right now is the birth of a new age. Tunisia was the catalyst, but it is here, it is hoped, on the streets of a land whose civilization is one of the oldest of humanity, and the largest Arab nation in the world, that the hope for a better world was reborn.

But, the old world refuses to die easily, it seems. Even the exuberant anchors of CNN, some of them, like Anderson Cooper and Hala Gorani, themselves getting involved in the Uprising as victims of its violence, couldn’t help but voice out the concerns about where this could possibly lead. But who can blame them? Who can blame those of us who are familiar with the way politics and power works?

One of the strengths of the Revolution could be its own undoing: its lack of clear organization and leadership. Cynical as it may sound, but ideals and idealism, that fiery, world-changing fervor of the young, is good at tearing down oppressive systems but withers in the face of the demands and realities of politics, of the running of a country, of the relationships between those who do wield power.

I think one of the major worries right now is that, because of the lack of leadership among those who made it succeed – the young of Egypt – this Revolution will be hijacked.

And isn’t history replete with stories of such? How many successful uprisings with wonderful ideals were co-opted by those with lesser morals and have clear agendas? “Good men die easy,” to paraphrase a favorite quote of one king in Brandon Sanderson’s Well of Ascension. Good men like Google executive Wael Ghorim might not be in a position of leadership after because of what he is: a good man. He’s not a hero, he insists. When asked if he can be one of the leaders of a new Egypt, he said he’s done his part and will let other people handle it (or something like that).

Good men, after all, don’t crave power. Unfortunately, men with lesser virtues do.

But then, this nigh-endless scenario building is what drives analysts crazy. Especially for us who’ve been active in what Hannah Arendt calls the “Public Sphere” for so long, there is always a touch of cynicism in our analysis. We don’t dare hope, because you’ve been disappointed so many times. You’ve seen this before, and Hollywood couldn’t have made a less palatable sequel than the aftermaths of glorious revolutions like the one just finished in Egypt.

But it was so easy to think Mubarak would win in the end, yes? That the aspirations of the people of Egypt would be frustrated, in one way or another. Like I said, you’ve seen how this movie played out before, so many times.

Yet… what if we’re wrong?

Maybe it’s time for us to stop being so cynical about this, so… realistic, so… Machiavellian. We who say we stand for the ideals of liberalism, truth, justice and freedom have been working under their rules, thinking that the only we can save freedom and democracy is to be just as harsh, just as… pragmatic as the forces we do battle against. To maintain a world we think is stable and relatively peaceful, we sacrifice our ideals and millions of people. We make Faustian bargains with the dictators of this world so, we think, we can keep the barbarians at the frontiers.

The Revolution in Egypt might be telling us that it’s time for us who have long lived under skies that are free, to the point that we take our liberties and freedom for granted, to practice what we preach. Maybe it’s time to tell the dictators of the world that we’d rather have their people free than purchase our stability with the crushed hopes and dreams and the blood of their country’s citizens.

For isn’t that what we, the West and its longtime democratic allies like the Philippines, have been doing since the end of World War II? Our relatively stable world, paid for in the blood and dreams of repressed people everywhere.

I know politics and power are complex worlds; for more than ten years I operated in that world, leaving it in disgust after my heroes and champions proved to be as demonic as the creatures we fought against.

But maybe that’s why we are more familiar with sorrow and frustration in the public sphere: we’ve compromised for so long that what’s right and proper is their rules, their values, not ours.

Maybe it’s time to draw a line on the concrete with our own blood. Maybe it’s time to throw away Machiavelli, to ditch pragmatism, and embrace our ideals in full. Maybe it’s time to tell people all over the world who want to be free that, yes, we who are free will stand with you.

Do what you must, know no fear and break your chains, for the Free World, for the first time in truth since the victory against the Axis in 1946, stand with you.

Maybe it’s time to not look at the problems such an unplanned and unorganized revolution might bring to the world order, but at the possibilities that can and will arise when men, women and children who only wish for a return to decency and justice in their lives, who aspire to freedom, take back their country and their destiny.

After all, remember that, in the middle of the Uprising, Christian Egyptians protected their Muslim brothers and sisters as they prayed, and the Muslims protected the Christians as they held a Mass on Tahrir Square. Think hard about the significance of this event, especially after all the religious violence and intolerance since 9/11.

Or, how the anti-Mubarak protesters have not only kept their actions as non-violent as possible, but organized responses to the crisis they faced, like neighborhood watches to keep thugs and looters at bay, or those field clinics to care for the wounded, or even those people cleaning after the demonstrations. As one amazing young Egyptian woman said when asked why she was cleaning and for no compensation at all, “it’s my country; I want to help.”

So what are we afraid of?

We’ve worked under pragmatic and realistic rules for more than six decades, anyway, and look where it’s got us. Maybe it’s time to do it differently, yes?

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