Hoover Daily Report

Egypt's 'Heroes With No Names'

via Wall Street Journal
Saturday, February 12, 2011

He took pride in the claim that he would not quit the land, would not give up his country to chaos. His apologists said that he should be given the time to write his own legacy. But the abdication of Hosni Mubarak had become inevitable. Deaf to the sounds of his own country, blind to the disaffection with him and his reign, Mr. Mubarak gave it all before reality set in.

He alternated inducements and threats. He sent the goons of the Ministry of Interior to stir up trouble, in the hope that his people would be scared back into obedience and that they would call upon him to rein in the chaos. He threw overboard loyalists who had once been in his inner circle and promised he would prosecute businessmen and functionaries who had sown corruption and state terror through the land. In a final twist, he came up with a transparent piece of sophistry: He would give up the powers of the presidency to his vice president while keeping the office itself.

Nothing worked for this isolated ruler. He had grown remote and imperious. And in Midan al-Tahrir, Liberation Square, the aged ruler saw a whole new country emerge before his startled eyes. Young and old had come together, a savvy Internet generation was joined by laborers who had shed their timidity in the face of pervasive power. There had always been a great Egyptian pride in their country. This love of home, the desire to retrieve the country from the grip of the autocrat and his retainers, now animated a hitherto submissive population.

An old friend reached me from Egypt, an American-educated architect of deep culture and civility in his mid-70s. "Gamal Abdul Nasser and Anwar Al Sadat and Hosni Mubarak had taken away from me the love of my country," he said. "I despaired of our people, thought they had given up liberty for this mediocre tyranny. Then on January 28, leaving the Friday prayer, I saw an endless stream of humanity, heading to Liberation Square. I never thought I would live to see this moment, these people in that vast crowd, they gave me back my love of my country."

We do not yet know when the truth of that tumultuous world beyond the isolation of his presidential palace finally shook the indifference and disdain with which Mr. Mubarak had treated this upheaval. The protesters had surprised him, and in the process they had surprised themselves. "Heroes with no names" was the title an Egyptian studying in Canada gave to the leaders of this uprising.

No turbaned ayatollah had stepped forth to summon the crowd. This was not Iran in 1979. A young Google executive, Wael Ghonim, had energized this protest when it might have lost heart, when it could have succumbed to the belief that this regime and its leader were a big, immovable object. Mr. Ghonim was a man of the modern world. He was not driven by piety. The condition of his country—the abject poverty, the crony economy of plunder and corruption, the cruelties and slights handed out to Egyptians in all walks of life by a police state that the people had outgrown and despaired of—had given this young man and others like him their historical warrant.

It will be said that this revolution is likely to be betrayed or hijacked, that the hardliners and the theocrats are certain to prevail at the end of the day. The so-called "realists" will argue that this is a people without the requisites of democracy, without the political experience that would sustain a reasonably democratic polity.

Then there is the concern that the stability provided to Pax Americana by this regime for three decades will be torn apart. But this view misses the dark side of the bargain we made with the autocrat: We had befriended him but enraged his population.

He had been a cruel and effective cop on the banks of the Nile, but the furies repressed in Egypt had come America's way. The jihadists who hadn't been able to overthrow Mr. Mubarak had struck at American targets instead. We must remember that Mohamed Atta and Ayman Zawahiri were bred in the tyrannical republic of Hosni Mubarak.

Zawahiri, the vengeful Cairene aristocrat, had been explicit about that. He had drawn a distinction between what he called the "near enemy" (the Mubarak regime) and the "far enemy"—the United States. The hatred of America that drove Zawahiri was derivative of his hatred for the regime that had both imprisoned and tortured him in the aftermath of the assassination of Anwar Sadat.

The bargain with Mr. Mubarak was not a brilliant, unalloyed success. American officials managing the Egyptian-American relationship had not been entirely in the dark about the workings of this bargain. Several years ago, in the aftermath of the decapitation of the Saddam regime in Baghdad, the administration of George W. Bush had made a run at Hosni Mubarak: They wanted him to open up his country, give it a badly needed dose of reform. They had taken notice of the anti-Americanism and the antimodernism of his regime. He had belittled the Iraq war and declared it a project of folly. He had spoken openly of Iraq's need for the heavy hand of a strongman. Democracy was not for the Arabs—not now—this autocrat of the barracks proclaimed.

Mr. Mubarak waited out that American moment of enthusiasm. He appealed to his country's nativism. He didn't have to worry. The Bush administration would soon abandon its "diplomacy of freedom." It had done heavy, burdensome work in Iraq, and it would now leave well enough alone. Mr. Mubarak then smashed a nascent challenge to his tyranny: a fragile liberal movement whose name alone summed up the alienation between pharaoh and his people: Kifaya, "Enough!"

Umm al-Dunya, the mother of the world, Egyptians and other Arabs call the fabled city of Cairo. It had been there, in that city founded a millennium ago, that Islam fashioned a civilization, made its peace with the world, outwitted and outwaited conquerors.

Egyptians know that this Arab revolution of 2011—and the upheaval has earned that name—had not begun in their metropolis, that it had travelled eastward from Tunisia. When that revolt arrived in Cairo, it found a stage worthy of its ambitions. For decades now, Egypt has been the lens through which Arabs see their history. This is the case today. A new Arab politics has spawned in Liberation Square, a movement of a piece with the modern ways of protest and reform.

It will be said that the great, enduring dilemmas of Egypt—a huge country that has lost out in the game of nations—will still be there. There will be accounts to settle, a struggle between those who were sullied by the dictatorship and those who weren't. The Egyptians will be tested again as to their fidelity to democratic ways. But if this standoff that ended in the demise of the dictator is any guide, the Egyptians may give us a consoling tale of an Islamic people who rose to proclaim their fidelity to liberty, and who provided us with a reminder that tyranny is not fated for the Arabs.

Mr. Ajami is a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.