I’ve been both nervous and excited to watch the events in Egypt unfold over the past few weeks. After visiting some friends in Cairo in 2007, the nation remains a special place to me. Seeing some of those friends disappear from Facebook from a few days at the end of January gave me an ominous feeling that things wouldn’t turn out well. It seemed for a while that the long-held belief that Mubarak could never be dislodged was being tested to its limits, only to be reinforced with a bloody crackdown.
This victory doesn’t just change the regime in Egypt, it changes the mindset of the Egyptian people and beyond. After the Tunisian revolution, some people in Egypt started to imagine that it could happen there, but many others still didn’t. In fact, the friend I stayed with in Cairo was traveling through Europe for work when the protests started and wasn’t expecting much of anything to come of them. A week later, he was trying to get back into the country to join the chorus of Egyptians who’d despised Mubarak for years but felt powerless to do anything about it. Today Egyptians feel a greater sense of having the power to bring about change on their own. And other long-repressed peoples are starting to believe that they can too.
Eight years ago, as we were preparing to enter Iraq, many supporters of the invasion believed that toppling Saddam Hussein’s regime would be the domino that inspires others to rise up against their own oppressors, but it never happened. Instead, Iraq descended into bloody civil war and authoritarian countries like Iran were able to tighten their grip. It was never well-understood that in order for totalitarianism to give way to democracy, the people of that country have to fight that battle themselves. We can’t make that transition for them. The Egyptian people didn’t – and still don’t – need our help to build a nation with greater freedom and democratic values. They just risked their lives for it. They know what they want – and if left alone, they’ll build it. And that’s more likely to be the impetus that brings greater freedom and democracy to that entire region.