Like millions I followed the events in Cairo last January and February on Al-Jazeera. What transpired seemed too good to be true: that a people could rise up and almost entirely without violence overthrow a sclerotic dictatorship buttressed by a kleptocracy reinforced by foreign powers. But everything fell almost magically into place: the Muslim Brotherhood played a responsible, modest role; the military proved unwilling to fire on their fellow citizens. And hundreds of thousands of Egyptians were willing to mobilize, peacefully, day after day. With scarcely a shot fired, Mubarak was toppled. Revolution in Arab world’s culturally dominant country seemed to herald a much broader regional liberation, terrifying in equal measure to the feudal Gulf sheikdoms and the Israeli occupiers of Palestine.
Of course it was too good to be true. The revolution stalled; soon it was clear that the military, though unwilling to fire on protesters to maintain Mubarak, had not relinquished control over the country. As one activist put it last week after an Egyptian military court dissolved the revolution’s one concrete achievement, the elected parliament, “The system was like a machine with a plastic cover, and what we did was knock off the cover.”
I would wager the mobilization of millions in Tahrir has not been for naught. Throughout the Arab world, hundreds of millions of people have glimpsed that political freedom is possible — even if its prospects seem remote right now. Egypt may be without its elected parliament and witnessing a run-off presidential contest between two candidates who inspire neither confidence nor passion. But last year won’t be erased from the minds of those who went through it. In 1848, Europe’s monarchs managed to rally and restore themselves after the “springtime of peoples” but their restoration was short-lived. Similarly, it is difficult to imagine the spirits of Tahir can be put back into the bottle.
Despite the Egyptian regression, the Mideast is already closer to liberty than it was twenty years ago. Turkey is a functioning democracy. Iran is partially democratic — with active civil-society opposition movements percolating under the mullahs. Tunisia — so far — proves that Islamist and secular forces can co-exist. In Palestine, Israel is finding it difficult to suppress a civil society and burgeoning non-violent resistance. It is difficult to imagine that Egypt’s generals, who have poured cold water on Tahir, will be able restore a Mubarak regime without Mubarak.
For insights from Cairo, the blog of Egyptian American journalist Issandr el Amanri is always worth checking.