Words like ‘uprising’ and ‘revolution’ only hint at the scale of events in Egypt, which have already reverberated across Yemen, Jordan, Syria and even Saudi Arabia, offering a new template for change in a region that long reeled from its own sense of stagnation. “Every Egyptian understands now,” said Magdi al-Sayyid, one of the protesters.
The protesters have spoken for themselves to a government that, like many across West Asia, treated them as a nuisance. For years, pundits have predicted that Islamists would be the force that toppled governments across the Arab world. But so far, they have been submerged in an outpouring of popular dissent that speaks to a unity of message, however fleeting — itself a sea change in the region’s political landscape. In the vast panorama of Tahrir Square on Wednesday, Egyptians were stationed at makeshift barricades, belying pat dismissals of the power of the Arab street. “The street is not afraid of governments anymore,” said Shawki al-Qadi, an opposition lawmaker in Yemen, itself roiled by change. “It is the opposite. Governments and their security forces are afraid of the people now. The new generation, the generation of the internet, is fearless. They want their full rights, and they want life, a dignified life.”
Dignity’ was a word often used on Wednesday, and its emphasis underlined the breadth of a movement that is, so far, leaderless. Neither the Brotherhood nor a handful of opposition leaders — men like Mohammed ElBaradei or Ayman Nour — have managed to articulate hopelessness, the humiliations at the hands of the police and the outrage at having too little money to marry, echoed in the streets of Palestinian camps in Jordan and in the urban misery of Baghdad’s Sadr City. The lack of an alternative may have led to the uprising, making the street the last option for not only the young and dispossessed but also virtually every element of Egypt’s population — turbaned clerics, businessmen from wealthy suburbs, film directors and well-to-do engineers. Months ago, despair at the prospect of change in the Arab world was commonplace. Protesters on Wednesday acted as though they were making a last stand at what they had won, in an uprising that is distinctly nationalist.
The word ‘traitor’ rang out on Wednesday. The insult was directed at Mubarak, and it echoed the sentiment heard in so many parts of the Arab world these days — governments of an American-backed order in most of the region have lost their legitimacy, built on the idea that people would surrender their rights for the prospect of security and stability. In the square, protesters offered an alternative, their empowerment standing as possibly the most remarkable legacy of a people who often lamented their apathy.
From minute-by-minute coverage on Arabic channels to conversations from Iraq to Morocco, West Asia watched breathlessly at a moment as compelling as any in the Arab world in a lifetime. For the first time in a generation, Arabs seem to be looking again to Egypt for leadership, and that sense of destiny was voiced throughout the day.
“I tell the Arab world to stand with us until we win our freedom,” said Khaled Yusuf, a cleric from Al Azhar, a once esteemed institution of religious scholarship now beholden to the government. “Once we do, we’re going to free the Arab world.”
For decades, the Arab world has waited for a saviour — be it Gamal Abdel-Nasser, the charismatic Egyptian president, or even, for a time, Saddam Hussein. No one is waiting for a saviour now. Before nearly three decades of accumulated authority — the power of a state that can mobilise thousands to heed its whims — people had themselves.
“I’m fighting for my freedom,” Noha al-Ustaz said as she broke bricks on the curb. “For my right to express myself. For an end to oppression. For an end to injustice.” “Go forward,” the cries rang out, and she did, disappearing into a sea of men.
Also watch: This vlog was recorded on January 18th by Asmaa Mahfouz, the girl who helped start it all. She had shared it on her Facebook, and it had gone viral. It was so powerful and so popular, that it drove Egyptians by the thousands into Tahrir Square.