I’d been looking forward to greeting my Egyptian students Sunday, the first day of the spring semester at American University in Cairo. Instead, classes have been canceled and Egypt burns.
I am hunkered down in my apartment with the cat. Outside, gunshots ring out through the night. My local supermarket was looted and burned, and our landlord, Tareq, came by Saturday to say that he and other neighbors have barricaded our street and formed a private militia to protect us from the anarchy.
Yet I have never been more optimistic about Egypt’s future.
Whatever happens next — and there is still plenty of time for the government to do something stupid — this youth-led revolt on the Nile will somehow prevail. I believe we are witnessing the Middle East’s equivalent of Berlin in 1989. A profound political transformation is underway, and in the end it is likely to result, finally, in a legitimate government of the people for the largest Arab nation and create a model for the region.
As an American journalist who has lived and traveled in the Middle East for 30 years, I am dumbfounded — and dismayed — that President Obama hasn’t fully grasped what is happening. I can’t understand why he has hesitated to fully embrace Egypt’s freedom movement.
On June 4, 2009, I was at Cairo University when Obama told Egyptians that he sought a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world: “I do have an unyielding belief,” he said, “that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed.” He now has a chance to stand with people who are speaking their mind and demanding a say in their governance.
Change is seldom orderly. But Obama needn’t worry that what is happening in Egypt will bring lasting instability. Nor is it likely to usher in an Iranian-style Islamist regime.
This push to transform Egypt is coming from a broad nationalist movement. I know officials in the Mubarak regime whose sons are in the protests. My students have taken to the streets, as have the children of my friends. These are ordinary people, inspired by a simple desire for freedom. The best insurance of stability in relations between Egypt and the United States is a good relationship between our government and a democratic Egyptian government supported by the people.
The popular revolt we are witnessing is largely the work of the young. More than half of Egypt’s population is under 25, and they long for a government that represents them and allows them basic freedoms of speech and movement. The Muslim Brotherhood joined the protest late in the game. Though it is the largest opposition group, it by no means enjoys overwhelming support, and its leaders are for the most part moderate and responsible. The favorite slogan of the protesters is “Game Over,” not “Allahu akbar,” Arabic for “God is great.” And though most Egyptians resent U.S. policies in the Middle East, there has been no notable anti-American sentiment in the protests.
Yes, there have been looting and destruction. But that was inevitable in a country with so much economic desperation and anger toward those in power. In the coming weeks and months, I have no doubt Egypt will move forward in a more orderly way. Its 80 million people are proud of their country, both of its extraordinary ancient civilization and its distinctive modern culture. They celebrate national symbols such as the incomparable singer Umm Kulthum; immortal writers such as Taha Hussein and Naguib Mahfouz; and dazzling athletes such as Mohamed Aboutrika, star of Cairo’s beloved Al Ahly football club. And if Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei has been scorned by Mubarak’s regime, that has only made him more of a hero to Egyptians. Neither Egyptians nor their leaders are radical or xenophobic. Their patience and good humor are legendary — and unfailingly noted by the more than 10 million foreign tourists a year who encounter their warm hospitality.
I couldn’t love Egypt more if I were Egyptian. My wife and I lived in Cairo for three years in the mid-1980s and have done so for the last 13 years. Our daughter, Sophie, grew up here, and when she left last year for college in the United States, she touched me by announcing her intention of having the Arabic word for Cairo tattooed on her wrist. In her college printmaking class, she produced a triptych — now on the door of my university office — of a Cairo taxi, a Ramadan lantern and the Giza pyramids.
I know that the protests have touched Sophie’s heart. When I glanced at her Facebook page Saturday, I saw that she has unfurled an Egyptian flag there, in solidarity with the young Egyptians crying for freedom on the streets of her hometown. Our president should express America’s solidarity too.
By Scott MacLeod, a professor at the American University in Cairo and managing editor of the Cairo Review of Global Affairs. He was Time magazine’s Middle East correspondent from 1995 to 2010.