In Bleak Cairo, a Call for Optimism

People in the street ask me: “Where is Egypt heading? Were we mocked?” They lament, “The revolution is stolen; the revolution is dead; the revolution is lost. We were deceived. History is repeating itself.”

Indeed, as Egyptians went to the polls yesterday for the first parliamentary elections since President Hosni Mubarak resigned in February, there was much to be pessimistic about: polarization, alienation, the absence of any clear sign that the military council would hand over authority to an elected president next year, uncertainty over the outcome of the election and a crisis of confidence within political movements and parties.

Months have gone by without any meaningful change in how the country is governed. The military is not listening to the angry youths who led the revolution; some have been arrested, tried in military courts and thrown into military prisons. Leaders of the former regime have been tried in ordinary courts, despite the gravity of their crimes against the nation. Each day that passes without a clear road map for radical change in the management of our country leads young people to feel more frustrated and driven to escalate the situation.

But I believe that anyone participating in effecting change cannot be a pessimist. This is why, when it comes to Egypt’s future, I am an optimist. Revolution is a process; its failure and success cannot be measured after only a few months, or even years. We must continue to believe.

Egyptians have many demands. We want the military to quickly present a timetable for a complete transfer of power to civil authorities elected by the people: the People’s Assembly (lower house), the Shura Council (upper house) and the presidency. We want the security system to be rebuilt, based on respect for human rights. We want the military to open dialogue with the young people, and to increase transparency by communicating openly through the media. We want a strong government with the authority to fight rampant corruption within its own institutions.

My parents grew up in a corrupt regime, a security state dominated by one man, without any opportunity to express themselves. They were taught to chant proverbs like “live your life and mind your own business,” “one who fears, lives in peace,” “walk alongside the wall,” “cowardice is the highest morality.”

A mentality born of repression cannot be changed overnight. And yet I am optimistic, for the following reasons.

First, a large sector of Egyptian society, especially the younger generation, has overcome its fears to speak out about issues that only a few months ago would have been too frightening and intimidating to discuss openly. Even if, as critics say, they number merely 1 million people — 1 million out of 82 million — they constitute a critical mass with the ability to influence the inner circles of power, and the potential to become the conscience of a nation.

A second factor is the spread of mass media. In the past, the success or failure of a revolution depended partly on who controlled the media. Today more than 15 million Egyptians are connected to the Internet, where they can monitor the situation, speak out against corruption and resist any attempt to brainwash them with deceitful propaganda. With ease, young people can make and share short films, spread ideas or write songs for their cause.

Third, a new sector of civil society has emerged, working quietly to redirect the country’s course. Previously, most volunteer work was in the form of short-term aid to the poor. Such charity, benevolent as it was, failed to provide real solutions to the underlying problems of joblessness, powerlessness and voicelessness. Now many groups are starting to apply systematic pressure on the authorities. Labor and agriculture unions have been formed; trade unions, freed from state control, have held real elections.

Fourth, Egypt is a young society. Half of Egyptians are under the age of 25, compared to a world average of 44 percent (33 percent in the United States). Comfortable with technology, and characterized by rebelliousness, fearlessness and risk-taking, these young people have the frame of mind required for the next stage of Egypt’s revolution. Many are well educated and well employed, in a strong position to contribute to the renaissance of the country.

Finally, an unprecedented number of youths are engaged in political activities, from founding or joining political parties to running as candidates in the parliamentary elections. This is particularly healthy because it generates the political experience needed in the long run to lead the country.

I am optimistic because a courageous Egyptian faced an armored vehicle and forced it to stop. I am optimistic because a group of lawyers demanded the right of Egyptians living abroad to vote in national elections. I am optimistic because children as young as 10 have taken part in the demonstrations against the military, chanting, “the people want to bring down the regime.” I am optimistic because 18 million people turned out in March to vote in a referendum on constitutional changes.

The issue is not absolute optimism, but optimism through action. Beyond a demonstration or a sit-in or a march, our revolution will succeed only if we transform anger and fear into real actions intended to solve real, specific problems.

Be optimistic: we are writing history.

By Wael Ghonim, computer engineer and Internet activist. This essay was translated by Clement Salama from the Arabic.

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