Back in January, when the streets of Cairo began to fill with young men chanting slogans against Hosni Mubarak’s government, many Americans were alarmed. Sweat slowly started to pour off the faces of Egypt’s ruling class, and soon thereafter the White House began to feel the pressure of the crowds swelling downtown Cairo in a blatant display of defiance, especially since much of the foreign funding for Mubarak’s 30-year reign originated in Washington. It was a familiar sight on TV: disgruntled Middle Eastern men shouting something indiscernible; this was quickly interpreted as being unbeneficial to the United States. I mean why else do Middle Eastern men chant anything in the street?
On Jan. 25, 2011, Egyptians, for the first time in their history, just as their Tunisian brothers had done that same month, banded together and demanded something no one predicted: democracy! Democracy sounds a little different in Egyptian Arabic. Perhaps this is why so many people in the U.S. seemed reluctant to support the crowds of people that continued to throng Tahrir Square by the hundreds of thousands. No nation was more tight-lipped or hesitant to support Egypt’s cries for freedom than Israel — the self-titled “only democracy in the Middle East.” Why is it that so many were unwilling to support the Egyptians’ cries for self-determination?
The street scenes in Cairo undoubtedly roused memorable images from the Islamic revolution that rocked Iran in 1979. In fact, this is the very reason many people worried about the latest episode of unrest in the Middle East. The line of reasoning is that if anyone in that part of the world is in the streets, it’s usually not to our benefit. To the contrary, the U.S. — and the West — has little reason to view the uprising in Egypt with too much hesitancy. Improvements in human rights and heightened democratic institutions can only bridge gaps between east and west. Modernizing the Middle East will discredit fundamentalists who often recruit uneducated, impoverished people.
Let it be some indication that while Egyptians finally stood together against the Mubarak government, the largest, most well-organized opposition political party in Egypt had little presence. The Muslim Brotherhood didn’t even know about the planned protests until after they started. Further, they didn’t publicly support the protests until they understood the scale of the uprising. In Egypt the focus of the protests and the protesters was the desperate need for a change. Conversely, the American media spent a great deal of time trifling as to the likelihood of the Muslim Brotherhood taking power and establishing an Islamic state.
The simple reality is that a group of young people, who have little-to-no interest in religiously-infused politics, gave birth to these protests. These protests actually oppose and undermine the very concept of religious fundamentalism. The initial organizers of this revolution, people like Google executive Wael Ghonim, are democracy craving, technology consuming, secularists, who wish for nothing more than a higher level of government accountability. Reference those YouTube videos of Tahrir Square and you’ll notice a good number of women chanting alongside their male counterparts. Woman chanting in the streets, democracy and secularism are concepts exceedingly opposed to the dogma that Al-Qaeda preaches, which essentially advocates rewinding the clock to the 14th century; and the popularity of these cries for democracy should be a good indication of the average Egyptians interest in extremism.
Extreme religious groups exist in the Middle East because they are the hardest to squash. Regimes like Mubarak’s have maintained their overextended rule by forbidding any political opposition to form — this includes extremists and liberals. Because religious groups can meet in the privacy of a mosque for prayer, it is nearly impossible to prevent some sort of religiously inclined political groups to form. All other groups, however, don’t have this luxury and have therefore been unable to advance their cause. Some of the support for groups like the Muslim Brotherhood can be attributed to the fact that it was the only standing oppositional force to Mubarak and his authoritative rule.
What people watching from the sidelines should hope for Egyptians — for all people of the Middle East — is a real change toward more democratic institutions and fair elections. I don’t fantasize to think that Egypt can have a Western-modeled democracy overnight; significant political change takes time and it must be realized by its own people. Remember that Europe was overrun for centuries by tyrannical monarchs before evolving into the beacon of self-determination that it is today. Egypt must likewise take its own steps to rid itself of tyranny and corruption. Until the world sees a new Egyptian president elected through legitimate means, Egyptians will continue to be in the streets and we should hope to see them there.
Mustafa Eck is an Egyptian-American filmmaker based in Santa Monica. He was in Cairo just days before the recent Egyptian revolution filming an Egyptian hip-hop video and an upcoming documentary about misconceptions of the Middle East titled “Ana Mish Fahim” or “I don’t understand.”