As the Egyptian uprising turns the corner from the “liberation” phase of revolution (appropriately carried to completion in Cairo’s Liberation Square) and proceeds to what is classically the next phase, foundation of a new order, it’s fitting to pause and reflect for a moment on what has already been everlastingly accomplished. As usual, the intrepid Egyptians in the square said it best, in a slogan of extraordinary simplicity, power and eloquence. It was born in the moment Egypt’s vice-president and notorious torture-master Omar Suleiman, looking ashen as a corpse, announced the fall of President Hosni Mubarak. In the eighteen days leading up to that moment, the crowds in the Square had been chanting, “We are staying. Mubarak must go!” Now they chanted, “Here, here, the Egyptians are here!” or simply “We are here!”
Simple as it is, this brilliant and deeply original chant has two parts. First, “We are here.” All honor to the social media, which played an important galvanizing role in the revolution. But there never was a successful revolution without tangible (not merely virtual) human beings showing themselves bodily in public en masse in the streets and squares of the country. Egypt was no exception. Yes, all politics is local, and sometimes it is also hands on, or if you like, existential. It was so in Liberation Square. To “stay” meant to court death. Physical presence was a flag of courage. And the essence of the spirit of this revolution (as of so many others) was the casting off of fear and the donning of courage. "Freedom," roared the jubilant crush of humanity. Patrick Henry’s saying is hoary, but the Egyptians breathed new life to it: “Give me liberty or give me death!”
And death came. More than 300 were killed. They were not “here” any more. But weren’t they? Really, they were more present than those alive—more consequential, more potent. For one thing, their commemorative photos were immediately displayed. A larger rally in remembrance of them is scheduled for next week. Spiritually, and even politically—or at that juncture where the spirit and politics meet—they were even more strongly present than the living. They had the strength of martyrs. "Be happy martyrs, for today we feast at your victory," the crowd sang. The first to assume this role prominently was Khaled Said, the young man who had exposed police corruption in a drug deal and then been dragged out of an Internet café by policemen and beaten to death. An Internet movement called “We are all Khaled Said” went viral and was one of the precursor events to the revolution. The murder of the 300 people, it may be, was the event that sealed Mubarak’s doom. When people are afraid, murders make them take flight. But when they have thrown off fear, murders have the opposite effect and make them bold. Instead of fear, they feel solidarity. Then they “stay”—and advance. And there is no solidarity like solidarity with the dead. That is the stuff of which revolution is made.
The slogan also meant “We are here.” The here meant the Liberation Square, defended at such a high cost when regime thugs attacked the demonstrators. The Egyptians refused to be fugitives in their own country. That “here” was not only defended, it was cared for, like a garden, as if in acknowledgment that the foundation to be laid was not for a season only. Certain garbage-collection and street-cleaning activities have already been woven into the legend of the revolution. But the here was also Egypt. As one Haisam Abu-Sabra told the Guardian, "For the first time in my life tonight, I say proudly: I am Egyptian.” Individual courage created collective pride. Individual dignity fed national dignity. The garbage heading for the dumpster—the torture, oppression, corruption and social injustice—was national as well as local. A joke making the rounds during the uprising, as related by the historian of the Middle East Juan Cole, reflected the sense of the wider “we” and wider “here.” A military man informs Mubarak that his relationship to the Egyptian people must now end. “Oh, really,” he responds. “Where are they going?” It was the latest variation on Bertolt Brecht’s old saying that the rulers were going to dismiss the people and elect another.
The widening circles of meaning are even more extensive. Millions throughout the Middle East were rejoicing as if they were Egyptians, and beginning to take action in their own countries, with incalculable consequences. And the repercussions are of course wider still. The long history of nonviolent, democratic movements that began in Southern Europe (Greece, Portugal, Spain) extended to Asia (South Korea, the Philippines) and to Eastern Europe and the great Soviet Union and elsewhere has been no respecter of national boundaries. A reason is that the spirit of freedom, unlike military conquest, is unconfined by geography. It flashes from mind to mind. It has come to Egypt and now radiates outward from Egypt. We who are so far a mere audience of the Egyptian liberation took no hand in it and can claim no credit, but isn’t there a kind of participation that lives alongside great events as they occur far away, and doesn’t this, too, change hearts and minds? Is it too much to gratefully claim that, in this sense, “we are here,” too?