If the world has a heart, it beats now for Egypt. Not, of course, the Egypt of President Hosni Mubarak—with the rigged elections, the censored press, the axed Internet, the black-clad security police and the tanks and the torture chambers—but the Egypt of the intrepid ordinary citizens who, almost entirely unarmed, with little more than their physical presence in the streets and their prayers, in the name of justice and freedom, are defying this whole apparatus of intimidation and violence. Their courage and sacrifice have given new life to the spirit of the nonviolent democratic resistance to dictatorship symbolized by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. That event in fact symbolized a longer wave of revolutions that, spreading like a brush fire, swept dozens of dictators out of power, from Spain in the mid-’70s to Poland in the ’80s, to the “color revolutions” of the early twenty-first century. But that global contagion seemed to be flagging recently. Now dictators all over the world are on their guard again. In Saudi Arabia the monarchy is looking over its shoulder. Yemen is on notice. In China the word “Egypt” has been censored on the Internet: the Egyptian autocrats removed the Internet from Egypt; the Chinese autocrats removed Egypt from the Internet.
Egypt presents in full the unfathomed and perhaps unfathomable mystery of revolution. For decades, the structure of an oppressive state rises above society, murderous, imperturbable, implacable. The torture chambers are operating twenty-four hours a day. The nation’s wealth flows to secret accounts abroad. The rich and privileged sit contented in their gated communities. “And the hapless Soldier’s sigh/Runs in blood down Palace walls” (Blake). Often the sovereign bows to a foreign paymaster. A fog of propaganda fills the air like poison gas. The Leader’s portrait covers office buildings. Unaccountable bureaucracy tangles up the country in a thousand absurd regulations. Leonid Brezhnev snores in the Kremlin, his “dead hand” hovering over the nuclear button. Imelda Marcos communes with her 3,000 pairs of shoes in her colossal shoe closet. Ben Ali sips cocktails in his resort in Hammamet. Nothing, it seems, will ever change, can ever change. In the words of Nadezhda Mandelstam regarding Stalin’s rule, “There was a special form of the sickness—lethargy, plague, hypnotic trance or whatever one calls it, that affected all those who committed terrible deeds. All the murderers, provocateurs and informers had one feature in common: it never occurred to them that their victims might one day rise up again and speak.” Only a few “dissident” voices break the calm, and most of them are in jail or in exile.
But then suddenly a tremor runs through the entire edifice. A few thousand people come out in the street, then tens of thousands, then, appearing as if by magic, hundreds of thousands all around the country. And somehow this rebellion—breaking out in only a few days—can be enough. Its spirit touches a nerve in something like the whole nation, which awakes, and with amazing ease sheds the long-hated yet tolerated regime. (In nearby Tunisia, the fuse that set off the Egyptian bomb, it took only twenty-three days from the beginning of the uprising for Ben Ali to get on his plane to Saudi Arabia.) Suddenly, all the rules change, all the old relationships of command and subservience are reversed, and the structures of power begin to dissolve. Later, scholars will ferret out signs of what was to come and even find “causes” of the revolt, but the fact is that revolutions are the least anticipated of all events, taking the world again and again by surprise.
Still, we know a few things about what happens at such moments. A people long overawed by state violence throws off fear, and in a flash begins to act courageously. Courage becomes as contagious as the fear once was, and millions suddenly practice disobedience and defiance. At that moment, the dictator’s writ runs no longer, and the plane to Saudi Arabia beckons. In Hannah Arendt’s words, “The situation changes abruptly. Not only is the rebellion not put down but the arms themselves change hands—sometimes, as in the Hungarian revolution, within a few hours…. The sudden dramatic breakdown of power that ushers in revolution reveals in a flash how civil obedience—to laws, to rulers, to institutions—is but the outward manifestation of support and consent.”