The Slow Slog Forward

Cairo, Egypt

Sometimes it seems that Egyptians have just gone mad with people power. The handicapped are camped out on Kasr al-Aini Street, tents have gone back up on Tahrir for various causes, there’s a solidarity demonstration of some sort in front of the Arab League every day, and different workers are on strike every day. And over and over, in taxis and stores and metro cars and coffee shops, you hear the same refrain: “There’s no more government! There’s no more order!” While a few Egyptians are mad with people power, most of them are slowly wearying of constant disruption by protesters.

Here’s what I think is going on. 6 of April and other organizations of young people have very clear insight into the democratic process. I remember how impressed I was on 1 February when the pro-Mubarak supporters first started to appear. Everywhere I went, I heard pro-democracy protesters engaging Mubarak’s supporters (or trying to) in quiet exchanges of opinion. They demonstrated a clear understanding that real democracy is about dialogue with the opposition. Others used tactics from Balkan nonviolent resistance movements like hugging policemen and chanting for national unity to show that they wanted respectful discourse with the regime and its security apparatus.

What these youth movements didn’t have was hierarchy or leadership. They did this deliberately. It was all part and parcel of their message that despotism and the cult of personality wasn’t getting Egypt anywhere they wanted to be. Perhaps they even have the humility to recognize that while they were able to topple their government, they don’t have the skills or experience to constitute a new one. Community organizing is one thing, but not all community organizers are Barack Obama! Unfortunately, no one has yet stepped up who does have the skills and experience, or even the charisma to lead the New Egypt.

What we’re seeing instead is evidence of the part of democracy that Egypt hasn’t quite wrapped its head around yet. Yes, demonstrations and nonviolent resistance are powerful tools to end a policy, law, institution or regime you don’t like. That, however, is the easy part of democracy. It’s where we go from here that’s difficult, and a hundred people pitching tents on Tahrir Square is not going to build institutions, write laws, implement policies or in other words, govern the most populous country in the Arab world!

In 2010, hardly anyone imagined that people power could topple thirty years of dictatorship and megalomania in just 18 days. In 2011, that failure of imagination has made a quagmire of the already chaotic downtown of the Mother of the World.

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