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Tahrir Square: Whose Revolution?

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Anyone rooting for Egyptians and the progress of their revolution was up against a nerve-racking week of news and analysis surrounding the one-year anniversary of the first coordinated protests at Tahrir Square. Tension and uncertainty seemed to temper all: foreign policy experts sounded alarmed at the sweeping electoral victories of Islamist parties and possible implications for the U.S. and Israel; Egypt's brand-new parliament convening for the first time was off to a raucous and over-heated start; protest-weary Egyptians were calling for the end of all demonstrations to give the democratic process a chance; activists threatened to occupy Tahrir until the military lets go of its grip on power; and the crowds who returned to the Square to ratify the country's break with the past and remember their fallen heroes scuffled (Associated Press reported) over the appropriateness of events, the role of the military, and the timeline of the next big test: the drafting of the constitution. (Arrived in Cairo on the night of January 24, Mara Revkin, assistant director of the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and editor of EgyptSource, has been reporting from Tahrir Square and keeping a detailed and engaging timeline of events and developments.)

A week earlier, Wael Ghonim, the young Internet activist and former Google executive who lead the Facebook mobilization of the January 25th protests -- also the author of a newly released memoir, "Revolution 2.0: The Power of the People is Greater than the People in Power" -- sat down for an interview with NPR's Steve Inskeep jump-started the discussion with this question: "What do you think has gone wrong?"

There's a whole other book waiting to be written on the assumptions behind the question, but Ghonim's measured answer echoes the under-appreciated political fortitude of a people who -- contrary to Western perceptions -- never quite capitulated to its brutal regime. "So, actually I think that there are a lot of achievements," Mr. Ghonim said, naming the evidence: free elections, massive voter turnout and a democratically elected parliament. "There are also many challenges," he added, "which is expected, because revolutions, they are processes, not events, and it will take time."

Whether attempting to reflect American public perceptions, or the impatience for the process of change that trammels our own, older democracy, Inskeep insisted: "Although, haven't more secular or liberal forces in Egypt lost ground in the last several months compared to where they seemed to be at the beginning of this revolution?" Young Ghonim was unfazed: "I really think that this doesn't matter. What matters is that there is democracy, and that people are empowered to make their own choices." He argued that, this time around, Egyptians cast their votes on the candidates' reputation; next, they would vote on the candidates' performance. Mr. Inskeep: "[...] they would lose credibility. Is that what you're saying?" Wrong. Ghonim is not waiting on the sieve of credibility: "I don't want anybody to lose credibility. I want all the Egyptians to unite and fix their own issues, because the issues are much bigger than a party or an ideology to solve." (Barely, barely resisting the parallels and the lessons to our own politics.)

Idealism? Wisdom? Much-needed hope? With two thirds of the population under 30-years of age, and an unemployment rate of thirty-five percent among the same age group, growing economic distress is, unfortunately, the safest prediction to be made about Egypt's near future, and its youth will need all the hope they can muster. But these young millions -- the sons and daughters of Arabs who dreamed and willed the revolution for decades -- took dictators and the world by surprise, and, in Egypt, they even took the established and organized opposition by surprise! (And they were none too-quick to join them on the Square.)

In an upcoming post, I will be reviewing, "The Invisible Arab: The Promise and Peril of the Arab Revolution," by Marwan Bishara, Al Jazeera English senior political analyst, published by Nation Books (February 1, 2012). In it, Bishara traces decades of the social and political seeds planted by "invisible" Arabs who never wearied of the long process of change.