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Egypt: From Decline to Restoration?

As the Egyptian uprising enters its second week, we can say with some certainty that the era of Hosni Mubarak is over. The particulars of his exit, the shape of the transition to a new political order, and the nature of the forces that will eventually have to own this historic moment of enthusiasm, and articulate its vision are less certain and remain to be seen. What is also certain and welcome is the absence of Meta narratives, overarching ideologies and charismatic leaders. What is uncertain is how this spontaneous outburst, which clearly defined what it is rejecting and rebelling against -- the repression, corruption and decay of the Pharaoh -- can create the proper conditions for the return of real politics to Egyptian society.

What is also certain is that the uprising is much more than ending the graft, the bleak economic opportunities for Egypt's youth, the grinding poverty and its attendant despair, the utter contempt the regime displayed against the people, which were the hallmark of Mubarak's era. The uprising is also a collective yearning for national respect and pride and a restoration of personal and national dignity. Egyptians are proud, as they should be of their rich and complex history. Their ancient pre-Islamic, as well as Islamic, histories have enriched the whole world. Egypt played a pivotal role in shaping the modern Middle East politically and culturally. From the late 19th century until the late 1960's, Egypt was the trend setter in the Arab World. Cairo and Alexandria created vibrant literature, cinema and music and attracted talent from the Levant. As a young man growing up in Beirut, I did partake in this Egyptian offering. The rich human mosaic in these two cities; Muslim and Christian Arabs, Jews, Italians, Greeks and Armenians was unique. Egypt has yet to recover from the emigration, sometimes under duress, of the Lebanese, Italians, Greeks and Jewish communities.

In recent decades, particularly during the Mubarak years, bad times have visited Egypt. A long and gradual decay set in. Cairo ceased to be the shining capital of the Arabs. Egypt was no longer the publishing house and the main producer of art, literature and theater in the Arab world. Egyptian media became an appendage of the state. A previously liberal, open society became less welcoming of dissent and diversity and more receptive of dark visions. The mantle of Arab leadership fell from Egyptian hands, and the gift of the Nile stopped giving. The failure of Egypt to influence events in tiny Gaza on its borders speaks volumes about its diminishing regional stature. In the face of increasingly assertive Iranian and Turkish attempts to fill the leadership void left by Egypt's abdication of its regional role, Egyptian officials can only lament and complain.

It is not an overstretch to say that most of those demonstrating in the streets of Cairo, Alexandria and other cities instinctively see Mubarak as the man who is responsible for the marginalization of their country, the very personification of the decay and decline of Egypt. In this moment of enthusiasm, the Egyptians, particularly the youth, are telling themselves and the world that they refuse to accept that their best days are behind them.

It is utterly wrong to look at the Egyptian uprising through the prisms of US-Egyptian relations, or the peace process, or Islamic assertiveness or any other overarching prism. This is an unfolding Egyptian drama, produced, staged and played by Egyptian actors. This is only the opening act. Instead of asking, as some did, whether the post-Mubarak order will be "pro-American" or not, the question should be, will it be pro-democratic Egypt?

Much has been said and written about America's role in this unfolding Egyptian story. Both presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama did not live up to their initial soaring rhetoric about Egypt's democratic promise. Bush abandoned his freedom agenda in Egypt following the success of Islamist parties in the elections held in Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq in his second term. President Obama, wanting to stress that his approach to democratic reform is different and more subtle and nuanced, created the impression that his administration will not be forceful enough in pressing Arab autocrats like Mubarak to reform, notwithstanding his landmark speech in Cairo in June 2009. The initial timid response to Iran's cruel repression of the demonstrations following the rigging of the presidential elections also in June 2009, as well as the weak protest following Mubarak's brazen rigging of the recent parliamentary elections, deepened the impression in the region that Obama has gone soft on Middle Eastern autocracy. After a wobbly beginning, such as claiming that Mubarak's regime is "stable," followed by calls for reform, and by the end of the first week a clear call for a "transition to democracy," the administration found its voice and began to send signals that it is beginning to prepare for the post-Mubarak phase.

For the Obama administration to be on the right side of history requires only that it be faithful to the promise of Obama's speech in Cairo. Hillary Clinton was refreshingly blunt in her speech in Doha in January (when the winds of change were beginning to uproot the Tunisian dictator Ben Ali) when she warned Arab rulers that, "in too many places and too many ways the region's foundation are sinking into the sand," and that "those who cling to the status quo may be able to hold back the full impact of their countries' problems for a little while, but not forever." Obama's powerful words in Cairo in 2009 provide a clear path for his administration while it is dealing with its most pressing foreign policy challenge:

I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and does not steal from the people; the freedom to live as you chose. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere.

As Egypt moves towards an uncertain and very likely messy transition, it is instructive to recall probably the best description of pivotal transitions provided by a keen analyst of tumultuous times; the Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci who observed that the "crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born. In the interregnum, a great variety of morbid symptoms appear." Let us hope that the Egyptians will succeed in reducing and overcoming those morbid symptoms on their way to freedom.

Hisham Melhem is the Washington Bureau Chief of Al-Arabiya Satellite Television, and correspondent for the Lebanese daily Annahar.