Almost exactly 100 years ago President Theodore Roosevelt spoke to the General Assembly of Cairo University. Egypt was then, as it is today, in political turmoil as nationalist groups seethed under the rule of the British Crown, clamoring for freedom. The nationalists felt that the very act of deliverance from the Colonial power would translate to democratic rule and representative government. In his address the president spoke bluntly to the seething Egyptians about the need to think of transformation as a process, not an act. In words (quoted by his biographer Edmund Morris) that have particular relevance to the Egypt of today, Roosevelt warned:
"The training of a nation to fit itself successfully to fulfill the duties of self-government is a matter, not of a decade or two, but of generations."
Sound advice on the first anniversary of the Egyptian revolution, as the spirit of the movement that inspired the throng in Tahrir Square comes face to face with the reality that the hard work of freedom is just beginning.
Reality is also seeping into the corridors of power in the United States as the transfer of power from an American-centric Mubarak dictatorship gives way to an elected coalition for whom the interests of Egypt outrank those of the United States. Witness the Egyptian enforcement of a long standing rule that American funded non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, obtain a license from the Egyptian government before conducting their activities in Egypt. (Not an unreasonable request during an on-going revolution, by the way, considering that the NGOs spend $250 million of American funds to influence Egyptian governance.) And the subsequent arrest of 43 NGO employees, including 19 Americans.
Because the Egyptian military helped arrest the NGO staff, the U.S. Congress now threatens to cut not just the $250 million in civilian aid but also the $1.5 billion in military aid that Egypt receives. This would be a mistake. The military aid was a gift from the American taxpayer to Egypt for becoming the first Arab government to recognize the state of Israel. The cuts would severely impact the ability of the United States to influence the direction of Egypt's nascent revolution and harm American interests in the wider Middle East.
That the Egyptian revolution has not bloomed after a year should not be particularly surprising but for the fact that the revolution was organized, led, and managed by an invention that President Roosevelt could not even have dreamed about -- the Internet. Remarkably, with the Internet and its social tools such as Twitter and Facebook, the Egyptians overthrew a decades long dictatorship in 18 days.
The excitement felt on the ground in Tahrir Square was transmitted by the Internet throughout Egypt and the world. Images of waving soldiers being garlanded atop their tanks were visible proof of the revolution's success. And it was generally expected that the transition to a representative government would follow within a very short time, in keeping with the lightening-fast overthrow of the old regime.
Those expectations are now dashed. A year later Egypt's revolution is still a messy work in progress. It turns out societal fault lines, interpersonal rivalries, and long suppressed power centers do not move at Internet speeds. The Web's social tools might make it easy to smash a country's government, but rebuilding a new order proceeds at a pace not too different from the time 100 years ago when Roosevelt spoke in Cairo.
President Roosevelt recognized the importance of Egypt as the Middle East's bellweather when he spoke at Cairo University. What was true then is true now. If the Arab Spring does not bloom in Egypt, it will be very hard for it to bloom any where else in the region. The United States should recognize this reality and temper its indignation and impatience. Rather than issuing orders from Washington to speed up the transition to representative government. Or threaten to withhold American aid unless the direction of change follows an American timetable and track, it would be wise for the United States to use patience and diplomacy. And to follow the other bit of advice that President Roosevelt left with the impatient Egyptian nationalists in the spring of 1810. Speaking in Arabic, the President quoted an Arab proverb
"Allah ma el saberin, izza sabaru; God is with the patient, if they know how to wait."