The ouster of Hosni Mubarak will live long in the memory of all Egyptians -- and if that wasn't reason enough to mark February 11, events contributed to another incident which I'll never forget. I was at the Presidential Palace covering the protest there, and I ran into a fellow reporter who had another friend carrying a small transistor radio.
At 6pm local time Omar Suleiman came out to give an announcement. Me and the young man with the radio -- who I had just been introduced to hours earlier -- sat down in the middle of the street and huddled together to hear the announcement, gluing our ears to the tiny radio to catch the sound amongst the din of the protesters. When Suleiman said that Mubarak had stepped down, we must have jumped up from our seats several feet in the air, and kept bobbing up and down shouting tanaha (he's stepped down).
At first people didn't understand what must have been at best strange gargling noises coming from our throat, but by the third or fourth time they got it, and a roar of pure joy and relief spread rapidly among the thousands present. Truly a moment that will live with me.
Even before Mubarak left office, a cursory visit to Tahrir (Liberation) Square in Egypt would impress on the visitor that this is a Egypt like you've never seen before. Debate is lively and forceful; there are those who clean up the square. Others walk around handing out food. There are even two "revolutionary popcorn" carts, doling out the salted kernels for passersby. The feeling of solidarity permeates the square. Of course it's there, many of those present stood together, fought together and some have fallen, their lives a price for the hope of a revolution.
People of different backgrounds, beliefs, religions and ideologies mingle in a way rarely seen before. Once you lift the specter of the tyrant and his corruption-riddled, cynical apparatus, Egyptians are tolerant, kind and respectful of those who are different. At least those in Tahrir, the "free" ones.
Journalists and activists were caught unawares by the events in Egypt on January 25. Since the 2003 demonstration against the US invasion of Iraq, Egyptian protesters have never been able to take over Tahrir Square. There simply weren't the numbers. Journalists have been more used to 200 protesters chanting on the stairs of the Press Syndicate, surrounded by more than double that amount of Central Security forces.
Others too were caught by surprise from the events and the speed at which they unfolded. None more so than the Egyptian regime itself, as well as its Western allies. A panicky regime pulled out all the stops to crack down on the protests, cutting off mobile phone communications and the Internet, and the Ministry of Interior's police forces assailed the peaceful protesters with tear gas (made in the US), water cannons and rubber bullets (also American-made).
A regime that set armed thugs upon protesters and incited violence against foreigners in Egypt through the deplorable coverage of its state television apparatus is evidently a regime that left the principles of credibility and legitimacy behind a long time ago. If it ever had them in the first place.
And no one caught it in the US either. The New York Times reported February 4 that President Barack Obama had criticized American intelligence agencies for their failure to predict the popular movements in Tunisia and Egypt. Or let's call them what they really are: revolutions, a dramatic change in the power structure in a short length of time.
On February 10, Mubarak again refused to step down, promising constitutional reforms and the end of the emergency law without delineating a specific time frame. He also transferred certain presidential authorities to his VP as he vowed not to bow to pressure from abroad. The speech was met with fury by protesters, many of whom felt he was willing to sabotage the future of the country merely to satiate his ego.
The US administration seemed to be caught off guard by Mubarak's speech, and later released a statement that, while more forceful than usual, again stopped short of saying he should step down.
The response of Mubarak's Western allies since all this begun has been galling, and even President Obama's speech after Mubarak left, which many felt was his most forceful yet, was deemed too little too late. Just as grating was the reason behind their reticence in calling for Mubarak to step down for the good of the Egyptian people.
It is a gross insult to the aspirations of the Egyptian people that in the circles of realpolitik, the hesitance for supporting this uprising came out of concern for the security of Israel. Not that it makes one iota of a difference, but this stance littered in vagaries will undoubtedly harm US and Israeli interests in the future. To view events in Egypt through the paradigm of what they mean for Israel -- as many US commentators do -- is shocking, disgraceful and counterproductive.
I now know no one who is willing to hear US officials pay their regular lip service about ideals such as democracy and human rights. The only people who fought -- and died -- for those ideals were the protesters in Egypt. That Israel was amongst the strongest supporters of Mubarak's regime -- with its appalling human rights record -- and called for him to stay is ample evidence of interests trumping liberty, democracy and will of people to govern their own lives.
The army's latest communiqué has made it clear that Egypt will respect all treaties that it is a signatory of, which means that the Camp David Accords will be respected. And yet Israel and its Western allies were willing to at least not speak out against the brutal dictator for that very reason.
It's true that many in Egypt want the treaty revoked and again the will of the people should be what matters. However, even a revocation of the peace treaty does not automatically mean a war will ensue between the two countries. Egyptians might not want the treaty, but they definitely do not want war. In fact the possibility of an Egyptian government that reflects the will of its people may be a positive thing; encouraging Israel to make real steps in the peace process since they can on longer rely on the unwavering support of the dictator next door.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said as much, saying that the resignation of Mubarak might be the necessary jolt to resume the stagnant peace process.
Another element -- vital from the US perspective -- is what Mubarak offered in the larger geopolitical arena, especially Iraq. Besides keeping the Suez Canal open for the passage of US military ships, Mubarak was a vital pro-Sunni ally who helped counter Shia influence in Iraq, and by extension Iran, a perceived threat the US and Mubarak shared. He was a staunch ally in the Sunni axis of the Middle East, which the US relies on to counter Iranian influence.
The supposed fear now is the takeover of an Islamist government, specifically the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Again, a cursory trip to Tahrir Square would have put this notion to bed. The protesters in Egypt were not trying to overthrow one oppressive regime to replace it with another. The protest was not imbued with any ideology. In any case, if the Brotherhood wins a democratically contested election, then no one has the right to argue against it. That's the point after all.
In any case supporting the oppressor of a people will not stand you in good stead in the future; winning the people of the Middle East over is the policy that should be taken. It is a policy that currently is being much better implemented by citizens of the West rather than their governments, and with more protests springing up in the Arab world, the US should take heed.
The US would have done itself a world of good in the long run by backing the protesters from the get-go, and not in the meek, ambiguous language that the administration used. Nor was its evident support for Omar Suleiman a point that counts in its favor. That's one strongman in place of another. It remains to be seen what the long-term effects will be, but there is no talk emanating from Egypt about the US being a "partner" and a "friend" as Obama stated in his last speech, only an impediment.
But Obama was right about one thing: Egyptians didn't need US support to overcome 30 years of oppression; they did it themselves, and from now on, if the US wants to truly be a partner and friend, the will of the Egyptian people must be respected. That is only if US foreign policy is able to overcome the negative perception as a supporter of dictators against their own people.
By all the accounts the support of the citizens in the Western world for the Egyptian protesters has been heartening. Their governments should follow suit, and that is assuredly the path to a better Middle East. If not, as with Egypt, Western governments will again find themselves on the wrong side of history.