The Spirit of Changing History

Three young Egyptian women spoke movingly this morning about their part in Egypt's revolution. As events continue to unfold, Americans should listen to their voices and stories to understand what's at stake across Northern Africa and the Middle East.

The spark of revolution, they said, related to self respect and human dignity. Decades of citizen-absent government and a sense of powerlessness and fear had paralyzed their parents into complacency. This generation talked about a "spirit of changing history." Why? To overcome humiliation, give voice to millions beyond government-controlled national TV, and restore a sense of belief in themselves and what their country could become. Tears came to their eyes as one American journalist told them that Egypt was now in American living rooms, evoking such pride in what Egyptians were becoming.

One young woman talked about the swelling calm of freedom's hour on Tahrir Square -- thousands of young Egyptians who pressed their claims for a new system, finding strength through non-violence.

Another rattled off statistics that made a compelling case that social media, combined with young people who valued democracy over everything else, made this revolution different from those of the past. Recent surveys of Arab youth in Egypt and across eight other countries support her claims, showing that democracy is a greater priority than fair wages and a good education.

Still another talked about the poem she was moved to write and posted on Twitter -- "The Day I Raged" -- "I woke up to a burning sunlight/Silenced howling fear within me/Stood tall before you/Driven by the monster of your creation in me/Your power outweighs mine/But my passion for this blessed land can flood gold mines." A new generation under 30, representing six in 10 of all Egyptians, had found its voice.

Fareed Zakaria, in a TIME cover story, reminds us that the "springtime of peoples" -- referring to the revolutions that swept Europe in 1848 -- don't always end as hoped. When pressed about what has been achieved, the new revolutionaries spoke confidently about how Egyptians are "talking" about issues for the first time, how government officials are being brought to justice, and how the provisional army is more transparent and accountable to the people as the country moves toward September elections, even posting their communications on Facebook in addition to government TV. Important steps and a break with the past, they think.

Women activists from Tunisia and Iran asked questions and posted comments on Facebook. Many wondered what lessons might have been learned from efforts like Radia Daoussi, an activist for women's rights in Tunisia. Ghazal Omid, an advocate for human and women's rights from Iran, wondered whether the revolution for democracy was also spawning a revolution for the rights of women.

Here the Egyptian women were careful -- they spoke about how social media enabled them to collaborate across countries and how they learned from youth in Tunisia to cope with tear gas by carrying onions, vinegar and coke -- helping them pierce the veil of government fear. The revolution for democracy was not yet fueling a revolution in women's rights, but they were hopeful that the uprising of voices would accelerate progress there too. Women marched in Tahir Square on International Women's Day to assert their rights in this new Egypt. One woman in the audience said, "Iran will be the last on this score."

These Egyptian leaders, who know their own civic participation is an important chapter of Egyptian history, long for dialogue with Americans and engagement from the international community. As Atlas Corps Fellows (a reverse Peace Corps) in the United States working with U.S.-based organizations such as the National Conference on Citizenship and the Grameen Foundation, these three extraordinary women will have their chance to share their stories of hope, educate Americans on what continues to happen on the ground, and inspire young people to work to change our world.

John M. Bridgeland is CEO of Civic Enterprises, which is hosting Mirette Bahgat, an Atlas Corps Fellow from Cairo. He moderated a panel at the Case Foundation this morning of Mirette Bahgat, Sally Salem and May Kosba, three young Egyptian women who are and remain active in the Egyptian revolution.