01/25/2014 02:38 pm ET Updated Mar 27, 2014

Reflections on the Third Anniversary of the Egyptian Revolution: On Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits


In Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, the Moroccan writer Laila Lalami masterfully writes about the immigrant experience, the physical and emotional minefields of leaving home to have a life, in the hopes of something better and greater. But what of those who stay? What of those who want to take on the dangerous act of staying and changing their present to align with a more perfect idea of what their country and life and freedom may mean without immigration?

In many ways this was the impetus of the Egyptian Revolution that touched so many inside and outside of Egypt. On January 25, 2011 it was with bated breath that people gathered in Tahrir or watched on TV and computer screens, this singularity of hope.

Of course three years later much has been written about this revolution: was it "good," was it "bad," how impossible it is to define the revolutionary moment with a binary. In The Radicalism of the American Revolution, a social history of the American Revolution, Brown University professor and historian Gordon S. Wood posits that the radicalism of the 18th century American Revolution was not that it happened, revolting against elites for personal liberty was neither new nor radical. The real radicalism lay in the way this effected people on an individual basis, a belief in their own agency -- that the transmutable rights of liberty and freedom for all would apply to the common man and not just land owning aristocracy. The American Revolution was transformative as a social revolution, not merely as an act transformative of government by republicizing monarchy, but as a socially transformative act that changed the way people saw their relationship to the state and their relationship to each other.

In many ways, this is also the radicalism of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. A far cry from the 1952 Egyptian Revolution, a military coup of elites overthrowing the monarchy, the 2011 Revolution radically altered Egypt on a personal level. It made people believe they had agency, they could radically alter their present reality, they could be the change they wanted to see in the world. And this message has persevered three years on. The idea of personal agency is transformative and not bounded by gender or class.

I recently watched V Is for Vendetta in homage to the ubiquitous Guy Fawkes masks popularized by the film that were commonplace on the streets of Cairo and the Middle East in the year of the Arab Spring. While the film is about a dystopian future, it also reflects the present: A central state that monopolizes violence and brands citizen activists terrorists, as the state uses counter insurgency methods against the internal civilian population. The female protagonist, Evey, wistfully sighs "I wish I wasn't afraid all the time, but I am." This fear to speak up against injustice, to demand civil liberties characterized Egypt for far too long.

We the people give symbols power. Whether it's a Guy Fawkes mask, worn with little understanding of who he was ("In that mask a visage of victim and villain," the character V chimes); whether it is political heroes who are unjustly jailed precisely because of what they represent but not because of any act they committed, like Alaa Abd el-Fattah, Ahmed Maher, Mohamed Adel and Ahmed Douma, or whether it's four fingers in the air to express solidarity, the act of definition and symbolism remains democratic.

The truth of the matter is that Guy Fawkes Night was never a celebration of the man, but rather of his failure and the triumph of central state power. But this man and myth was transformed into a modern symbol that fights against the state. And who someone is -- a freedom fighter, a revolutionary, a thorn in the side of the state, or a patriotic hero -- these definitions remain spinning and turning.

Perhaps the radicalism of the Egyptian Revolution is not that it could have happened, it's that it did. And we can see that something is different now, despite everything three years on. The Egyptian Revolution sparked popular imagination, not just in Egypt but also throughout the world. It awakened people who were often complacent; it moved conversations about politics and social order from the muted confines of homes into the street; it filled people with hope and lit imaginations. Most importantly, it reminded regular people that they had agency. "Hope and change," "Bread, freedom and social justice" were not simply axioms and political slogans, they are ideals that continue to fuel popular imagination in the hopes of a better reality.