12 Feb 2011

Egypt's joy amid the dawning, daunting challenge

Late last night I walked through the crowds thronging Tahrir Square and the streets beyond.

It’s rare to move so seamlessly through such vast swathes of humanity and experience such individual pools of joy. Whole families with babes in arms, children on shoulders; exuberant young men dashing around in flag waving ‘congas’; mothers and daughters in headscarves talking animatedly. And though I and my small team seemed to be almost the only Westerners present, we experienced no sense of threat.

So where are those baton wielding thugs? Where are the secret police who have beaten the occasional demonstrator down the years and killed as many as 300 in these past 19 days? At home waiting? For what?

The army on their tanks and armoured personnel carriers were relaxed and mingled easily with the families who wanted to photograph their children sitting on the Abrams’ warrior bodywork.

Then I woke this morning to a quiet sunlit calm on the square. I glimpsed video on Egyptian television of an incongruous group of military men arrayed around a circular table – military men of a certain age – the ruling Army Council.  And to believe that they had made their first move to mourn the ‘martyrs of the revolution’. What capacity do these men have to wake up and respond to Egypt’s mood and needs?

The jarring contrast with the under thirties leadership of the revolution. a haphazard leadership, but informally (as informal as the military is formal) it exists and has brought us to this day.

People stand next to a soldier while he reads a newspaper in front of an army tank at Tahrir square in Cairo (Reuters)

It is impossible to exaggerate the achievement in knocking down the authoritarian, human rights abusing leadership that went before. But if it is possible to imagine, an even bigger challenge lies ahead – that of responding to the aspiration of the people – pride in an Egypt that expands and defends, freedom. Justice and economic prosperity for all – I shudder as I write these words – it is SUCH a very, very big challenge for a country dominated by the military and its President since 1952.

But the Eastern bloc – or elements of it, in Europe has shown it is possible – grim old Poland, austere old East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria – all changed and in a few cases now significantly free, just and prosperous. All things are possible. If it happens here – the prospects for realistic peace and justice in the Middle East must accompany it.

But it remains, this sunny morning, a truly vast challenge.

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