The Meaning of Freedom in Egypt

With ElBaradei leading the way, the Egyptian Revolution – far from secure – could nonetheless become a model for the future. Mubarak stepped down on Feb. 11

Opinion | Zoryana Melesh | March 2011

On Feb. 11, after 18 days of popular protest, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak announced his resignation, bringing to an end three decades of rule with an iron fist. Power has been relinquished to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, meaning the military effectively runs the country.

Amid the euphoria caused by Mubarak’s departure, opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei – former Secretary General of the International Atomic Energy Agency and Nobel Laureate – spoke cautiously about the events, urging Egyptians to stay united and warning of more challenges ahead.

And he was right in doing so. Since the Higher Military Council has taken over, new challenges abound. Thousands of protesters still refused to leave Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the action; clashing with the military, they are demanding a lift of the state of emergency, the adoption of democratic reforms and the release of political prisoners.

So the question was, why were the events in Egypt drawing so much attention? Why had this become the so-called Berlin Wall moment of Egypt?

Egypt’s population, over 80 million, makes it the largest country in the Arab World. It is strategically situated in both Africa and Asia, and has exerted enormous political, cultural and social influence on the entire region since the late 18th Century. During the rule of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt defied Israel and dominated the Arab Middle East. Its power continued during the reign of Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, and Egypt continued to serve as a model of authoritarianism in the region.

Consequently, it is easy to understand why if such a regime were to collapse, it would profoundly affect the entire region – and so it has, with Libya, Morocco, Jordan, Algeria, Yemen and Bahrain attempting to follow in Egypt’s footsteps. Could the domino effect be stopped?

On Jan. 27 ElBaradei left Vienna for Cairo.

"If [people] want me to lead the transition, I will not let them down," he told the BBC on his departure. When he told CNN "the barrier of fear is broken, it will not come back." The next day, the Jan. 28, after the Friday prayers, there was a new wave of protests throughout the country, with reported clashes of police with the protesters, and resulted in Mubarak’s dismissal of his government – but he himself still refused to step down.  It was not enough; they wanted Mubarak gone.

"Over the past thirty years, the president has sacked many cabinets before, this time is no different," a protester told Al Jazeera. "We don’t care if the government resigns, we want him [Mubarak] to resign."

With Mubarak out of office and the military vowing to hold elections as soon as the hysteria dies down, observers are now seeing the grassroots movements organizing to shape Egypt’s political future – and ElBaradei has become one of its figureheads.

Emblematic of the tech-savvy youth movements that have spread across the Middle East, ElBaradei has been keeping the cyber-world updated via his Twitter page, with almost hourly updates such as "Violence against peaceful protestors is the responsibility of those in power. ‘Security solutions’ are a continuation of the old regime."

Many see his newly formed National Association for Change as leading the charge for democracy and social justice. And equally important, they are striving for electoral and judicial reform, which will utilize ElBaradei’s prowess with institutional structures.

The Association has begun working actively with the Arab League and the Muslim Brotherhood to forge a new, reform-minded government.  If ElBaradei can help craft a free and democratic future for Egypt (whether he becomes president or not), he will have created a viable model for the liberation for people across the Middle East, and beyond.

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    the vienna review March 2011