Beyond all else, what struck me in watching Egypt’s revolution unfold was that it totally surprised pundits and well-seasoned students of the region alike. This reminder of how very little we sometimes know and understand should humble us all. Part of what led us astray was the myth of an invincible Mubarak rule poised to glide into the second generation. All countries, including our own, have myths that, however powerful, fail to match reality. For example, the overwhelming number of Americans whose present and future prospects are locked into their miserable status quo belies the mythic idea that anyone of us can make it in this land of opportunity. Myth making evolves over time often out of the history we chose to remember or from opportunistic ideas and slogans repeated so often that they are no longer challenged. Even in a democracy, legitimately elected political leaders use repeated myth to advance their careers and to mold public opinion. That is doubly true for totalitarian regimes.
Look at any dictatorship and you will see the systematic crafting of self-serving national myth. Monarchies, whether found in Arab countries and elsewhere, are constructs of myth — the infallible ruling family that so often is either dysfunctional or corrupt. Mubarak sustained his regime on the myth that he alone stood in the way of Egypt becoming a theocratic state. What happened to Iran and perhaps more so that Al Qaeda’s Ayman al-Zawahiri is Egyptian born and ideologically trained provide testament to this mythic truism. If that were not enough, the opposition Muslim Brotherhood was painted as a radical Islamic organization bent on ending secular rule. It was a powerful myth bought for a long time by his own people and by the United States, most especially after 9/11 and the Hamas electoral victories in Palestine.
It is far too early to tell what will become of Egypt’s stunning turn around, but the myth that without Mubarak it is destined for Islamist rule may already have been debunked. To be sure, among the masses who gathered in Cairo and elsewhere were people of all ages, many among them devoutly religious Muslims. But this was a young people’s led movement, those who Egyptians began calling the Facebook youth. Among its identified leaders was Wael Ghonim, the 30-year-old Google executive and others like him, well educated and tired of being dehumanized by a repressive archaic regime. But perhaps more encouraging was Anthony Shadid’s February 15th NY Times article, suggesting that freedom and a better life, not religion, was on the mind of the revolutionaries. College graduate Ahmed Mitwallim, is of a different time than his once Islamist and still religious parents. The last thing youth are thinking about is religion, he told Shadid. That sounds a lot like the one in four of his American contemporaries who have moved beyond religion of any kind. Will people like Ghonim and Mitwallim prevail? Just as Mubarak used the myth of a threatened theocracy to bolster his regime, Egyptians have no further to look than headlines from Iran and its response to protest to see what rule by Ayatollahs and Mullahs might mean to them.
Religion may provide sustenance to much of the world’s population, but it has proved itself terrible and often repressive in governance. Our Founders were right to erect a wall of separation between church and state, their wisdom reinforced every time those on the far right try to impose their religious beliefs on the rest of us. Even here it remains a continuing struggle, often a depressing one. The push and pull of religion is bound to play as Egypt seeks to reinvent itself. But whatever happens, Mubarak’s myths have been debunked and the autocratic system he imposed on his fellow citizens has been discredited. All that happened without the United States or anyone else imposing shock, awe and destruction on one of those places where civilization as we know it was born. That in itself is refreshing and hopefully will be a lesson learned. We owe all those young people our thanks.