WHEN IT FINALLY CAME, many did a double-take. The statement by the Egyptian vice president, Omar Suleiman, was so short that there was a pause after he ended with an imploration that God help us all. And then, a sonic wave of rejoicing pulsed from Tahrir Square and continued late into the night.
You did not have to be Egyptian or Arab to feel pride at what had just been accomplished: after 18 days of protests, over 300 deaths and many more wounded, the army flinched and removed Hosni Mubarak. That military men remain ostensibly in charge of the country mattered little next to the symbolic import of what had happened: a ruler, one of them, had been deposed. The sense of the protest movement’s righteousness, of justice at long last rendered, is universally, intuitively understandable.
Even so, this moment was particularly rich in symbolism for Arabs. When they looked at the protestors celebrating, much as they looked at the celebration a few weeks earlier in Tunis, their reaction was not just one of support. It was one of recognition: on the streets of Cairo, they saw themselves. They instinctively understood the humiliation that Egyptians felt, because it was so similar to their own: the feeling of being taken for granted by your rulers, of being a subject rather than a citizen, of being constantly manipulated by powers whose credibility has long run out.
It is fair to point to the rule of Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt as a symbol of many of the Arab world’s ills. But this is to forget that, for several generations, it also represented an era of great optimism. It is no coincidence that, for the past week, Egyptian television has been replaying the patriotic songs of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s era—the period most associated with Egypt’s leadership on the world stage in the modern era.
What happens in Egypt matters, and usually doesn’t just stay in Egypt. Some of this is because it was the first Arab country to encounter European colonialism with the invasion of French troops led by Napoleon in 1798, an event that prompted generations of Egyptians and Arabs to ponder why Europe had made such a prodigious technological and intellectual leap while this part of the world had stagnated. Egyptian scholars of the 19th century were among the first Arabs to head to Paris or London to imbibe that knowledge. But it was not only Egyptians that led this change: Egypt in the late 19th and early 20th century attracted all sorts of activists, intellectuals and entrepreneurs from around the region and beyond.
Egypt’s cultural capital is partly why the events of the recent weeks, culminating in the toppling of Mubarak, have had such an electrifying effect on the rest of the region. From an Arab perspective, it is as if a new Egypt had been born. The country lately mostly associated with the pervasive mediocrity of Mubarak’s rule, whose regional clout had largely eclipsed and had been maintained by Western support, now seems born-again. Many Egyptians I spoke to in Cairo described a leaden weight coming off their shoulders. The question is not, for the moment, whether they will have an Islamist or secular government, or whether their relationship with Israel and the West will be antagonistic. It is, first and foremost, a sense of regained dignity. That dignity, and that of Tunisians, is now the envy of the Arab world.
Perhaps not un-coincidentally, these uprisings for dignity are also a revival of the pan-Arabism that was associated with Nasser’s Egypt. This new pan-Arabism is not based just on shared identity or a rejection of colonial powers and Israel. It is based on a shared experience of dictatorship and a shared rejection of it. For the first time in decades, a new pan-Arab ideal is being forged, around ideals of universal human rights and a right to genuine political representation that transcends the corporatist ethos of the nationalist regimes of the 1950s and 1960s or their Islamist alternative.
The wave of unrest that is now shaking a long slumbering Arab world does not yet have a clear outcome. Transitions to democracy, or even simply better governance, will be difficult. The deposed regimes left many booby-traps behind, from failing educational systems to sectarian rifts. A political leadership that has the moral authority to guide the transition process in a positive direction and convince those eager for change in their lives to be patient has yet to emerge. No doubt there will be difficulties ahead. For now, many Arabs are feeling both apprehension and exhilaration about this uncertainty: for the first time in many years, it finally seems like politics exist.