While many have been surprised by the seemingly sudden uprising in Egypt, the real question isn't about how it happened but why it didn't happen sooner. Despite brave and noble opposition efforts by various individuals and groups over the past decades, it seems nevertheless to have been taken for granted by much of the world that the Egyptian people would live under oppression indefinitely. It seems to have been taken for granted that the revolutionary movements that have shaken half the globe in the past half century somehow couldn't touch one of the world's oldest nations, as if that very ancient history stultified the very modern Egyptian people. Of course, most of the efforts within Egypt have been ignored by much of the world for decades, and if noticed at all, were mostly written off as but spasms of extremism. So the surprise at current events is not, itself, surprising. The grace and humanity of the current revolutionary opposition is a wake-up call not for Egypt, but for the world.
One of the most insidious aspects of life under despotism is that it can create an existential ennui among the subject, a barely conscious layer of hopelessness and helplessness, which then becomes a tacit participation in allowing the despotism to continue. To Franz Fanon, a rebirth of consciousness was necessary, a violent reawakening to the basic rights and responsibilities that are every human being's birthright. That decades of seemingly thuggish stability could be blasted apart so quickly in Egypt speaks to the fragility of that consciousness of suppression. Fanon spoke to a different era, for in these events we see that no existential cataclysm was required. It took but a whisper, a breath, a candle flame, and a people thought to have been completely denuded of will exploded into such full possession of their own unique ability to create their own history that it's clear they had never lost it. It wasn't even dormant, it was lying latent, just barely beneath the surface, where the merest hint of possibility resonates and concatenates. This is a warning. This is the future. This is a reminder of the strength of the human spirit.
The industrialized world has built much of its wealth off the theft, enslavement, and exploitation of less militarily powerful people. The Age of Colonialism and Imperialism couldn't last forever, but in many places it was replaced by but the Age of Neo-Colonialism and Neo-Imperialism, which in some ways was less messy for those reaping the financial rewards. Occupation and the garrisoning of military personnel could be outsourced to locals, with the extra added bonus of further enriching the arms merchants, often by a process of ostensible foreign aid which was, in reality, just recycled back to the home land as corporate welfare disguised as arms purchases. The war profiteers didn't even need wars, and local despots had shiny new toys with which to keep themselves in power and their people under constant threat of violent and torturous repression. As others have pointed out, the tear gas canisters used in Cairo, the tanks rumbling through its streets, and the military jets thundering in its skies, all were made in America. To some, no doubt, this is cause for patriotic rejoicing.
That the West has had to continually recalibrate its response has been revealing, but again not surprising. So many assumptions are failing. That a long transition was floated would have been laughable, had it not been so absurd, but the quick flip from that to the possibility of a quick exit for Hosni Mubarak while his hand-picked successor leads the interim regime is no more likely to be acceptable to the people actually on the ground in Cairo--particularly given that hand-picked successor's role in the brutalities of the Mubarak era, and his deep ties to the CIA. It's fascinating watching the West fumble for answers while ignoring the answers already presenting themselves by the people leading the revolution. But Mohamed ElBaradei is considered suspect to the West, despite his being a secularist, and as much European as Egyptian. Of course, some won't forgive him for having had the temerity to complicate the fervor to invade Iraq by insisting that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction. A temerity all the more unforgivable because he was proved right. But even worse has been ElBaradei's insistance on allowing the weapons inspections process to work in Iran, once again, and this time more successfully, undermining the chickenhawks' desire to invade and destroy yet another Muslim nation that has done nothing to merit being invaded and destroyed. And it is perhaps most interesting that Iran itself considers ElBaradei a thorn in its side, which means the Western neocons and the Iranian theocrats are united against much of the rest of the world in reviling a Nobel Peace Prize-winning diplomat.
But these latter day imperialists are not only consistently wrong and deranged in their movable blood lust, they are also on the wrong side of a critical turning point in world history. They don't recognize the realities of the world in which they live, and they certainly won't recognize the world that is evolving. And they will hate what they do recognize. But they are not now holding the reins of power, and the most curious aspect of the larger state of geopolitical confusion has been the inability of those that do now hold the reins of power to create a clear separation between its approach and that of the antideluvians who are perhaps genetically incapable of anything else. What is happening is obvious. It's not that the West must meddle or force itself on the Egytpian people, it's that the West can do best by but helping to clear the path that the Egyptian people themselves are defining. Convoluted half-hearted solutions are not the answer. The answer is right there, on the ground, in Cairo. It's not only about trying to protect the opposition, it should be about helping them to be heard and empowered. In the end, doing so would be quicker and easier and much less invasive.
Another undeniable dimension of the Egyptian revolution is that the internet once again has played a key role in redefining political possibility. The WikiLeaks revelations seem to have helped inspire the Tunisian uprising, and there is no question that access to the internet has opened worlds of information to peoples all around the globe, people who otherwise would have little access to information that was not directly controlled by their governments. It hasn't received much notice, but Chinese authorities have revealed their own worries by restricting news and discussion of the revolution that is rocking North Africa. The Mubarak regime itself quickly shut down the internet and Blackberry texting. On the other hand, in an attempt to be proactive, Jordan's King Abdullah has sacked his entire cabinet. But perhaps most interestingly, the unrest has yet to hit the oil-rich Middle Eastern states, where local governments are not alone in keeping a close watch. The leaders of the industrialized world have been slow and cautious in responding to Egypt, but their real fears lie in their not knowing what to do if the revolution expands. Current attempts to comprehend and to figure out a path forward will be considered all but politically trivial if the world's economy is potentially to be thrown into chaos. And that's the real secret to what is happening in Egypt. Because the Egyptians, like the Tunisians before them, hardly were alone in but awaiting a reason to believe in the possibility of hope. People around the globe share the yearning, and access to information has become a critical means of empowering that yearning.
It long has been as absurd as it is cruel to expect that the current system of economic and military imbalances can last forever. It long has been as absurd as it is cruel to expect so many people to suffer so much for the financial benefit of so relative few. A world so dominated by the North and the West cannot continue forever. The forms of Colonialism and Imperialism and Neo-Colonialism and Neo-Imperialism have evolved and refined, but the most basic truths have remained the same. People everywhere deserve their basic human rights. Those suffering from a loss of basic human rights will not tolerate it forever. And those responsible for the suffering are going to have to help end it if they are going to claim their own basic sense of humanity. Tunisia and Egypt are not the end. They are barely the beginning. The pace of change cannot be foreseen, but the responsibility of people of conscience could not be more obvious. The world's economic powers no longer can thrive off the exploitation and subjugation of others. The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt are by, of, and for the people of Tunisia and Egypt. But the larger story is about us.