The sea of people pulsated with energy, galvanized by the words of Wael Ghonim, the young Google executive who got the Mubarak treatment — 12-day disappearance, blindfolding, interrogation — before a tweet that will one day be etched in some granite memorial: “Freedom is a bless that deserves fighting for it.”
The fight goes on. In the Tahrir Square crowd, I ran into Ahmed el-Shamy, a Pfizer executive. He’s 54, and like many of his generation who have known only dictatorship since the coup of 1952, he can hardly believe his eyes. “Our youth makes fear history,” he said.
Ghonim’s tweet and a shattering TV interview afterward got Pfizer employees and much of Egypt re-energized in their quest for the dignity that comes with being actors in a nation’s destiny rather than its pawns. A sign I’ve seen sums things up: “Tahrir Square — closed for constitutional changes.”
Much of Egypt is closed, too, including the stock market and a tourism industry that accounts for 8 percent of gross domestic product. Hosni Mubarak, to his credit, took Egypt into the global economy. Part of the payback is that the world gets to judge Egypt with its pocketbook. The question arises: Is this stubborn president ready to take his country down with him?
Everything I hear suggests the army will not fire on its own people. Mubarak does not dare order them to shoot for fear of the response. Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, his defense minister, has strong views on this subject. He expressed them to a senior Western diplomat during the Tunisian uprising: The army exists to defend the nation, not a regime.
If the army won’t shoot, the protesters won’t disperse, leaving the stand-off: Until he goes, they remain.
With each day of impasse the economy sinks further. There are strikes in Cairo and Suez. The days of a dictatorship that won’t — or can’t — use brutality in crisis are probably numbered. Compare the events of 1989: Berlin and Tiananmen. It’s time for Mubarak to take a Nile cruise; he’ll be the only client. Then Ghonim can declare liberated Egypt open for business.
At Pfizer, where El-Shamy has worked for 23 years, everyone was talking about Ghonim, the young Egyptian representing a generation that the old Egyptian, Mubarak, cannot comprehend. The pharaoh has lost contact.
It’s happened before: Mubarak’s anti-democratic regime, the successor to Nasser’s and Sadat’s (but without the charisma), is the 45th in a line of houses stretching back to 3,000 B.C. This, too, must pass.
When? They were changing political allegiance at Pfizer, saying, yes, the almost 300 dead, shot by security goons, must not die for nothing; and, yes, what happened to Ghonim could happen to any Egyptian in Mubarak’s black-hole security state. “My generation grew to think we can accept anything,” El-Shamy said. “But the youth, they refresh us, remind us of dignity, fairness, freedom.”
His son, Omar, 21, was standing beside him. A media student, he’s now a Tahrir veteran, tweeting and facebooking and googling (a tech company has made it when it becomes a verb) from a 9th-floor apartment overlooking the square. “Maybe Mubarak thought he’s controlled things,” Omar said. “But lies don’t last.”
As we talked, Cairo University law professors in their black robes filed past to declare that Egypt must become a nation of laws because that’s the only kind of nation that guarantees people rights. As Fouad Ajami has written of the Arab condition: “The fundamentalist call has resonance because it invites men to participate — and here again there is a contrast to an official political culture that reduces citizens to spectators and asks them to leave things to the rulers.”
American values and interests do not always coincide — perhaps they rarely coincide. Diplomacy comes down to juggling them. That U.S. values are embodied on Tahrir Square is as clear as the lines of the pyramids. I say its interests, on balance, lie there too: in the establishment of a participatory society that would return Egypt to its pivotal place in the Arab world and give the young hope.
The United States no longer has the power to impose solutions. But Barack Obama’s wavering on Egypt will not honor him. His story is the American gift of self-empowerment: Do not deny it then to Egyptians. Give a clear message to Tantawi. Egypt needs to move forward. For that the president needs to move out.
The credibility of Mubarak in guiding a democratic transition is zero. He is an antidemocrat by formation and temperament. Everything offered so far — from amnesties to constitutional reform committees — has screamed: We can run down the clock on this.
I walked out of the square between two tanks. The gap between them was two feet wide. You had to crouch and squirm. Women went through with little kids. Behind us were thousands of people. One surge and we would all have been crushed. I thought: If we can pass unscathed through the eye of this needle, Egypt can tread the narrow path to better days. The tragedy of Mubarak is that he underestimated his own people.
*Published in the NEW YORK TIMES on Feb. 9, 2011.