This all happened on what was the 18th day of nationwide protests, following in the wake of Tunisia's popular uprising earlier in January. The protest themselves ebbed and flowed but never abated. After Mubarak attempted to send out pro-government thugs into the streets to intimidate both the media and the protesters into fleeing, the protests regained their focus and resolve.
The tipping point had to be last night's speech by Mubarak. The whole world had come to believe it was going to be an official announcement he would resign. Instead, Mubarak went into full "I'm Indispensable" Mode that dictators operate from: he insisted he wouldn't leave until September when elections were scheduled, he offered patronizing words about how he had always been so protective and faithful to Egypt, and blamed "outsider" influences on the chaos now wracking the nation.
It was, basically, the most tone-deaf speech in history (well, other than anything Jefferson Davis ever said as President of the Confederacy. I'd name a few others, but that delves into Godwin territory...).
Mubarak clearly had no grasp of the situation outside his circle of handlers and allies. The mobs in the streets were overwhelming in their desire to have Mubarak leave office (and even further, leave the country). Leave as in right now. Not in September. Not in six months when he could pretend everything this month never happened and then never leave. The people of Egypt by 100-to-1 (rough estimates) wanted Mubarak gone. And he never grasped that basic reality (that link to the New Yorker article highlights how dictators ALWAYS view themselves as so indispensable to nations they forced to love them.) It had to take a public desertion by a key ally (the head of Mubarak's political party) and most likely a ton of behind-the-scenes shouting matches by the generals to get Mubarak to concede and resign.
And so, the good news: we are bearing witness to one of those rare global moments of pure joy. I've seen several in my lifetime: the People Power movement of the Philippines, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the balloting of a post-apartheid South Africa, the crowds at Grant Park as Obama won in 2008. And now this. Tunisia was the first nation in this wave of Arab uprisings, but that had all happened off-camera (almost no coverage by the West outside of the blogs and social networks). Egypt, however, is a key Arab nation, and this had been going on for weeks. Every news channel has a camera on this now, and the images of the joy were a thing of beauty.
Now, here's the rough news. You guys have to rebuild the nation.
There's a reason, well three or four reasons, you Egyptians rose up in protest. Mostly due to a bad economy. High unemployment, high food prices, corrupt business leaders, and additional. The unemployment crisis in Egypt is worse than the United States (!), with 20somethings struggling to find work. Poverty is everywhere.
I don't envy whoever has to take charge of Egypt over the next few years. (I'm thinking the Muslim Brotherhood's promise to not run any candidate for the presidency is a smart, long-term plan. Whoever takes the job now has the thankless task of fixing everything. All the Brotherhood has to do is sit back a few years, wait for the frustration to boil, and THEN make a power grab...). The next President has to get the wealthy of his nation to spread the wealth downward, lessen corruption, increase job growth, lessen poverty conditions, secure more food supplies, and quite possibly guarantee the Egyptian soccer team wins the next World Cup. Like I said, a thankless and borderline impossible job.
The best suggestion I have to the Egyptian people is this: do not lose sight of the goal. The goal is an open and just government. Justice guarantees honest oversight of the economy. Honest oversight leads to a strong economy. A strong economy gets you jobs and food on the tables.
The task of building an open and just government is difficult. And it is ongoing. The United States is a perfect example. For all our belief in American Exceptionalism, ours is still a nation in progress. We only secured the right for women to vote less than 100 years ago. Blacks and other minorities were discriminated into non-citizen status up until 45 years ago. We're currently struggling through a deep recession and a jobless recovery the likes of which is hurting millions of families with a poverty rate that's been the highest in decades.
But we work at it. Every day is a struggle for our political and legal rights. For as much as we think we are free, we still gotta work for it all the time. But we believe in the system, from the Constitution on down, we believe that the system works. It's not a religious belief or a philosophical belief... it just is. We know we can vote every two or four years for new representatives and changes in leadership, and we hope that things can get fixed.
There's this theory of a cycle of revolution: one-man ruler falls before a democratic committee, which collapses under the rule of a purist who purges all enemies by murder, which victimizes itself until a military leader seizes power, which turns into an autocratic one-man rule (and repeat). The trick of breaking the cycle is re-imagining what you are doing. Don't be a revolution (which decays into that cycle of violence). Be a rebellion (which the American Revolution really was, the throwing off the oppressive yolk of what had become a foreign power so that the nation of states we were meant to be could form).
Be a rebellion, Egypt. Rebel against the Middle Eastern mindset of kleptocratic, authoritarian rule. Avoid the mindset of purges: a real democracy respects political opposition as long as all parties have honorable intent.
It's going to be hard work, people. Freedom is worth it:
"Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated."
--Tom Paine, The Crisis
Good luck with your freedom, Egypt. It will be hard work. But it will be worth it.