As I have lived my entire adult life preparing for freedom behind the Iron Curtain — and, fortunately, lived to see the successful transition from dictatorship to democracy — perhaps I and my peers in this part of the world can comment on the events in Egypt with some authority, albeit a modest and cautious one.
The departure of Mubarak is a victory for democracy, but it is hardly a victory for the democratic West. Our governments and institutions failed miserably in the context of the Egypt revolution. This is not just an American failure. Even if Europe’s public opinion and media would be so happy to blame it on the “clumsy Americans,” it’s a shared shortcoming. On average our collective score is a C- — including the new democracies of Eastern and Central Europe, who in just twenty years seem to have forgotten their own recent history, along with their responsibility for the freedom of others. They look at events now as something distant that does not concern them.
It is right to remember: If Ronald Reagan had opted for stability versus our freedom, we would not have gotten rid of the communist dictatorships in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Albania and elsewhere in 1989. If Mark Palmer, the U.S. ambassador in Budapest at the time, had not pressed his government to understand our sentiments, had he not supported change even in the face of caution and the status quo in some circles in Washington, we would now be stuck in a revitalized, rejuvenated authoritarian Soviet bloc. And of course, I would not be sitting in a free Budapest writing these lines. I believe that freedom and democracy are the natural forms of existence for mankind, not dictatorship. No doubt, in 1989 we all came out as winners as a result of bold and courageous leadership, which decided to opt for democracy and radical change versus stability. The transatlantic community is now whole and free.
That courage of the eighties was absent over the last two weeks! Our indecision almost led Egypt to civil war and the region to disaster. For two weeks I have been having a Berlin Wall feeling, but while I was hearing a crescendo, the strong voice of Western leaders in support of the crowds in Tahir Square was nowhere to be heard. Thursday night I was glued to CNN like the rest of the world, holding my breath to see Mubarak’s theatrical exit. His speech infuriated the demonstrators in Tahrir Square; he poured oil on the fire. The determination of the crowds was underestimated by Mubarak — and the free world. They failed to realize who these young people are: well-educated, internet literate, open-minded, and out of work. Their hopes were and are pinned to a democracy and a real market economy, to lift them out of their misery. They have bravely defied the regime and by yesterday afternoon Mubarak was gone.
I wonder why we in the West have not been able to see this coming and build a bond with future generations, who instinctively are democratic minded and who will surely be important players for decades to come. Egyptians will have the satisfaction of knowing that they “did it” without our help. While we share their happiness, unfortunately their success is not our common success, unlike when the Berlin Wall fell. It’s all theirs. We have lost the opportunity to be that young generation’s best friends, because we did too little too late. Whatever the strength of the military, however complicated the political power structure, these young people are the heroes of the day, a force to be reckoned with, the true source of change. Transition will be a long and difficult process, but a failure of democratization will surely bring back this young crowds to Tahir Square.
Today is the beginning of a long and very difficult road. The West now has a second chance to show support to the people of Egypt and stand by real democratic reforms. This time we can’t be seen as hesitating. The U.S. and Europe must hold the military to its promise to hold free elections and help establish lasting democratic institutions.
After the elections we must, in our own best interest, offer a hand to the new leaders, in a non-paternalistic manner, in order to avoid that the first free elections of that country will also be the last. We must help Egypt get on its feet as soon as possible. We must be able to push back the usual urge in our societies to selfishly capitalize on change too quickly; we must hold the greed of our companies on a leash. The East European democracies can play a crucial role, with the huge recent experience of transition from dictatorship to democracy, from a state controlled economy to a market oriented one. We have amassed vast knowledge on what to do, and perhaps more importantly what not to do in this transition. Sharing the lessons learned from our successes and failures can prove to be invaluable for the people of Egypt.
We now have another chance to prove to them that we will stand by them in their quest for a viable democracy. There is hope still. All is not lost. We can still be a driving force but it calls for leadership in our democratic family. Let these last two weeks be a reminder to our own leaders that only a foreign policy based on the integrity of our interests and our values is one that will serve us long term. They have hopefully learned their lesson. We must have the wisdom and courage to admit what we did wrong in respect of tolerating the Mubarak regime for so long and not understanding the desire of the people. Finally we must not forget to also remind our leaders to send a thank you note to Facebook, Google, and CNN, who were wielding soft power when our governments failed to do the same.
Fortunately or unfortunately, the young men and women from Tahrir Square will not forget.