One quote that was used over and over in the aftermath of the 2011 Egyptian revolution until it almost became cliché was that if any group tried to turn the wheel back and deny the people their freedom - "we know the way back to the square." On Saturday, as the judge threw out all the charges against deposed President Hosni Mubarak who had been accused of corruption and responsibility for the deaths of hundreds of demonstrators during the revolution, the roads to Tahrir Square were blocked by armored vehicles and barbed wire. As it was, not very many had taken the trouble to memorize the way back, and only a few hundred turned out to confront the police and army and try to break in. Their numbers were dwarfed by the thousands who had come to the court to cheer Mubarak who less than four years ago, was literally hounded out of his palace by masses calling for his blood.
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It's too easy to denigrate the Egyptians who have so speedily relinquished the little freedom they won for themselves and rushed back to lionize the dictator. At the same time, those frenzied scenes from the square in the last days of January 2011 are also too easily dismissed today. But it was very real - a million people coming together to shake off the fear and repression of decades, calling to topple the regime. True, the world's view was too focused on the square, not bothering to find out what the feeling was elsewhere, among those who had what to lose from the departure of the old order. But it would wrong to say that those protesting were just the young members of the internet and Twitter generation. The million people in the square included families and old men who had never touched a computer or mobile phone and were still grasping at the first opportunity in their lives to shout out their thoughts without fear.
The desire for freedom was real, even if in describing it we exaggerated and allowed ourselves to be swept away.
Egypt was the second Arab nation to be sucked into the maelstrom of revolution in 2011. The first was Tunisia, where President Zeid bin Ali was forced to flee after the army refused to continue backing in the face of widespread demonstrations against the autocratic rule of his family and cronies. Tunisia also seems to be the only country to have emerged from the storm in relatively good shape, holding something resembling a functioning democracy. It went through a series of political assassinations and a period of government by an Islamist party on the way. Egypt tried to be Tunisia, holding two relatively free elections in which the Muslim Brotherhood came to power. But the forces there were too powerful and the fear of becoming more like Libya, which has descended into a jumble of warlords' fiefdoms, or even worse, Syria, sinking in the blood of a quarter of a million deaths and the displacement of nearly half its population, forced to run for their lives.
There's no way of knowing what the majority of the Egyptian people would really like, but it's impossible to deny that after a year in power, they felt that the elected Islamist President Mohammed Morsi had not succeeded in holding the country together. The appeal to Mubarak's generals to take over, while manipulated and orchestrated, did have widespread popular backing. The brutal suppression of the Brotherhood's leaders and supporters, including the incarceration without trial of hundreds, and at least a thousand protesters killed in a public massacre, failed to rekindle demonstrations, at least not of those from outside the Brotherhood's circles and a tiny group of diehards from the original Twitter activists. The demand for stability was as authentic as the desire for freedom
The dropping of the charges against Mubarak didn't really change much. Since his ouster he has been held in luxury conditions in a secluded ward of a new military hospital, built with U.S. funding, and providing mainly private services as yet another of the Egyptian generals' many business holdings. The new-old regime continues to play lip-service to the "glorious revolution" of January 15 but the only reminder of it on the streets of Cairo is the blackened hull of Mubarak's party headquarters which was torched on the evening of that day.
There is nothing out of the ordinary with the Egyptians' preference. They are just one, sharp and fierce symptom of a global wave of anti-democracy. In Turkey the majority continues to vote for now-president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He succeeded in breaking the power of the army generals who had controlled the country for ninety years, but replaced them instead with his own quasi-democratic style of neo-Ottoman and conservative Muslim autocracy. In Russia Vladimir Putin continues to successfully exploit the national trauma from the chaotic decade that followed the disintegration of the Soviet Union under Boris Yeltsin. Most Russians seem to be content with the way any credible alternative to the new Czar have been marginalized and hounded into exile. Even in the "advanced" democracies of the West citizens are meekly accepting curbs on freedom of information and intrusions on their privacy in the name of state security and stability. In Israel as well, anti-democratic legislation under the cover of safeguarding the nation is not bringing the masses out on to the streets.
Three years ago, it was still possible to believe that the Arab revolutions were the next stage following the wave that began with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and that the clamor for democracy born out of the deeply held convictions of all humans was inevitable. The thousands cheering Mubarak on Saturday outside the court proved once again that people have other priorities.