The Public Eye: What Can Americans Learn From Egypt?

By Bob Burnett
Sunday February 20, 2011 - 02:49:00 PM

As the world watched, millions of Egyptians engaged in an eighteen-day democratic revolution. For those of us fortunate enough to live in the United States, there are five lessons to be learned from the insurrection in Egypt. 

Democracy remains the world’s most precious commodity. The Egyptian revolution was a spontaneous uprising of millions of ordinary people yearning for democracy; a movement no doubt inspired by US history. We should take pride in the fact that America has become a beacon of light to billions throughout the world who yearn for freedoms that many of us take for granted. 

Nonetheless, we should remember that democracy is hard work. Winton Churchill famously observed, “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” The struggles of the Egyptian people remind us how precious US democracy is, how fortunate we are to live in America, and the reality that an effective civil society requires our active involvement. 

It helps to have a job. While the Egyptian revolution involved specific political complaints, such as the lifting of martial law, there was a significant economic component. The Egyptians who took to the streets yearned for opportunity as well as freedom; they wanted a better life for themselves and their families. Under dictator Mubharak, many Egyptians, particularly young people felt they were trapped in a dead-end existence. Unemployment was high (more than 10 percent) and most educated young Egyptians who could not find meaningful work. 

The insurrection should remind Americans that a vital democracy also provides economic opportunity. In addition to the right of free speech and assembly, and the other civil rights that we hold dear, there are important economic rights the US needs to pay more attention to: the right to hold a decent job paying a living wage, to work in a safe environment, and to organize and join unions; as well as the right to adequate education, housing, and healthcare. 

The new technology has reshaped the face of protest. A lot of attention has been paid to the key role of Facebook in the Egyptian revolution, but in general the eighteen-day protest demonstrated that, over the past thirty years, developments in information technology -- the Internet, satellite TV, and mobile phones – have made the world a global community and thereby facilitated democratic protest. 

At an early stage of the Egyptian revolution, the Mubharak government tried to snuff dissent by turning off the Internet, restricting cell phone traffic, and beating up foreign journalists. The fact that this didn’t work is a testimony to the bravery of the protestors and reporters, and the robustness of the new media. (By the way, shutting down the Internet turned off Facebook but had the side affect of blocking most forms of Egyptian commerce.) 

The free-flow of communication is a precursor to democracy. The new technology not only makes global communication easier, but also protest. 

Nonviolence works. Except for the actions of Mubharak’s thugs, the Egyptian democratic revolution was nonviolent. It was another reminder that nonviolence is the most effect method for producing lasting social change. 

During the sixties, Martin Luther King Jr. was a powerful advocate of nonviolence and his leadership caused the Civil Rights movement to both accomplish its short-term objectives and produce lasting change in American society. Just before his untimely death, Dr. King shifted his focus from the problem of racial injustice to economic injustice; he was convinced the US democracy would not flourish if workers did not have good jobs and benefits. Sadly, the problem of economic injustice remains and should become the focus of a new nonviolent American social movement. 

These weren’t the people we were warned us about. Mohamed Atta, a key leader of the 9/11 attacks was an Egyptian citizen, as was the Al Qaeda second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri. As a consequence, some commentators lumped Egyptians with “Arabs” and “Muslims” and branded them as terrorists. We were told that they hated Americans, hated our freedoms. 

There may have been terrorists participating in the Egyptian revolution but, in general, the protestors didn’t look like the folks we have been warned about. The protestors seemed a remarkably diverse group: old and young, men and women, religious and secular, urban and rural. For the most part, they looked remarkably like Americans taking to the streets in the defense of their liberties. 

We didn’t hear a lot of “we hate America” rhetoric from the protestors. To the contrary, the general impression Americans got was that Egyptians would like to be more like us, they would like to have the democracy that we so often take for granted. 

The Egyptian revolution was incredibly heartening. Hopefully, it will remind Americans that we live in a country that serves as a beacon of hope to the rest of the world. And, that we need to take steps to clean up our own act, to ensure that democracy remains a reality for everyone in the United States. 

Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at