Egypt May Be Cradling Something New

My high school history teacher insisted that our dust-up with King George in 1776 should be called our War For Independence, because there was nothing particularly “revolutionary” about it. Our founding fathers were appropriating ideas floating around European intelligensia for at least a century. Thomas Jefferson’s “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” was plagiarized from John Locke’s “life, liberty and the pursuit of property.”

Revolutions don’t come along every day (or even every century). We may be watching one unfold in Egypt. So far, it’s a fight for independence, a garden-variety rebellion. But something much more dramatic may be afoot. They may be welcoming into the world a new form of governance. Let’s call it, for the lack of a better term, democracy.

Evidence turns up far from Tahrir Square, away from television cameras. It hasn’t made it into your living room yet. Forget for a moment Twitter, Facebook and Google. Think instead about a Neighborhood Watch.

My native Egyptian friend Ehab called home. Cell phones and Internet connections had been severed, so Ehab called his parents’ land line for news about his family. What they described to him was more hopeful than anything I have heard reported.

As young people massed in the cities to protest, their parents were left at home to watch Al-Jazeera, hoping their children didn’t get slaughtered on television. Mubarak called for reinforcements, so police were removed from residential neighborhoods and smaller towns across Egypt.

Police presence is felt heavily in Egyptian daily life. They are the rule of law — directing traffic, literally and figuratively. Suddenly they were gone. For the first time in memory, people across Egypt found themselves left without “protection.” For the sake of their homes and their families, Egyptians banded together to protect themselves.

It happened quickly and without visible leadership. Neighbors knocked on doors, making sure the inhabitants were the people who belonged there. If they saw something they couldn’t handle, they called more neighbors to help. Check-points were set up, discouraging looters, checking for weapons — completely volunteer.

It was a self-organizing force, acting naturally, reaching for safety and drawing from decency. Nobody had to instruct them, the way a plant doesn’t have to be told to add cells that become leaves that reach for sunlight.

After two days, these Egyptians found they felt safer than they ever had. Emboldened in their own neighborhoods, they encouraged their children in Tahrir Square not to give up.

The same organic, leaderless drive for decency was emerging in the city squares. Coptic Christians planned a vigil in support of the protests. Egyptian Muslims organized their protection and vice versa. Both sides knew their revolution could be subverted if they allowed the regime to play up their religious differences. It had happened before.

But not this time. This was a true uprising, a rising up, a bottom-up movement. Can it be sustained and built into a new model of governance? The world’s breath is bated.

America rebelled against a monarch, but then asked its first president to retain his office for life. Luckily, George Washington refused.

We’ve learned to spread authority over larger numbers. We’ve added checks and balances, but our governance model still flows downward. We replaced top-down authority with middle-down authority.

From the United States Congress to precinct captains in Chicago to Eugene’s Neighborhood Leadership Council, fiefdoms have been divided but not destroyed. We’ve retained the ideal of democracy, but its practice has always been beyond our reach.

Until now.

Enter Twitter and Facebook and cell phones. Eighty four million Egyptians just “unfriended” Hosni Mubarak. A decentralized mode of communication defies any centralized power structure.

Egypt — using tools that fit in one person’s hand and able to reach a billion other hands almost instantly — may be giving birth to something new.

It wouldn’t be the first time. It’s not known as the Cradle of Civilization for nothing.

Ehab drove to Eugene two years ago to watch the inauguration of our first African American president. He was proud for us that day. But now he’s prouder than he’s ever been. He drives around San Francisco, displaying an Egyptian flag on his truck, waving at anyone who honks. He can’t wait to go home.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a weekly column for The Register-Guard and blogs.