Two Revolutions Took a Turn Last Week

Two revolutions had hiccups last week. I felt connected to each, hoping that mourning a loss will not impede the progress and promise ahead.

Two and a half years ago, I was in Cairo’s Tahrir Square the day after Egypt’s military leaders relented to public protests. Hosni Mubarak and his sons would stand trial. I saw the jubilation. It was Woodstock without the skin. That scene repeated itself last week, when the military deposed Egypt’s first elected president, Mohammed Morsi.

While those protests were swelling last week, Douglas Engelbart was dying from kidney failure in his home in Atherton, Calif. at the age of 88. Engelbart led a revolution of a different sort by inventing the computer mouse in 1963. I was interviewing him in the spring of 2006, when he invited me to join him for lunch.

Engelbart was raised on a farm outside Portland, schooled in Corvallis. He was an Oregon original.

In 1968, near the literal midpoint of his life, Engelbart staged at Stanford University what’s come to be known as “the mother of all demos.” In less than 100 minutes, he demonstrated the computer mouse, an inventive visual interface, the precursor to html computer protocols, and the beginnings of the Internet. You can view it at http://sloan.stanford.edu/mousesite/1968Demo.html

I met Engelbart at the cafeteria for Logitech, a company that makes computer mouses by the millions. Although Engelbart received a few thousand dollars in bonus money for his invention, he never received the credit he deserved. Logitech gave him free use of an office and he accepted.

We carried our trays to a table near the corner. Although the purpose of my trip was to interview him, he asked the first question: “What tool do you think has benefited humans most?”

I thought the fence. He thought the wheel. Had we stuck with the topic, we might have agreed on the lever. He was a profoundly agreeable man. He wanted the tool discussion because he believed we wasted decades using computers wrongly.

“Computers are tools,” he said flatly, “but we’ve used them as slaves.” All our early uses eliminated or streamlined drudgery. Word processors eliminated the need for white-out or correcto-type. Spreadsheets surpassed adding machines. Databases eliminated card files. Email replaced writing letters.

Each was doing something better and easier, but nothing altogether different. Engelbart was insistent that computers should be employed for purposes that no human could do without them, no matter how much patience and prowess was employed.

Google and other companies have followed his vision in important ways. The world is better because of his work.

Not so with Mohammed Morsi. He was elected president of Egypt with 51 percent of the vote and he assumed his office exactly a year ago. For as long as there have been democratic ideals, people have be wary of a “tyranny of the majority.” Morsi demonstrates why.

After his election, he immediately began consolidating power, limiting the judiciary, rewarding his supporters. He had erected billboard-sized visages of himself, making him indistinguishable from any of his military strongman predecessors. When people complained and then protested, he ignored or suppressed the dissent.

Egypt’s future looked clear and dire. Three years would have been too long to wait. People were hungry for opportunity, but also for food. Morsi intended to assume so much power in his remaining three years that he could become president-for-life.

Morsi didn’t care about the people. Without followers, there is no leader. What Egypt might become in three or more years is now unclear. Who Morsi would have become, had his plan not been interrupted, was painfully obvious. So Egypt chose pain.

As Cairo resident Saber El Hadry told me in May, 2011, “Better an end with a horror than a horror without end.” He hoped that whatever president Egypt elected would serve only “one term or maybe two.” That wouldn’t have been Morsi.

Egypt now will renew its search for a leader like Nelson Mandela or George Washington, two men who were offered “president for life” but refused it.

Leaders must yield control or their revolutions cannot outlive them. We saw that last week.

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