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Editorial

Egypt's finest hour

A popular, peaceful protest brought down a dictator. Now, a real democracy must emerge.

February 12, 2011

Every lover of liberty will share in the exhilaration of the Egyptian people after the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak. A revolt by students, young professionals and workers ousted a dictator who had ruled his country in the guise of a democrat for 30 years. It may be that intervention by the military was the immediate cause of Mubarak's dramatic turnabout the day after he refused to step down, but there's no question that the primary authors of his overthrow were the Egyptian people. Friday was the climax of that rare thing: a popular and peaceful revolution.

How — and even if — that revolution will be translated into a broad-based, democratic government isn't clear. The Egyptian military, to which Mubarak ceded power, must enact constitutional reforms necessary for free and fair elections, and it must broaden the negotiations with opposition figures that began in the waning days of the Mubarak regime. It will be a profound betrayal — for Egyptians and their supporters all around the world — if the result of this revolution is another military dictatorship, even a "benign" one that clamps down on corruption and promotes economic reforms. As President Obama said Friday, the next step in Egypt must be "nothing less than genuine democracy."

Speculation about what will come next is inevitable as well as important. But it shouldn't divert attention from the immediate triumph — the astonishing accomplishment of the Egyptians who filled Tahrir Square day after day and employed both the age-old techniques of popular protest and the new tools of social media to rally their countrymen to their cause. The protest's timing may have been affected by the uprising in Tunisia, but it reflected long-festering discontent with Egypt's sterile and corrupt political order, its thuggish police force and its lack of opportunity for educated young people. The yearning for change would have manifested itself sooner or later. But no one could have predicted how powerful, and peaceful, such a demonstration would be. Not since the fall of the Berlin Wall has there been such a dramatic testimony to the desire for personal freedom.

Last month, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton offered some prophetic advice for leaders in the Middle East. "Those who cling to the status quo may be able to hold back the full impact of their countries' problems for a little while," she warned, "but not forever." Clinton said that the collapse of entrenched regimes would create a vacuum that would be filled by extremists and terrorist groups. But in Egypt there is another alternative: citizens determined to establish democracy. Their triumph is a rebuke to cynics who believed Egypt was incapable of transformation — and an achievement the Egyptian army must not dishonor.

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