The king is dead, long live… Who? Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, who held the presidency for thirty years, has stepped down. The army has taken command, at least temporarily. Egyptians find themselves free. Well, that’s the theory.
The reality is anyone’s guess. Omar Suleiman, Mubarak’s former security chief and vice president, expressed doubt that the revolution would come to good. “The culture of democracy is still far away,” he told state and independent newspaper editors on February 8. Suleiman translates Barack Obama’s “Yes we can” to “No we can’t” on the Nile.
So what’s next? Removing Mubarak represents not the end of affairs but the beginning. Revolutions lift nations out of despair only when they point forward to something positive. In one of Marlon Brando’s early movies, The Wild One (1953), a girl asks Brando—a Hell’s Angels type—”What are you rebelling against, Johnny?” He answers, “What do you got”? The small town his gang invades is no better off for its anarchic presence.
If Egyptians want to establish a legitimate democracy, they’ll have to be for a set of basic principles: multiple free elections—not post-colonial Africa’s “one man, one vote, one time;” respect for minority political parties and religious groups; the rule of law; human and women’s rights; participation in the global order; and the determination to live peacefully with their neighbors, including Israel.
How to get from here to there? Egyptians might turn to an unexpected source for guidance—the Torah. Egypt and the Jewish people have a history in the Hebrew Bible. I suggest that ancient stories offer wisdom for unfolding events today:
• Deuteronomy 30:19 presents Moses advising the Israelites on God’s behalf: “I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life.” Ordinary Egyptians now hold real power. They can establish a true democracy or merely replace a secular dictatorship with a religious one and head down a perilous path.
• Exodus 25:1–30:10 comprises two weekly Torah portions—Terumah (Gifts) and Tetsavveh (You shall instruct or command), which we read this week. Untypically of the biblical narrative, they go into minute detail offering dozens of specifics regarding the construction of the Tabernacle and the items that go into it, as well as the priestly vestments Aaron and his sons are to wear along with instructions for their ordination ritual. Creating a democracy where none exists requires no less attention to detail, planning and political craftsmanship.
• Genesis 12:3 reveals God telling Abraham that if he and Sarah journey to Canaan, “All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you.” A journey to true democracy can make Egypt a light unto the Arab world—and all of us.
Post-Mubarak, Egyptians stand at a crossroads. May they choose life.
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