A week ago we saw the impossible. An autocratic regime toppled, not by foreign invasion, violent rebellion, or military coup, but by the peaceful demands of its citizens. The people of Egypt rose up and definitively withdrew all support for the waning legitimacy of their government. The supposed strength of the Egyptian police state folded before the determined fervor of Egypt’s youth. The illusion of power that the Egyptian government projected for three decades was shattered in less then three weeks.
How could this be? How could the global perception of Egypt, and the government’s perception of itself, be so utterly divorced from reality? How can a dictator appear so strong and confident to the world when, in reality, the base of his power is only as solid as sand? The origin of this divide is a misunderstanding of the meaning of power. Dictators are by nature bullies who view power in its most narrow definition: the ability to use physical force to fight and coerce. They measure strength by numbers: soldiers, tanks, and missiles. They measure stability by how many policemen or informants walk the streets of their capitals. Power to them is simply a huge hammer and clamp, the former is used for attacking their foreign foes, and the latter is used for tightening their oppressive control. We like to think that we in the United States know differently—but in fact, we, too, subscribed to this limited definition of power. We looked at Egypt, home to one of the most powerful armed forces in the Middle East, and assumed that the country was strong. Since Mubarak could subdue the Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s most-organized opposition movement, we figured his regime was stable. We were wrong.
The inherent flaw in this theory is that power and strength encompass so many more elements than brute force. Power is economic growth. Power is a sense of national vitality that comes from opportunity. Strength is in the innovation that stems from the ability to say what one thinks, create something from it, and know that the world stands to benefit from this creation. Stability comes from a government that is checked and balanced, where constructive debate accompanies any decision. The nation must steer itself where it wants to go, rather than grimly follow a leader, crippled by political shackles.
Moreover, we must ask how a nation with a youth-unemployment rate of 25 percent, 13 percent inflation, and a fifth of the population living on $1.25 a day can be considered powerful? How can a nation with a 30 percent illiteracy rate be considered strong or stable? Dictators do not prioritize solving these problems, and thus they erode their nations and erode their power. Slowly, the nation is hollowed out from the inside, until any strength the government still has is but an illusion.
Hosni Mubarak was a hollow man, outwardly strong and confident but nonetheless ready to crumble. The revolution was the well-timed punch that no one saw coming or expected to succeed; yet when it landed, it splintered any remaining fantasy of power or control. The young, technologically savvy organizers of these protests have taught us something valuable. When they took to the streets they were in search of everything Mubarak’s government could not provide them: jobs, liberties, and the ability to make something of their lives. They have taught us that power is based on more than brute force. It must be based on a freedom and opportunity that pervades every aspect of society. Power must flow from every institution of a nation, not just the ones armed with guns. Every state in the world should take notice of this: a nation’s power is founded upon the strength and industry of its people, not the fallible force of its weapons of war.
Blinderman is a member of the class of 2014.