One of my first political memories as a small child was Tiananmen Square. I was eight years old at the time and remember watching the evening news as, night after night, masses of people gathered in that square, in defiance of a tyrannical government, to demand the basic human right of liberty. I remember when the soldiers of the “People’s Liberation Army” were sent in to massacre those pro-democracy demonstrators. And I remember the powerful image of a lone man who fearlessly planted himself directly in the path of a column of tanks, and would not let them pass.
As I watched the demonstrators in Egypt this week, I could not help but think back to that memory of Tiananmen Square and of the people who finally rose up against an intolerable despotism. The images of that time, and the images now being broadcast out of Cairo, reminds us all that the most powerful political force in existence is still the individual desire for freedom.
Take, for example, the extraordinary scene that Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times witnessed the other day in Tahrir Square:
Inside Tahrir Square on Thursday, I met a carpenter named Mahmood whose left arm was in a sling, whose leg was in a cast and whose head was being bandaged in a small field hospital set up by the democracy movement. This was the seventh time in 24 hours that he had needed medical treatment for injuries suffered at the hands of government-backed mobs. But as soon as Mahmood was bandaged, he tottered off once again to the front lines.
“I’ll fight as long as I can,” he told me. I was awestruck. That seemed to be an example of determination that could never be surpassed, but as I snapped Mahmood’s picture I backed into Amr’s wheelchair. It turned out that Amr had lost his legs many years ago in a train accident, but he rolled his wheelchair into Tahrir Square to show support for democracy, hurling rocks back at the mobs that President Hosni Mubarak apparently sent to besiege the square.
These demonstrators are cut from the same cloth as the American colonists at Lexington, the civil-rights marchers in the 1960s, and the Chinese demonstrators at Tiananmen Square. They posses true grit, and they deserve our full support.
Try as he might, Mubarak has failed to crush the people’s uprising in Cairo. His thugs have inflicted physical damage on the pro-democracy demonstrators, but he has not even gotten close to damaging their will to resist. In fact, his actions have only strengthened the resistance against his rule.
As we watch the events in Cairo, we all wonder what is coming next. My personal fear that Tahrir Square would turn into another Tiananmen Square has abated in the last few days as Murbarak looses support even amongst his generals. Furthermore, the Obama administration has chosen wisely to support a transitional government that would effectively remove Murbarak from power. That would have been inconceivable under the last American administration, itself exhibiting many of the same characteristics of the corrupt Murbarak dictatorship.
Whatever happens next, we are undoubtedly witnessing a monumental historical change in the Middle East. The Egyptian uprising, for instance, has also touched off growing demonstrations in Yemen, Jordan, and Syria. However, it is unclear yet that these changes will finally result in a better future. If many of these uprisings end like the Iranian Revolution did—with a radical Islamist regime coming to power—then the future of the region will be even darker than before.
In the meantime, the vast majority of the demonstrators in Egypt are motivated by a disgust of Murbarak’s dictatorship, the corruption of his regime, the oppression of his secret police, and the stagnation of the Egyptian economy. As Americans, it is essential that we support the aspirations of these demonstrators for a more democratic Egypt. It would be uncharacteristic of our national character and history to do otherwise.
Tiananmen Square seems like centuries ago, but the struggle that occurred there continues now in the streets and squares of Cairo. It is the same struggle that founded our own nation and led men like Patrick Henry to famously declare, “Give me liberty, or give me death.” It is comforting to know that sentiment is still alive and well in men like Maged, a doctor who drove 125 miles to join the demonstrators in Tahrir Square. “If I die,” Maged said, “this is for my country.”