TWO weeks ago, when I first read the news of the protests in Egypt, which followed the popular uprising and toppling of the government in Tunisia, I cynically remarked to my wife that the protests will carry on for a few days then fizzle out. Life in Egypt will then return to “normal” under the authoritarian rule of President Hosni Mubarak, who has been in power for the past 30 years.
How wrong I was–and how glad I am that I was wrong! Just over an hour ago, Mubarak’s resignation was announced on state television by his recently-appointed vice-president, Omar Suleiman. Following that brief 30-second message, scenes of jubilation erupted on Tahrir (Liberation) Square in central Cairo. Al Jazeera reported of protesters dropping to their knees in prayer and then rising and chanting “God is great”. A 30-year old Egyptian Al Jazeera reporter dropped all pretences of impartiality and shared that all her life she had known no other leader but Mubarak, and described her feelings of elation at his departure. Even the state television station newscaster reportedly cracked a smile after reading out her report. CNN reported that demonstrations initiated over the Internet, on Facebook and Twitter, had resulted in the downfall of the Middle East’s strongest dictators.
This is a momentous occasion for not just Egypt but the entire Arab world. Indeed, the “people power” revolution in Egypt will be an inspiration for all freedom-loving people in oppressed nations around the world.
I visited Egypt about six years ago as part of a diplomatic delegation when I was working in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. From our meetings with academics, journalists and officials there, I got the distinct impression that this was not just a great ancient civilisation, but a nation brimming with suppressed intellect and potential. At the time I was there, the main opposition leader, Ayman Nour, had just been released from prison and there were minor street protests against the government led by the Kifiya (Enough) movement. In the six years that passed since, little seemed to have changed. Nour would later get convicted and jailed again, following a creditable run at the presidency in the elections that year.
Last week, I watched a BBC programme which interviewed some educated Egyptians at local cafes to ask them for their views on the protests. One middle aged woman remarked that the young people on Tahrir Square were doing what her generation always wanted to do but never dared to.
Indeed, every nation has its generation of heroes, who often comprise of the younger generation–more energetic, more idealistic and less cynical of the possibility of change. I believe Singapore’s time for change will come soon. For the past 50 years, we too have been under the authoritarian rule of a party that pays lip service to the ideals of democracy and political freedom. While we have not suffered from the same economic mismanagement that Egypt has, our level of political suppression exceeds that of Egypt in many ways. For example, even a one-man protest is disallowed under “public order” laws passed just last year. How will we ever see scenes of hundreds of thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators thronging the Padang?
Yet I remain hopeful in the sensibility of Singaporeans. While I do not wish to see mass protests bringing our economy to a standstill, I hope that this election year, Singaporeans from all walks of life and all generations will turn out in force at election rallies to declare their support for democracy and freedom from fear. I hope that my fellow citizens will take the time and effort to study the candidates and their track records carefully, and vote with their hearts and their heads, not out of fear or ignorance.
We can have our own “mini-revolution” this year by giving the ruling party a historically low popular vote (less than 60 per cent will do the trick) and breakthrough with one or more GRCs. This is a prospect that I am much less cynical about, than I was about the Egyptian revolution!