Courage is both rare and common. We all have it in us; fortunately, most of us almost never need to use it. In early 2011, millions of Egyptians came together to tap into their personal and collective courage.
On February 12, 2011, as Egypt emerged from three decades of brutal oppression, we took note of the nonviolent civic demands of the brave souls who filled Tahrir Square and other central squares across Egypt, and sought to mark that moment in human history. A great civilization that had been, in one way or another, subject to authoritarian rule for almost all of its history, was now in the hands of millions of brave citizens, so committed to the rights, privileges and obligations of citizenship that they filled a public square, defying sniper fire, machete-wielding horsemen and gangs of pro-regime thugs and torturers, and demanded the departure of a dictator.
The people of Egypt showed courage not only by confronting such violence, but also because they stood up for the possibility that true participatory democracy could come into being by the will of the people.
Their heroic achievement set a new standard for legitimate government across the world, and presaged an era of hope for the region and for oppressed peoples everywhere. It was a unique and inspirational expansion of decentralized democratic engagement, and so we committed ourselves, as American citizens without party or political bias, to making sure we tell our story—the story of real people, living life at the human scale, affected by and interested in how decisions made by public servants affect our families and our communities—so that we at least know our own government will never be able to say it acted without knowledge of what informed, impassioned citizens hope for.
All legitimacy rests on the principle and the practice of recognizing the inherent dignity, freedom, and rights, of the human person. When this standard is challenged, whether by extreme force or subtle deviation, citizenship means not abiding any attempt by government to rule out, override or cast aside any legitimate consideration of human stakeholders.
On February 12, 2011, we offered this note to the courageous people of Egypt:
Congratulations to the people of Egypt
… for showing the very best of what is human in all of us, for showing that major change can come because millions of people peacefully come together to make it happen.
Independents of principle honor your heroic achievement.
A New Perspective
It was from that message of admiration, respect and gratitude, for the courage of ordinary people willing to stand up, in the line of fire, with nothing but moral clarity and shared commitment, against the violence of a decades-long tyranny, that this project, first as Independents of Principle, now as Democracy Witness, was born.
So now, as Egypt struggles to find its collective footing in the new, uneven terrain of democracy, we take note of the fact that political discontent seems to be spreading, not abating. Governments in the most stable modern democracies are being called to task, and some are failing to demonstrate that they serve with full honor.
Our public discourse is being coarsened and corroded by factionalism and fear; a dehumanizing campaign of manufactured hate has been deployed as part of a military cyber attack on open democracy. It is evident that free people have taken for granted basic rights like universal access to quality education, freedom of information, and the right to think critically and reject propaganda and corruption.
It would be facile to suggest that the Tahrir Square Moment has subsided. The nonviolent uprising is still in process. That moment of historic political transformation engaged people across the world in a new global public space that is itself still coming into view. So, perhaps it is understandable that the post-authoritarian period in Egypt has not yet established its framework for reliable nonviolent civics.
We must remain attuned to the humane forces at work in Egyptian society, and that echo every day the voice of the nonviolent revolution of 2011.
Those humane forces will win the future, once there is enough collective resilience against the battery and brashness of authoritarian politics. To pretend they are no longer there, or to gloss over them in service of bleak stereotypes, would be a disservice to history, and to the people who showed so eloquently what collaborative nonviolent democratic civics can be.
To paraphrase Hamilton:
We will not forever depend for our constitutions on accident and force; the right to establish good government from reflection and choice will prevail.