A Young Nation Triumphs as an Old Ruler Falls

So Hosni Mubarak is gone. He’d been finished since Jan. 25, when the Egyptian revolution began. That a broad uprising could spontaneously occur demonstrated that the government could be taken. That it continued and the military didn’t clamp down guaranteed that it would be.

The story is primarily and obviously a political one: Pro-democracy forces rose up against dictatorship. But there were signs from the beginning that some very human parts of the story were going to have an impact on the outcome.

One is that Mr. Mubarak was not without supporters in Egypt, but they stayed home, patrolled their neighborhoods, or went to the office. His foes took to the streets and flooded the squares. They were the picture on TV and the Internet. They gave the interviews and made speeches.

The revolution in part was a struggle between the ambivalent and the impassioned. Those who backed Mr. Mubarak for reasons of stability or personal gain knew they were supporting a system that was corrupt and oppressive. Their support made them complicit, morally compromised. They didn’t want to be targeted. They weren’t going to do interviews making the case for a dictator; they weren’t going to take to the streets holding signs.

Those who opposed Mr. Mubarak had no ambivalence. They were happy to make their case. They were fighting for a dream of the future; they were fighting for superior principles. In modern revolution, passion trumps ambivalence.

And youth trumps age. Egypt is a young nation, median age 24, with high youth unemployment. All revolutions, in the end, are about the young versus the old, because the young are driven by hope and the old by experience. The men who massed in Tahrir Square the first week looked to be aged roughly 16 to 35. A few days into the revolution, I received an email from a friend just back from Cairo. He told me, he’d seen a young man run out of his suburban Cairo house. He was off to the demonstrations, to take part in history. Running after him was his grandmother, who literally grabbed him by the ear and tried to drag him back inside.

The young want revolution and progress, the old are inclined toward stability and peace. The grandmother was probably thinking, “I want you safe.” The young man might have been thinking, “I want my freedom.” The old are certain that happiness cannot be found in politics, that life is deeper and more mysterious than that. The young believe that happiness cannot be found without freedom, that freedom cannot be won without a fight, and that the fight is political. The old of Egypt will likely think the young have no idea what they’re unleashing. The young think the old have no idea what they accepted—the limits, the oppression. “Anything is better than that,” the young say. “We’ll see,” reply the old.

The young have the numbers and the technology. They sweep away old edifices with cellphones. The young activists of the world now talk to each other, share facts with each other, inspire each other, plan their actions together, and that has changed everything. Social media is a revolutionary force. We know that, but we’re still catching up with its implications. A leader of the Egyptian revolt was a Google executive. Could the future be any clearer?

No takeable dictatorship will survive this era. The ones that do last will be so effectively totalitarian that their very brutishness will be their bulwark. It is ironic evidence that Mr. Mubarak’s government was not in the end so brutal that his people were able to topple him.

With the rise of new media, governments have fully lost the capacity to be discreet or silent. The old ability of a nation to take time to think things through, to avoid the risk of offending or inflaming, is gone and will never come back. When something happens in the world, the media press relentlessly. Within hours of the beginning of the revolt, the media was full of “No response yet from the White House,” which became, “Awaiting word from the White House,” then, “Growing controversy over the silence from the White House.” In the end, despite early bobbles and backtracking, the White House did all right, mostly because from the beginning they seemed to understand: Mr. Mubarak is over.

Finally, it was Egypt’s story, Egypt’s drama, Egypt’s decision about Egypt’s future. What happens now will have implications for America, but the revolution was not about America, which appears to have been hard for some Americans to grasp. “America’s invasion of Iraq prompted Egypt’s freedom movement.” That’s one way to look at it, an odd way. “Did Obama Lose Egypt?” It was not his to lose. Egypt prompted Egypt’s freedom movement. We are not the center of everything, the reason for everything.

Nobody knows for sure what will follow the joy, on the streets of Cairo and Alexandria, of this weekend. Mr. Mubarak always told American officials who pressed him to loosen his grip that if he did so, Islamic radicals would seize power, shift Egyptian foreign policy in warlike directions, and suppress the people of his nation in far worse ways. But Fareed Zakaria, among others, has argued that Mr. Mubarak used the threat of fundamentalism as an excuse not to change. Egypt has all sorts of political activists—liberals, Arab nationalists, old-school Marxists, new-school Marxists, free-marketers, young social-media professionals. All, Mr. Zakaria noted in Time last week, are “determined to shape their destiny.” The Muslim Brotherhood is part of the mix. But now instead of playing the part of oppressed victims, they will be forced to compete in the marketplace of ideas. When they do, they may lose some of their mystique. Egyptian society, says Mr. Zakaria, has within it “a persistent liberal strain.” The trend of greater economic freedom will require the rule of law.

Most intriguingly, Mr. Zakaria noted conflicting polls the past few years about who the people of Egypt really are and what they really think. A Pew Research survey last year found 84% of the people support the death penalty for Muslims who leave the faith, and 82% support stoning as a punishment for adultery. But a 2007 poll found that 90% supported freedom of religion, 80% supported free speech, 75% oppose censorship. A 2010 report showed a large majority prefer democracy to other forms of government.

It is hard to know, if you’re not Egyptian, what to make of this. Not only will the world be watching to see what Egypt becomes, what future its people will choose, but Egypt itself will be watching, and discovering what and who it is. A Hollywood director once said that a great Western is defined by this dynamic: “The villain has arrived while the hero is evolving.” Egypt itself is evolving. May its people be heroes and do great things.