While rebellions are erupting all over the Middle East, it is the continuing Egyptian revolution that will determine which direction the Arab world takes.
After spending a day in Tahrir Square, where hundreds of thousands of Egyptians were jubilantly celebrating the fall of President Hosni Mubarak, and talking to a broad section of people involved in his downfall, I can see how Egypt's revolt might produce a democracy that delivers for the people. And if Egypt succeeds, the whole region would have a better chance.
The Tunisian revolt inspired Egyptians, but little Tunisia would not have ignited the entire region had the Egypt revolution faltered. Egypt, on the other hand, has 80 million people and a history that goes back 6,000 years. It has historically led the Arab world, in politics, and in culture, especially with its movies, authors, and singers.
Egyptians call their country "Mother of the World." But over the past 30 years under Mubarak, the country has stagnated — a narrow sliver grew rich while the economy faltered — and failed to provide jobs for the younger generation, even those with university degrees.
As many young people told me on the square, what hurt them most was not their economic plight but the daily humiliations they suffered. Constantly at the mercy of secret police, they watched Mubarak's cronies feed at the government trough while they earned peanuts and rigged elections prevented political change. Now, there is a rush of national pride at the fact that the Egyptian grass roots made this revolution, by itself.
As the conga lines of young men and women snaked through Tahrir Square holding huge Egyptian flags and singing, "Hold your head up, we are Egyptians," I realized that this country has regained its mojo. Once again, the people of the region are looking to Cairo. If Egypt, whose size and human capital overshadow countries such as Yemen or Bahrain, can move toward representative government, it would become the role model for the Arab world.
However, despite the hoopla, I did not find the organizers of this revolt — architects, doctors, journalists, engineers, lawyers by training — to be naive. They know the obstacles they face, including an economy in free fall as tourism tanks.
The military — still hugely popular — has taken control of the country, supposedly for six months. During this time, the constitution will be amended to enable fair elections; an interim president will be elected, and possibly a new parliament as well.
But in conversations in dingy office buildings, and in the square, I heard much debate over whether six months is enough time to set up new political parties and develop civic awareness. The Mubarak regime crushed independent political life while letting Muslim Brotherhood candidates run; this permitted it to claim that the only alternative to its rule was the Islamists.
So, Egyptians must build new parties, which will take time (but they also worry that giving the military more time may encourage it to keep power).
Wael Nawara, a shrewd strategist for the small El Ghad Party (led by activist Ayman Nour), told me that holding elections before developing civic life was like "having the exam without first having the learning process." First, he says, Egypt needs to develop political parties and free media. It also needs to encourage its citizens — who are used to taking orders from the top — to participate in political life.