The protests against Mubarak that are occurring as I write, represent a momentous change. The overthrow of Ben Ali as dictator of Tunisia has lit a fire in the Arab world that shows every sign of spreading. It is difficult to overstate the importance of these events. At this point, irrespective of whether or not Mubarak is forced out by a popular revolution, the Middle East will never again be the same; the balance of power has irrevocably shifted.
The courage of the Egyptian people is to be greatly admired. Standing up to a notoriously violent police force which is well known for torturing political dissidents is inspiring.
However, beyond the undoubted courage of the protesters there is something which has struck me about the demonstrations which causes me to reflect upon failings that I've seen in movements in the west of which I've been a part.
The US State Department has made clear that they would like to see an "orderly transition" in Egypt. To them this means changing as little as possible and conducting a pantomime of democracy to install a minimally altered regime.
When two million Egyptian people were out in the streets calling for Mubarak to step down, and he was claiming that elections would be held at some appointed time in the future, the thought struck me: We have been alienated from democracy.
How can the great mass of the Egyptian people be demanding democracy from a dictator? The contradiction displayed by Mubarak dictating the terms of democracy shows the system for what it has become: a tool used by power to display its own legitimacy. If the people are to be sovereign, then they must display their sovereignty.
The anti-war movement in the run up to the invasion of Iraq, with its millions of protesters in the street in countries world-wide, came right up against a very similar wall. The protests in retrospect turned out to be no more than an appeal to authorities. The US and all its allies went ahead with it despite the unpopularity. The insistence that the war go ahead despite its unpopularity was a demonstration by our authorities of where sovereignty rests. Democracy was outside ourselves.
It hasn't always been like that. In Paris, on July 13th, 1789, in the tumult of grain hoarding by the government and fears of invasion by the Kings troops, crowds formed at the city hall. They formed a standing committee and took decisions to form a militia for 48,000 men for the defence of Paris against the King.
From this standing committee, delegates were sent to gain arms from the Hôtel des Invalides from which they obtained 30 to 40k rifles. Despite the fact that the Hôtel des Invalides was guarded by armed men, they were not inclined to fire on the people of Paris. They had demonstrated their legitimacy and taken democracy to be something exercised by themselves.
Furthermore, by organising popular committees and by arming themselves they had demonstrated their independence from the regime. Control of the streets passed to the people and the regime could not easily reassert its dominance. In fact it never did.
It is now that the Egyptian people could be served best by creating similar constituent assemblies (or "sections" as they were called in Paris) from which to make decisions about their own destiny. The lower ranking soldiers would be faced with a choice: to side with the people or to side with the regime. Given their stance over the last week, the prospects for their siding with the people are good.