The protesters who have taken over Cairo's Tahrir Square demand rights all human beings deserve: freedom from dictatorship, an end to police brutality and, more than anything, a say in the governing of their country. Their struggle has required enormous courage and it has moved the world. Once this phase of the uprising ends, the challenges will become less dramatic but no less demanding. In fact, how the protesters organize after the current regime leaves will prove pivotal for building a truly free Egypt.
When Wael Ghonim, the Google executive that helped launch the revolt, took the microphone before a euphoric crowd and declared "This country is our country," he articulated the intolerable reality that Egypt, like other states in the region, has been run like the fiefdom of a powerful few.
The uprising is still underway, but it's not too soon to focus on the next stage. It's not enough to know why you want the regime to go. It is just as vital for protesters to have a clear picture of the country they want to build, and to put into place a plan to achieve that vision. If they don't do that smartly and quickly, their thrilling revolution could take a disastrous turn. Demonstrators must carve a path from what they describe as a Utopia in Tahrir Square to democracy in the real world.
Idealistic Egyptian activists have built an impressive, diffuse movement, without a clear leader and a precise ideology. That has helped fuel it by widening its popular base. They say theirs is not a Muslim uprising. That's true. Large numbers of protesters, especially those who took to Twitter and Facebook to build their movement, yearn for a functioning democracy that protects individual and minority rights and guarantees the rule of law. They would like to see a liberal democracy, defending freedom of religion, freedom of speech and freedom of thought, and ensuring equal rights for men and women, Muslims and Copts. They would like an Egypt that preserves peace with its neighbors, including Israel.
And yet, it is not a foregone conclusion that what will ultimately emerge in Egypt will fulfill that ideal. Countless revolutions in history have moved from the heady days of brotherhood and optimism, from the utopian calls for freedom and equality, to new forms of repression and violence. Nothing is guaranteed.
When the current regime leaves, an ideological battle will ensue for the future of Egypt. As demonstrators pack up from the square their differing visions for the future will come into sharp competition. That contest will determine the character of the new Egypt.
The masses of protesting Egyptians share a common purpose today. But a rush to elections will not ensure freedom or even lasting democracy.
Over the course of three decades in power, President Hosni Mubarak kept the country in a state of political paralysis, banning political dissent. Emergency rule thwarted efforts to build political parties. The only place to come together was the mosque. As a result, the only organized party, other than Mubarak's National Democratic Party, is the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Brotherhood says it does not intend to take power. Many have argued that its views are less radical than the West fears. But there is no denying that their goal of imposing Islamic law throughout the Islamic world, if the Brotherhood gains a strong position in Egyptian politics, could pose a threat to the chances that a strong and peaceful liberal democracy will emerge.
The Brotherhood may not enjoy majority support, but by some estimates one-quarter to one-third of the population supports it. In a parliamentary system, that is enough to take power, or at least to become a major force capable of shaping policy and legislation. They will receive help from ideological soul mates in other countries.
There are many versions of Islamic rule, and the Brotherhood could change over time. We don't know if they would ultimately advocate a model similar to Saudi Arabia's, to Hamas in Gaza, to Iran, or 1990s Afghanistan. Whatever their ideal, the Brotherhood will stand in opposition to the modernizers who would like to see Egypt embrace a secular rule of law. Washington and the West should throw their support behind liberal forces. Theirs are the values America seeks to embody.
Advocates of a free, open and progressive Egypt understandably focus on winning the struggle against the rulers of the past. But they should waste no time preparing for the crucial battles ahead, against those who would hijack their dreams of a better future.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Frida Ghitis writes about global affairs for The Miami Herald. Readers may send her e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.