When Moses led his people out of Egypt, he led them away from slavery and oppression. Passing through the Red Sea, they left behind many years of suffering under the tyranny of Pharaoh and they looked forward to peace in a Promised Land. The harsh reality of freedom, though, soon began to make itself felt and things didn’t happen as quickly as the people wanted. Escaping from oppression didn’t bring them everything they wanted all at once.
They soon began to complain about their new conditions and began to long for the cucumbers and the pans of meat they had left behind – even though most of them had been hungry and without dignity during those days of slavery.
It took, in fact, forty years before their dream became reality and they entered the Promised Land.
That, though, is life. People have very short memories and it is easy for others to manipulate them by creating false images of what things used to be like, when present conditions are not good. We have seen this in these last days in Egypt.
Those who once sat at Pharaoh’s table and led Pharaoh’s army are now making a bid to return to power. The very ones who were at the heart of the old regime have shown their desire this last week to take on the mantle of Pharaoh and become Egypt’s President – and there are those who have believed them and who look back to the security of past years and prefer them to the uncertainty of Egypt’s present.
When the former regime was overthrown last year it was very interesting to watch the way events unfolded. At first, on January 25th, groups of young people made their protests and amazed everyone by their refusal to be silenced. The security forces were clearly at a loss as to what they should do.
This uncertainty created confidence in the protesters. They continued to demand change and their demands attracted more supporters.
On January 28, the real break came when brutal tactics were used to silence the protest. As hundreds died in full view of the whole world on our television screens the tables began to turn.
The rest is history. Within eighteen days the regime had fallen.
Looking back on those days now it is easy to see the big mistake that was made. The big mistake was to think that with the overthrow of the President everything had been accomplished and everything had changed. It hadn’t.
It is easy to remove a dictator, but not so easy to get rid of dictatorship. The head of the regime had fallen, but many elements of the regime remained - and remain to this day.
What is important for us to note here, though, is not the way the former regime managed to stay on in many aspects of Egyptian life, but in the way Egyptians reacted to what had happened.
It is true that there was great euphoria amongst the hundreds of thousands of protesters in Tahrir Square and other places in Egypt. But Egypt isn’t made up of hundreds of thousands of people.
Its population is nearer eighty-five million. And it was obvious in those days of January and early February of 2011 that many Egyptians were bewildered by what was happening. Having been told for thirty years that they were being looked after and that their leaders had their best interests at heart, many couldn’t understand what the protesters were protesting against.
Early on in the protests, when the President first appeared on television to tell Egyptians that he had given his life for Egypt and would not step down under any circumstances, there were many were greeted his speech with applause.
Those in Tahrir Square were dismayed, but many Egyptians, not in Tahrir but watching the events from their homes with their wives and children, were confused. As the protests continued and the regime used every dirty trick to discredit the calls for change, this confusion grew.
Prisons were opened, allowing murderers and rapists to roam the streets. Gangs of thugs were given weapons and allowed to cause terror in the hearts of ordinary people. The regime’s only hope to cling on to power was in the claim that only it could provide peace and security for Egypt.
The alternative, it said, was chaos.
Well, chaos followed. In many ways, we are now living in days of chaos. Again, though, it is not that fact that concerns us most. What is most important is the way people reacted. It became obvious as the revolution progressed that the President would be forced from power.
The crowds in Tahrir and all over Egypt got bigger and bigger. When he finally stepped down there was rejoicing in the streets. Even those who had not a part of the protests saw an opportunity for change. Surely, they thought, things can’t get any worse than they are now.
The idea of human rights and freedom of speech, though, is easy to sell to people with food in their stomachs who are denied them.
For people who are hungry and without work it is another matter. The revolution was greeted by everyone as an opportunity for things to get better. Everyone would have a job and a flat.
Everyone would be able to get married and have the chance to travel.
Many ordinary Egyptians were left behind by the revolution.
No one consulted them and no one explained to them what was happening. Is it any surprise now that the forces of the old regime are able to trick them by re-writing the past?
None of the promised changes have yet happened. Those who were hungry in 2011 are still hungry in 2012.
Those without shoes on their feet still have no shoes. All that has changed for them is that the country now seems to be without security.
Crime levels have risen. Disorder seems to have taken over. In that context, the forces of the old regime have made their move. Those who led the security forces, the ones who brutally put down dissent for years and left the country in the state it is now in, have dared to come back and tell people things were better in the past.
The mistake made in the days following January 2011 was not to have made it clear to everyone how difficult things would get. Maybe it was wishful thinking that made everyone look to a brighter future coming quickly. But surely nothing good in this world comes all at once and without effort.
Perhaps the biggest mistake of all was to think that Egypt needed quickly to find a new President.
With a new President all would be well again. With a new Pharaoh in place, the people could once more live in security and peace.
Perhaps the mistake was to tinker with the Constitution in a national referendum early on in the first days after the fall of the old regime, without thinking properly about the future.
Maybe Egypt doesn’t need a strong president at all. Maybe she needs a parliamentary system, with governments chosen from the elected members of the parliament and the President having very limited powers.
These issues will be tackled when the Assembly chosen to write a new Constitution is finally able to convene and begin its work. In 1954, though, it took eighteen months to write a new Constitution. Now, the Assembly is being asked to write a new Constitution before a new President is able to take power.
What is needed now, and what is again being forgotten by the political elite as they squabble for seats at the table, is that people still have no food and no shoes.
As the political parties argue over points of procedure, ordinary Egyptians are being left behind. Decisions are being made on their behalf about their future that are doing nothing to solve the problems that face them today.
And in this situation, Pharaoh and all his forces of brutality and corruption are able to make their move.
The people of Egypt will continue to long for the cucumbers and the pans of meat, seeing a rosy past that was secure for their property and their families, until life changes for them. Anything is better than what was left behind. But the ordinary people of Egypt need to be convinced of that.