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A YEAR AFTER the uprising that overthrew Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak, Cairo’s Tahrir Square has become an international symbol of human revolt. In the revolutionary imagination, Tahrir is now a mythical site, much like the battlefields of Massachusetts, the barricades of the Paris Commune, and the Gdańsk Shipyard. The “Republic of Tahrir”—as the journalist Ashraf Khalil calls it in this first-person account—is now synonymous with a politics of spontaneity, youthfulness, and optimism.

Yet for those who have long dreamed for the birth of liberal societies in the world’s least free region, the Tahrir moment has also been a source of anguish. For years, we rejected the choice between preserving the secular Arab autocracies and unleashing long suppressed Islamist power. The young Arab democrat, we insisted, will transcend this false antithesis. Let a century of Arab authoritarianism wither away and genuine civil societies bloom in its place, we argued, and Islamism will soon join Nasserism and Ba’athism in the Arab world’s ideological dustbin. We marveled at the sight of pharaoh’s fall.

Since the collapse of the Ben Ali, Mubarak, and Qaddafi regimes, however, events on the ground have tested these hypotheses—and they have not fared well. Each week brings news of another Islamist triumph in newly liberated North African states. In Libya, the revolutionary government’s first act was not to proclaim gender equity (or individual rights) but to affirm a man’s right to take multiple wives. In Tunisia, the young democrats’ cries for popular dignity have now been supplanted by Islamist expressions of hatred toward Jews and the Jewish state. “Kill the Jews—it is our duty!” a large crowd chanted during the recent visit to Tunis of Ismail Haniya, Hamas’s prime minister in Gaza.

Since it is the Arab world’s cultural engine, Egypt’s illiberal post-revolutionary turn—including overwhelming Islamist electoral triumphs, popular demands for breaking Sadat’s peace, and violence against Copts—has been most disconcerting of all. Now that much of the enthusiasm surrounding Tahrir has dissipated, there is an opportunity to account for the disappointments of the Egyptian revolution and the wider Arab awakening. We might even consider how some of Tahrir’s liberal potential might still be recovered. Khalil’s own ideological commitments notwithstanding, Liberation Square is a useful guide to this rethinking process.

Khalil successfully puts to rest two myths clouding Western thinking about the revolution. The first, advanced by Tahrir’s most cynical critics, holds that the uprising was not a revolution but a coup, carried out by elements of Egypt’s powerful military class against a leader who had outlived his usefulness to their kleptocracy. It may well be the case that some high-ranking members of the Egyptian officer corps sought to sidestep Mubarak and his anointed son Gamal. But Khalil rightly insists that it does not necessarily follow that the Tahrir moment was not also animated by genuine grievances and politics. Indeed, as he writes, this was “a society that absolutely needed to have a revolution.”

Pre-revolutionary Egypt, Khalil shows, was a nation trapped by a mediocre autocrat in a boiling cauldron of repression, sexual frustration, and hopelessness. “Mubarak was never as brutal, ruthless, or sadistic as some of his contemporaries, like Saddam Hussein or Hafez El Assad,” he concedes. And yet Mubarak’s regime treated Egyptians with such open contempt that they “lost both respect for themselves and the sense that they could change anything that was happening around them.”

Khalil’s first-hand account of the rigged parliamentary election of 2010, which he correctly identifies as one of the direct triggers of the uprising, is instructive. At one point, Khalil meets a regime-appointed election monitor at a polling station in Alexandria. The monitor is required to stand across the street outside the station—lest he interfere with the blatant rigging underway inside. Confronted by Khalil, the monitor merely smiles and says, “It’s Egypt.” Then there is the shocking case of Khaled Saieed, the shy, young musician beaten to death by plainclothes officers in June 2010, for no apparent reason. For millions of citizens, the senseless killing of Saieed—an archetypical middle class Egyptian youth—crystallized the moral bankruptcy of Mubarak’s police state.

Reflecting on this recent history, it is impossible to conclude that Mubarakism was somehow a viable model in Egypt or elsewhere in the Arab Mideast. But Khalil’s account makes it equally difficult to accept the position—maintained to this day by the revolution’s more starry-eyed Western supporters—that anti-Americanism and anti-Israelism did not define the Tahrir moment. While it is true that, at the height of the uprising, flag-burnings and anti-Western sloganeering were kept to a minimum, enmity toward the West stood at the origins of the Tahrir moment. Indeed, as Khalil points out, the first time protestors occupied Tahrir Square was during the lead-up to the American-led invasion of Iraq. “It started with ‘Down with America’ and turned to ‘Down with Mubarak,’” one activist tells Khalil. Moreover, many of the veteran strategists of the 2011 uprising cut their political teeth organizing angry mobs to attack the Israeli embassy in Cairo. Once the revolution exploded, they asked the Brazilian illustrator Carlos Latuff—winner of the Iranian regime’s Holocaust denial cartoon contest—to create revolutionary imagery for their social media sites.

Khalil himself is a man of the Arab left, where second thoughts about Islamism’s rise in the new Mideast or the illiberal nature of Arab Spring are dismissed out of hand. He sneers at Israeli concerns about the ominous storms gathering across the Sinai: “The fact that [Israel], which has long proclaimed itself ‘the only democracy in the Middle East,’ was so clearly unhappy with the potential emergence of a second democracy speaks volumes about just how twisted and backward the politics of the region have become.” For Khalil, what matters is that “now, for the first time in decades, the opinion of the Egyptian people will be heard.” The new Egypt and the new Middle East, he hopes, will be “built around the idea of a true meritocracy, a place where people can choose their own leaders and then peacefully choose different ones.”  

What is missing from this vision, of course, is liberalism. Peaceful power transitions, while of historic importance, will not necessarily give birth to a region where the rights of all people—especially women and minorities—are guaranteed. And while they may be the most vocal, Israelis are far from the only group who view the future shape of the region with apprehension. Thus, it will not suffice for the Mideast’s genuine liberals and democrats to dismiss fears of majoritarian tyrannies replacing the rotten autocratic order. The challenge before them is admittedly enormous. Creating and nurturing a liberal tradition is an uphill battle everywhere. As a first step, they—and we—must leave Tahrir’s intoxicating euphoria behind.

Sohrab Ahmari, an Iranian-American journalist and a nonresident associate research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, is co-editor of Arab Spring Dreams, a forthcoming anthology of writings by young Mideast dissidents (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).