Munich Security Conference The Magical Formula of the Revolution

Egypt's revolution is not merely political, nor is it driven purely by social injustice and economic hardship. Rather, it is testimony to the age-old reach for a higher value: dignity. This is the magical encapsulation of what it is to be human and decent. This concept plus the power of social media allowed Egyptians to make their deepest aspirations heard.

By Ashraf Swelam

Nobody knows Egypt and its timeless qualities as did Naguib Mahfouz — the country's most acclaimed novelist and Nobel laureate. In "Before the Throne," one of his most celebrated novels, published for the first time in 1983 - some 18 years before the January 25 Revolution - Mahfouz wrote: "We have endured agonies beyond what any human can bear. When our ferocious anger was raised against the rottenness of oppression and darkness, our revolt was called chaos, and we were called thieves. Yet it was nothing but a revolution against despotism, blessed by the gods."

A new synonym for freedom: demonstrators in Egypt organized their protests via social media services like Facebook and Twitter.

(Foto: Getty Images)

Egypt's revolution is not merely political, though it is for some. It is not purely driven by social injustice and economic hardships, though it is for many. It is rather something that combines the political, the economic, and the human, something that is difficult to describe and even harder to measure. It is about dignity. And "karama," dignity's powerful Arabic translation, is not just another noun in the dictionary; it is a magical sum-up of being human, honorable, and decent.

Egypt is a country where the Pharaoh was considered God, acts of government were divine, and submissiveness to the state was the equivalent of political culture, leading many historians to conclude that revolution was alien to the country's experience. But suddenly all of this came to an end. Sickened by their mistreatment at the hands of security forces, humiliated by unbearable hardships of day-to-day pursuit of basics of life, and shamed by their country's decline on the world stage, Egyptians decided to revolt. Just like their predecessors - from the French in the 18th century to the East Europeans in the 20th century - they demanded liberty, equality, and social justice, and then came this most mystical of human aspirations: "dignity," Egyptians' contribution to the revolutionary lexicon first inked centuries ago.

Can human dignity be such a mighty force? The Egyptian revolution's answer to this question is obviously yes. But what does that mean? How do leaders and decision-makers all over the world relate to such a concept? How should our governments and governance structures respond?

A technological and communications revolution

Aside from shocking the world, the Egyptian revolution - and indeed the Arab Spring - revealed major flaws in our understanding of that world, as well as our appreciation of the nature and extent of the forces shaping it. So, for example, while everyone keeps talking about a technological and communications revolution, many among us - including household names such as Malcolm Gladwell - never thought that a revolution could be tweeted. It was.

Equally important, the Arab Spring has also proven that our analytical toolbox — and hence our policy-making abilities as politicians, as diplomats, as economists — is ill-equipped to make sense of the world. Our current myriad of social and economic indicators, measuring everything from macroeconomic performance to human development might be useful, but ultimately insufficient to assess the well-being of a society. Tunisia and Egypt are two cases in point.

According to the majority of economic and social indicators, both countries were unlikely candidates for popular revolt. Both have performed relatively well on the macroeconomic level. Both weathered the global economic downturn better than many countries in the same level of development. But the implications of the unfair distribution of the benefits of economic growth were vastly underestimated or missed altogether, as were ordinary people's daily hardships and how those condtitions provided a fertile ground for a popular uprising.