Up in the Hollow: Some thoughts on Cairo

Back in another life, I took a pickaxe to the Berlin Wall, and was a part of the euphoria that swirled around the fall of a defunct and dysfunctional Soviet empire. As I write this, I just heard President Obama speaking after the stunning success of the “social network” revolution in Egypt. “There is something in the soul that cries out for freedom,” he said, and I believe that is true. Perhaps we don’t sense it as much as those who have lived under despotic police states or are mired in the depths of third world poverty.

We often take our constitutional liberties for granted, but when we see people risking their lives to overthrow a corrupt system, it reinforces that feeling that we Americans have surely been dealt a fortunate hand.

There have been problems in post-Cold War Eastern Europe, but overall they have made the leap from Communist dictatorships with state run economies to free market Democracies with stunning success. Left to themselves, if the “people” work together they will always come up with better ideas, smarter solutions, and more creativity than any rigid, regimented autocracy. And we have known that all along, because of our birthright.

I met Hosni Mubarak in Cairo once, sat right next to him at a meeting during the run-up to the first Gulf War, Operation Desert Storm. He was tough, cautious, and candid. He described Saddam Hussein as “crazy, like the used car salesmen in America!” And he said it was futile to try to reason with Saddam. Somewhere I have a picture of Mubarak and myself. Here lately, I’ve been thinking I should find it and tear it up in honor of the courage of those freedom fighters in Tahrir Square.

Today is also the 25th anniversary of Nelson Mandela walking out of prison. I had the honor of meeting him once, in Capetown, not long after his release. Afterwards, at a meeting with some hardcore supporters of Apartheid, I told them of my experience as a child of the American South, and how my generation had thrown segregation aside for brotherhood. One man scoffed at me and told me that I did not understand the superiority of Europeans to Africans. I quoted Mark Twain to him: “Loyalty to petrified opinion never broke a chain or freed a human heart.” After the meeting, he asked me to repeat the quote to him. He wrote it down.

There are plenty of cynics who could point to the economic difficulties in South Africa, or the corruption in Eastern Europe, or the possible instability of Egypt in the post Mubarak era. But the people of those regions now have that intangible thing of the soul that “cries out for freedom”, and for that reason and nothing else, they can face each day with the hope that things might be just a little bit better by sundown.

Watching the Egyptian revolution for the last 18 days, I have heard several hundred “experts” parade past the cameras of MSNBC and CNN with more opinions than there are fast food joints in Manassas. The fact is that no one knows what tomorrow will bring, no more than it could have been predicted three weeks ago that Hosni Mubarak would be run out of Cairo by the power of Facebook.

“The past,” said Carl Sandburg, “is a bucket of ashes.”

And it is my belief that there is really no such thing as the future. There is only the present. There is only right now.