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Op-Ed Columnist

Can God Save Egypt?

Cairo

Josh Haner/The New York Times

Thomas L. Friedman

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Last week's events in Egypt were unbelievable, although we may not know for years or even decades what their final meaning is. What's important, however, is that we focus on what this means to the people. The current administration seems too caught up in worrying about their own skins to pay attention to what's important on the ground. Just call it missing the myths for the lie.

When thinking about the recent troubles, it's important to remember three things: One, people don't behave like billiard balls, so attempts to treat them as such inevitably look foolish. Billiard balls never suddenly shift their course in order to fit with a predetermined set of beliefs. Two, Egypt has spent decades being batted back and forth between colonial powers, so a mindset of peace and stability will seem foreign and strange. And three, freedom is an extraordinarily powerful idea: If corruption is Egypt's glass ceiling, then freedom is certainly its flowerpot.

When I was in Egypt last Summer, I was amazed by the level of Westernization for such a closed society, and that tells me two things. It tells me that the citizens of Egypt have no shortage of human capital, and that is a good beginning to grow from. Second, it tells me that people in Egypt are just like people anywhere else on this flat earth of ours.

So what should we do about the chaos in Egypt? Well, it's easier to start with what we should not do. We should not ignore the problem and pretend it will go away. Beyond that, we need to be careful to nurture the fragile foundations of peace. The opportunity is there, but I worry that the path to stability is so poorly marked that Egypt will have to move down it very slowly. And of course Cairo needs to cooperate.

Speaking with a up-and-coming violinist from the large Suni community here, I asked him if there was any message that he wanted me to carry back home with me. He pondered for a second, and then smiled and said, respre austee, which is a local saying that means roughly, "Cultivate money and you grow rich, Cultivate mind and you raise culture."

I don't know what Egypt will be like a few years from now, but I do know that it will remain true to its cultural heritage, even if it looks very different from the country we see now. I know this because, through all the disorder, the people still haven't lost sight of their dreams.