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From the Archive: Revolutionary Times

Yesterday, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt resigned after 30 years at the helm of Egypt following 18 days of protests across the nation. Over 300 people are estimated to have died for Egypt’s revolution to succeed. The protests turned violent at times as Mubarak clung to power, yet in the end once the fear barrier was crossed and blood was shed, there was no turning back for the Egyptian people. After 30 years, no Egyptian was prepared to return to living as they had once lived.

In my lifetime, the world has witnessed few such truly revolutionary moments. Nineteen eighty nine is the natural crutch or starting point for discussion in the twenty-first century; this is a mistake. Timothy Garton Ash, author of The Polish Revolution, rightly reminded readers of The Guardian that this is not 1989 and nor is it Tehran 1979. Nor is it 1917, 1848, 1789. It is Cairo in 2011. Today, Egypt will wake up with a profound hangover and Egyptians will slowly come to the realization that democracy not only takes time but requires a level of responsibility that blaming a dictator for every national problem never afforded. The times, they are a-changing.

Yesterday I was asked about the most exciting moment I have ever covered as a photojournalist. Irrespective of one’s political affiliations, it is relatively safe to say that the reaction of the American people to the presidency of George W. Bush was to swing the pendulum very much in the opposite direction and elect not only a black president but one named Barack Hussein Obama, just five years after the U.S. military had overthrown Iraq’s former dictator who happened to share a last name with Obama’s second name. With events in Cairo’s Tahrir Square occasionally echoing Obama’s own youth-driven presidential campaign, the moment of change can be a profound albeit fleeting moment.

The picture above first appeared as a doubletruck in The London Sunday Times Magazine in the special “Spectrum” section dedicated to photojournalism the week following Obama’s election as 44th President of the United States. From Obama’s speech of November 4, 2008 (video):

This election had many firsts and many stories that will be told for generations. But one that’s on my mind tonight’s about a woman who cast her ballot in Atlanta. She’s a lot like the millions of others who stood in line to make their voice heard in this election except for one thing: Ann Nixon Cooper is 106 years old.

She was born just a generation past slavery; a time when there were no cars on the road or planes in the sky; when someone like her couldn’t vote for two reasons — because she was a woman and because of the color of her skin.

And tonight, I think about all that she’s seen throughout her century in America — the heartache and the hope; the struggle and the progress; the times we were told that we can’t, and the people who pressed on with that American creed: Yes we can.

[…]

America, we have come so far. We have seen so much. But there is so much more to do. So tonight, let us ask ourselves — if our children should live to see the next century; if my daughters should be so lucky to live as long as Ann Nixon Cooper, what change will they see? What progress will we have made?

Mabrouk, Misir. (Congratulations, Egypt.)


Full disclosure: In August-September 2004, I worked briefly as an opposition research intern at Barack Obama’s Chicago campaign headquarters for U.S. Senate.