Revolution Fever in Egypt?

Such large challenges for Egypt's demonstrators

“Police Day” in Egypt was yesterday. It is a holiday that is despised by nearly all Egyptians as a symbol of the police state that Egypt was become under Mubarak and it was celebrated by perhaps the largest mass protests ever in the country. Organized on Facebook and called the “Day of Anger,” the protests saw over 100,000 people take to the streets, including women of all ages. The protests, like those that took down the Tunisian dictator Ben Ali, are aimed at the leader of Egypt (a dangerous thing to do in Egypt); in fact, the Egyptian protests were largely modeled after the successful Tunisian example (including over 12 cases of self-immolation). Could I be wrong? Could Mubarak soon be heading to Saudi Arabia to join Ben Ali? Lynch hopes so, and there are reasons to believe that these protests are different than previous, smaller, Egyptian uprisings:

1 – They happened in so many cities and towns at the same time including Cairo, Alexandria, Tanta, Mahala, Suez, Mansoura, some parts of Sinai and elsewhere. The local Al-Mehwar TV station reported just an hour ago that the only areas that didn’t see protests were Luxor, Aswan and the distant Western Desert city of Al-Wadi Al-Gadeed. By some counts, this the largest protest Egypt has seen since Mubarak took office in 1981.

2 – This the first time I’ve seen so many women involved; young and old were taking part. One protester told me that she came to protest after she heard of the demonstrations from a 15-year-old “Facebook blogger.”  A 30-year-old woman in Mahala told me over the phone that she encouraged her husband to “wake up” and go out with her to take part in the protests. She said she only left after she heard shots from the police. “I think they have orders to shoot and kill,” she told me.

3 – The protesters are clearly not afraid of the police. Many threw stones, while others sat on the ground to stop armored police cars from advancing against protesters. The police couldn’t scare them away as they used to in the past. This may be be a result of the Tunisian revolution which eventually toppled the president there.

4 – The protesters were chanting against Mubarak himself. In several instances I saw protesters pulling down pictures of Mubarak.

5 – Twitter, facebook, mobile phones, blogs and the Internet in general are the real heroes of the protests so far. Young people are shooting videos of the protests and posting it everywhere. This is how they are communicating.

[tweetmeme] Whether Egypt will have a fate similar to Tunisia largely depends on the resilience of the demonstrators and the actions of the strong Egyptian Central Security Force and the Army. While in Tunisia, the army stood to the side, the Egyptian army and security services have interests throughout the country that would be threatened by the fall of the regime. They are unlikely, then, to be as passive in the face of continued protests. Tunisians also were exceptional in their persistence and determination, rallying and protesting for months until the regime finally broke. While yesterday’s demonstrations were exceptional for many reasons, it is only one day.

Perhaps most important to the fate of the demonstrations is the stance of the United States. The US was indifferent to the fall of Ben Ali, although he was an American sponsored dictator, the American interests were limited in Tunisia. The fall of Ben Ali did not change much for the US. The fall of Mubarak, though, would be devastating for the (nonexistent? incoherent?) Middle East Policy of the United States. Not only is Mubarak the protector of the peace deal with Israel, but the main opposition group in Egypt is the Muslim Brotherhood – the backers of Hamas. If Egypt were to install a true democracy, it is likely that the Brotherhood would take power, and it is possible that the peace deal with Israel is abrogated.

Shadi Hamid comments on the US dilemma:

This raises a thorny question for the U.S.: If tens of thousands take to the streets – and stay on the streets – what will it do? The U.S. is the primary benefactor of the Egyptian regime, which, in turn, has reliably supported American regional priorities. After Iraq, Afghanistan, and Israel, Egypt is the largest recipient of U.S. assistance, including $1.3 billion in annual military aid. In other words, if the army ever decides to shoot into a crowd of unarmed protestors, it will be shooting with hardware provided by the United States. As Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations points out, the Egyptian military is “not there to project power, but to protect the regime.”

The US has so far given a bland announcement that didn’t really say anything:

With respect to Egypt, which, as your question implied, like many countries in the region, has been experiencing demonstrations.  We know that they’ve occurred not only in Cairo but around the country, and we’re monitoring that very closely.  We support the fundamental right of expression and assembly for all people, and we urge that all parties exercise restraint and refrain from violence.  But our assessment is that the Egyptian Government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people.

It is unlikely that the US will do more to support the democratic movement in Egypt due to the reasons mentioned above. When Ben Ali fell, it was despite American indifference. If Mubarak falls, it will be despite an active American policy to ensure the regime’s sustainability. What the future holds is anyone’s guess, but here are some scenes from yesterday

Photo from Shadi Hamid

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