Revolution in Egypt? Why the Demonstrations Could Succeed

In the past four days, Egyptians have taken to the streets — thousands of them, marching through cities around the country and neighborhoods all over the mega-metropolis of Cairo. Citing inspiration from the past two months’ events in Tunisia, which brought about the end of President Ben Ali’s regime, the protestors call for the end of the 30-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak.

Protestors waved Tunisian flags alongside Egyptian flags and spoke of their admiration for Tunisians’ courage and activism. Dramatic video from the Nile Delta town of Mahalla al-Kobra — these past few years a locus of extensive labor strikes and anti-government sentiment — showed demonstrators ripping a down a huge poster of Mubarak to chants of “We don’t want you!” and “God is Great!”

But the Egyptian protests are about more than the Tunisian example. Resentment and anger have been simmering around the country for some time over rising prices, high unemployment, and general represssion, and stirred by numerous events that laid bare the corruption and violence of the regime. The murder of Khaled Said last year sparked smaller protests, primarily in Alexandria: the 28-year-old was apprehended, tortured, and beaten to death by two police officers after he posted a video of them dividing the spoils of a drug bust among themselves. The first demonstration on Tuesday, called a “Day of Revolution,” was organized by a Facebook group called “We are all Khaled Said.”

Some experts are cautioning that the growing protests over the past few days probably will not lead to Mubarak’s ouster. They note that Egypt’s army and security services are well-trained, well-equipped, and loyal to the regime — ‘Egypt is not Tunisia’ is the refrain; that Egypt has a history of large protests that have all been put down; that the U.S. and Israel have a more vested interest in keeping Egypt stable than they did in Tunisia; and that autocrats like Mubarak are quick to learn from the mistakes of others, and are thus unlikely to go the way of Ben Ali.

These are all important points, and it would be premature to assert that Egypt will definitely see a regime change. Still, I find myself less skeptical of the revolutionary possibilities of these demonstrations. Maybe I’m drinking the social-media kool-aid, but from what I’m able to tell via various blogs, Twitter, Facebook, live reporting, YouTube videos, and other outlets (I am not, unfortunately, in Egypt myself), something is different this time.

Professionals who would normally never brave a line of riot police have turned up in large numbers. Whole families have come out to join the demonstrations. People with a self-described apathy toward organized politics are eager to voice their overwhelming sense of suffocation in the current state of affairs. The demonstrations did not end with the cloud of teargas that descended on Tahrir Square on Tuesday night, but have continued and even expanded in other cities, such as Suez and Ismailia, where more violent clashes have taken place.

Perhaps most importantly, the political actors most frequently doted upon by foreign reporters and academics — the Muslim Brotherhood, the old but defunct political parties, and more recently former IAEA head Mohamed El Baradei — have not led the charge. Rather, hedging their bets against what they (like the experts) did not expect to be such a large show of public anger, they have been left in the dust as a genuinely popular movement passed them by. Today, they’ve joined in: the Muslim Brotherhood called upon its members to join the mass demonstrations planned after Friday prayers, and El Baradei has returned from Europe to join in as well. Whether those on the ground will look past their failure to lead — or allow them to take credit for potential success — remains to be seen. 

What we are seeing is not merely the inspiring example of Tunisia, but the decades of repressed anger released by a spark of hope that maybe, maybe the Arab people are not the apathetic fatalists they are constantly being told they are. Maybe they are really capable of demanding, and getting, change.

Photo CreditMuhammad Ghafari