By Elizabeth Iskander
The recent events in Tunisia have reverberated across the Middle East and North Africa, but they have found particular resonance in Egypt, where anger and frustration with President Hosni Mubarak's government has escalated considerably over the past year. The violence, corruption and media censorship that accompanied last November's parliamentary elections severely damaged the government's credibility. Exacerbating this general frustration is the expectation that Mubarak's son, Gamal, will succeed him and simply continue the status quo.
In this week's demonstrations, which saw Jan. 25 renamed Youm al-Ghadab, or Day of Wrath, protestors have indeed directed some of their anger at the younger Mubarak, but the main target remains the president himself. Pictures and video footage show protestors shouting and spray-painting the slogan, Down with Hosni Mubarak, on walls and signs in central Cairo. Even a year ago, such open and public criticism of the president was a red line for Egyptian authorities.
Despite Egypt's deep-seated economic, social and political difficulties, the strength and length of the protests seen across the country over the past three days seem to have taken the police, and the Egyptian people themselves, by surprise. Even the numerous self-immolation attempts -- in imitation of Tunisia's Mohamed Bouazizi -- that have occurred over the past week were not enough to convince many observers of Egyptians' commitment to stage such large demonstrations.
Analysts often repeat the maxim that Egyptians only protest about the price of bread, in reference to the bread riots that broke out in 1977. Consequently, the Egyptian government has long been considered to be a stable regime. But in Egypt, the word for bread -- 'ayesh -- means life, because it represents the daily basic needs of the people. In this sense, Egyptians are once again demonstrating for bread.
But these protests have not appeared out of nowhere. To the contrary, there have been successive rounds of protests that have continued throughout the past couple of years. We can point to the large 2008 demonstration in al-Mahalla as the beginning of a raised level of activism and a direct indication that the Egyptian street would not remain quiet forever. The campaign of Mohamed ElBaradei, who returned to Egypt last February and launched the Association for Change, is perhaps one link in the chain leading to these protests. While ElBaradei's campaign has not resulted in any concrete, practical changes, it broke a taboo by vocally expressing the need for change, shaking a new media-savvy generation from its political apathy. ElBaradei was out of the country when this week's demonstrations broke out, but he has returned to Egypt today.
The death in June 2010 of Khalid Mohamed Said at the hands of the police was another key event serving to break down taboos on public criticism of the government, thereby preparing the way for this week's expression of popular anger. At the time, the incident provoked demonstrations against police brutality accompanied by slogans exposing the disconnect between the police and the people they are supposed to protect. It is perhaps fitting, then, that the current demonstrations were timed to coincide with National Police Day. Designating this day instead as the Day of Wrath reflects the Egyptian people's sense of degradation and discontent with a government that has implemented and exploited emergency laws to limit freedoms.
The Khalid Said case also demonstrated the ability and willingness of Egyptians to use social media such as Facebook to discuss political issues and organize campaigns. The role of new media as an agent for change is still a matter of debate. But the speed with which news of the events in Tunisia spread through the use of social media, as well as their use in organizing and raising awareness in Egypt of Jan. 25 as the Day of Wrath, does seem to lend weight to those who argue that they represent a new element in play. The Egyptian government initially reacted by intermittently blocking both Twitter and Facebook as the demonstrations continued, and has now reportedly shut down all inbound and outbound Internet traffic from abroad. For their part, Egyptians have reacted by quickly passing around links to proxy servers and spreading advice on what to do if arrested or attacked with tear gas.
What is most significant about this week's demonstrations is that, despite being forewarned, the Egyptian police appeared overwhelmed. There were doubts that a Tunisia-style uprising could happen in Egypt because of the government's large and influential security apparatus. But reports that Suez was effectively closed off indicate that the police were struggling to quell protests and had to resort to the use of significant force against the demonstrators.
Also important is that these protests, unlike the smaller ones seen regularly in the past two years, have not been organized or inspired by any particular political group. Egypt's previously silent majority has come out to express its frustration over the personal hardships Egyptians face, not its support for any political ideology. This may change on Friday. ElBaradei's return to Egypt signals that political leaders will try to step in to capture the momentum, as happened in Tunisia.
Friday is also significant, not only because of the demonstrations being called for, but also because it is at Friday prayers that the position of mosques will become clear. Arrests of Muslim Brotherhood members on Wednesday indicate that the government expects Friday prayers to reignite the demonstrations and worries that Islamists may also try to capitalize on the situation. Friday is now being called Goma'a al-Ghadab, Friday of Wrath, and it will be pivotal in determining the continued momentum and shape of these unprecedented demonstrations.
Even if these protests do not force Mubarak out, they have shattered the illusion of his credibility. Compromises or reforms will be unlikely to satisfy the protesters, which means that Egypt, and by extension the United States, will no longer be able to take the Egyptian people's passivity for granted.
Elizabeth Iskander is a research fellow in International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She holds a Ph.D. in Politics and International Studies from the University of Cambridge. Her research focuses on conflict resolution, politics and religion in the Middle East, with an emphasis on Egypt. World Politics Review.
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