Tunisia is a small nation of 10 million people scrunched between Algeria and Libya in North Africa. Egypt is a nation of about 80 million people—by far the largest in the Arab world. It is far more strategically important, sharing a border with Israel, looking straight across the Red Sea at Saudi Arabia, and of course exercising control over the Suez Canal, the main route for shipping oil and other goods to Europe. And as the most populous Arab nation, it is a major center of Arab culture. So when the Egyptians saw tiny little Tunisia rise up and overthrown a dictator, they asked: why not us, too?
On Tuesday, Egyptians poured into the streets for the first round of protests that have not abated since. The Wall Street Journal carries a moving account of the protests by Egyptian dissident Kareem Amer, fresh from serving a four-year prison term for criticisms of the government, and of Islam, on his blog. Originally skeptical that anything could be accomplished, Amer concludes: "Tuesday's experience ignited something profound in us. It made us feel that only our own hands can bring change."
And it's really starting to look like they can. This is a fast-moving story. The regime shut down the Internet and cell phones, then put some of them back up again. This morning, the news was that Egyptian president-for-life Hosni Mubarak had ordered a military crackdown on the protests. But the latest report in the Washington Post makes that seem very unlikely.
On Friday, the troops had appeared steadfastly neutral. Late Saturday, however, they were doing nothing to move demonstrators out of the streets, despite an earlier announcement by security services that anyone remaining in central squares or major roadways after 4 pm would face arrest.
Asked if they would enforce the curfew, soldiers said they would not.
"We are with the people," said Ahmed, a 20-year-old conscript.
Soldiers accepted fruit, water and soda handed out by protesters in Tahrir Square and smiled as protesters chanted, "Go, Mubarak, go!" Children were hoisted up on tanks in the middle of the square to have their photos taken with troops as the hulking remains of the National Democratic Party headquarters building, home to Mubarak's ruling organization, burned in the background.
"These soldiers are Egyptians, too. They are suffering just like we are," said Khalid Ezz el-Din, a 50-year-old businessman who had come to the square to demand Mubarak step down.
Shortly afterward, a convoy of tanks rolled into the square, with as many as 20 protesters riding on each one. As the soldiers smiled and flashed peace signs, the protesters shouted "We are one!" and "Down with Mubarak!" Others held aloft a banner reading, "Game over, Mr. Mubarak."
Game over, indeed. The Washington Post quotes Ahmed Mahmoud, described as "a 50 year-old purchasing manager," who "said that for the first time he felt proud to be an Egyptian. 'I always wanted to run away from my country,' he said. 'This moment is the first time I feel like a human being.'"
All of this follows a speech to the nation in which Mubarak announced that he had fired his entire cabinet and promised reforms, while paying lip service to "more democracy and freedoms." The result is a combination that may well finish off Mubarak's rule. In effect, he granted the moral legitimacy of the protesters' demands—yet no one believes that Mubarak, after thirty years of oppression, will actually implement any of these reforms. So immediately after the speech, protesters flooded back into the streets chanting "the people want to change the regime."
Did they just come out in favor of "regime change"? It turns out George W. Bush was right when he asked, rhetorically:
Are the peoples of the Middle East somehow beyond the reach of liberty? Are millions of men and women and children condemned by history or culture to live in despotism? Are they alone never to know freedom and never even to have a choice in the matter?
It looks like they aren't.
Last week, after the uprising in Tunisia, I linked to an article from Amir Taheri, who speculated that we could be seeing the emergence of a new "Arab street"—that Arab liberals not only exist but have now found their voice and their courage.
Until the recent events in Tunis, the "Arab street" seemed a force against progress toward political freedom and social and economic development....
The "street" would come to demand that someone's freedom be canceled—not that its own freedom to be expanded.
Tunisia's "Jasmine Revolution" offers a new "Arab street."...
The old "Arab street" consisted of the rent-a-crowd elements recruited in the poorest districts of capital cities....
As revealed in Tunisia, the new "Arab street" consists mainly of urban, educated, middle-class elements and industrial workers.
It is positive in tone and spirit. Far from being xenophobic, it demands a place in the modern world.... It has cast aside tired ideologies such as pan-Arabism, Islamism, and Baathism. Instead, it is calling for democracy, human rights, and economic development....
It is too early to tell whether other Arab countries can reproduce the Tunisian experience. But there is no reason why they shouldn't.
It looks like they are.
A good overview in the New York Times describes the new Arab street that has so far been driving the protests.
For decades, Egypt's authoritarian president, Hosni Mubarak, played a clever game with his political opponents.
He tolerated a tiny and toothless opposition of liberal intellectuals whose vain electoral campaigns created the facade of a democratic process. And he demonized the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood as a group of violent extremists who posed a threat that he used to justify his police state.
But this enduring and, many here say, all too comfortable relationship was upended this week by the emergence of an unpredictable third force, the leaderless tens of thousands of young Egyptians who turned out to demand an end to Mr. Mubarak's 30-year rule.
Now the older opponents are rushing to catch up....
Even the Muslim Brotherhood may have grown too protective of its own institutions and position to capitalize on the new youth movement, say some analysts and former members. The Brotherhood remains the organization in Egypt with the largest base of support outside the government, but it can no longer claim to be the only entity that can turn masses of people out into the streets....
The roots of the uprising that filled Egypt's streets this week arguably stretch back to before the Tunisian revolt, which many protesters cited as the catalyst. Almost three years ago, on April 6, 2008, the Egyptian government crushed a strike by a group of textile workers in the industrial city of Mahalla, and in response a group of young activists who connected through Facebook and other social networking Web sites formed the April 6th Youth Movement in solidarity with the strikers.
Their early efforts to call a general strike were a bust. But over time their leaderless online network and others that sprang up around it—like the networks that helped propel the Tunisian revolution—were uniquely difficult for the Egyptian security police to pinpoint or wipe out. It was an online rallying cry for a show of opposition to tyranny, corruption, and torture that brought so many to the streets on Tuesday and Wednesday, unexpectedly vaulting the online youth movement to the forefront as the most effective independent political force in Egypt.
But inevitably there are other forces that are trying to jump onto the bandwagon of the Egyptian protests and exploit them for their own purposes. Mohamed ElBaradei is an Egyptian political figure with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist political party, and he was last seen running interference at the UN for Iran's nuclear weapons program. He has made a big show of returning to Egypt to join the protests, while giving interviews to Western newspapers in which he declares that the Mubarak regime is "on its last legs."
The Muslim Brotherhood itself, after initially holding back, has now openly joined the protests, raising the possibility that Islamists will try to take over the protest movement—just as the Ayatollah Khomeini took over the Iranian Revolution against the Shah in 1979.
So it's fitting that one of the figures of that revolution—former Iranian president Abolhassan Bani-Sadr—is offering advice to the protesters in Egypt on how to avoid an Iranian-style outcome.
People should stop looking for leaders to take over, and recognize that everyone can develop leadership skills in practice through taking responsibilities, engaging in debate and working with others in the movement....
In this first peaceful revolt of the 21st century in an Islamic country, Islamic intellectuals have an important role in identifying, developing, and introducing an Islamic discourse of freedom instead of power so that human dignity and rights are respected and defended for all regardless of religion or gender....
[A]ny new government must resist the temptation to create its own revolutionary guard. If contemporary Iran is any indication, such organizations can all too easily morph into an econo-military mafia that becomes part and parcel of the new elite. The solution is rather to reorganize the existing forces of security so they are subject to civilian democracy and the rule of law.
That the Egyptian uprising can go wrong is not news. What is news is that we don't know. What is news is that finally there is another alternative. For decades, the only alternative in Arab politics has been a secular dictator versus Islamist radicals, and the US has always been compelled to side with the first in order to keep the second out of power. The big news out of Tunisia and Egypt is the spontaneous emergence of a third option, a relatively liberal and enlightened constituency whose main demands are political liberty and an end to the corruption and bureaucracy that offers young people nothing but the dead end of economic stagnation. The really big news is that this is the faction that now holds the balance of power and is driving events.
Jack Wakeland sums up the promise of the new Arab uprising.
"What is going on in Egypt? Are Arabs figuring out that dictatorship is the cause of their never-ending stagnation?
"It is easy to assume that because Tunisia and Egypt are Muslim, Muslim radicals are waiting in the wings as the only organized political faction in the country, ready to take over. But that is the story of the Arab world of the 1990s. What we have yet to see is the story of the Arab world of the 2010s.
"The fears about Muslim radicals are reasonable. It is quite possible that the US invasion of Iraq and the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon have changed nothing in the Arab culture. We have seen one spectacularly discouraging story in a Muslim culture that neighbors Arabia: the decision by Turkey's ruling party, backed by volunteer groups, to take the side of Hamas in Israel's conflict with the Arabs of Gaza. But what about the trend of the 1990s and 2000s in Persia that led to the Green Movement's rebellion against clerical dictatorship in Iran?
"Is Turkey's political trend the cultural trend in the Arab World for the 2010s? Or is Iraq's, Iran's and Lebanon's?
"An Egyptian scholar now at the University of Notre Dame quoted by the New York Times [in the article already linked to above] observed that this time political militancy has a different face:
"'The [Muslim] Brotherhood is no longer the most effective player in the political arena,' said Emad Shahin.... 'If you look at the Tunisian uprising, it's a youth uprising. It is the youth that knows how to use the media, Internet, Facebook, so there are other players now.'
"Will this youth movement turn decisively towards the West, whose prosperity and promise of a better life has inspired it—or will it end up turning backwards towards the old culture of Arab nationalism and Islamic militancy?
"Well, we're about to find out.
"The issues at stake are wider than the War on Terrorism as it has been prosecuted to date. If the Arab people decide to quit their heroic warrior delusion and join the rest of the civilized world, not only will the war be over, but we'll all be more prosperous.
"Westerners might even be received in a gracious and friendly manner as friends of the future for the Arab people."
We are still very, very early in this process. But the potential for a new future has suddenly opened up.
We here in the United States will not have much impact on these events—especially with President Obama in the White House. His statements and actions so far have been calculated to be so safely equivocal as to be irrelevant, and he is widely seen in Egypt as just another unprincipled backer of the regime. He will eventually come out in favor of the protesters—but only after they've already decided the outcome of events for him. In the meantime, he will vote "present."
In any case, as one protester says in response to President Obama, "Tell America that we get to choose our president. We choose him, not them." The Egyptians will decide that question, and a great deal more—as will young people across the Arab world. Stay tuned.—RWT
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