Will Egypt Follow Tunisia’s Lead?

CAIRO – “Where can I find a Tunisian flag?” The question flooded Egyptian blogs, Twitter, and Facebook pages minutes after news that popular protests had forced out long-time Tunisian dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali.

Egypt is feeling the ripple effect from Tunisia already. Egypt’s 85 million people constitute a third of the Arab population. Until Tunisians ousted their autocratic ruler Friday evening after his 23 years in power, Egypt, a regional trendsetter, was seen as the first candidate for regime change by popular uprising in the Arab world.

John R. Bradley penned a book in June 2008 predicting a revolution in Egypt. He said the country was slowly disintegrating under the twin pressures of “a ruthless military dictatorship” at home and a flawed Middle East policy in Washington.

In his book, Inside Egypt: The Land of the Pharaohs on the Brink of a Revolution, Bradley argued that Egypt was “the most brutal Arab state where torture and corruption are endemic” and it would therefore be “the next domino to fall” to popular anger. The book was banned in Egypt.

Today the view from Cairo is that the military-backed regime of 82-year-old President Hosni Mubarak is far more formidable, and more subtle, than the brutal regime of Ben Ali that alienated its own people and failed to handle the unrest when it first erupted Dec. 17. Mubarak’s supporters say he carries the public with him and has a wide support base that includes the army and many businessmen.

“We should remember that he has survived at least three assassination attempts and hundreds of protests and demonstrations against food prices and other issues,” says Khaled Mahmoud, an independent analyst. “Mubarak is simply much stronger than Ben Ali and enjoys the backing of the country’s most powerful institution: the army.”

Mahmoud argues that Ben Ali was shown up during the protests as a “weak” president. “His performance was very weak. Tunisians sensed his fragility and realized that what they were afraid of was just an illusion.”

Mubarak is credited with a “smart” grip on power – occasionally allowing freedoms that help vent anger.

“The regime channels some anger through talk shows, tolerating some street protests, critical opinion pieces in newspapers, strikes, and sits-in,” Amr Elshobaki, political analyst with the semi-official Al-Ahram Center for Strategic Studies in Cairo, told IPS. “That helps release some frustration rather than leaving it to build up into a major sweeping force.”

Elshobaki points to another difference between Egypt and Tunisia. Labor unions in Tunisia had appeased the regime to a degree, but they kept their structure and some of their integrity, he says. Unions in Egypt “have become like a government entity. Their leaders are government staff.”

Moreover, the Egyptian regime has used religion cleverly to keep the young under control through proxy players. The Islamic Salafi movement, which does not believe in challenging a Muslim ruler, turns passion among the young into “passive religion,” Elshobaki says.

The Salafi trend and the Christian Coptic church are both pro-government. “I do not see much resemblance between Tunisia and Egypt,” Elshobaki says.

But this view is widely disputed, especially among human rights activists, bloggers, Islamists, some university professors, and independent journalists, who say that Egypt is flirting with revolt. Tunisia comes as a major boost to the idea, they say.

“Like Ben Ali, Mubarak offers nothing to his people but tyranny, emergency law, and armies of security troops. They are alike in that nobody wants them and nobody likes them,” says Ibrahim Issa, editor of the online daily Al-Dostor and one of the main critics of the regime in Egypt.

“What the Tunisians showed us is that change will inevitably come to sweep away all the stooges of Washington and Tel Aviv in all Arab states.”

Others argue the similarity between ruthless police tactics in both nations, which in part led to the Tunisian unrest. “The expulsion of Ben Ali shows how his model of governing, which exists in many other Arab countries including here in Egypt, is fragile,” says Bahai El-Deen Hassan, head of the Cairo Center for Human Rights. “Police states are not sustainable.”

Gagging trade and labor unions, containing political parties, and stifling civil society organizations do not carry a regime for long, he said.

“The rationale for revolt is the same. The people are the same. The general atmosphere is the same,” says Abdelmonem Amer, editor of the Islamist-leaning Arab News. “Tunisia’s tyrant ran away. It is Egypt’s pharaoh’s turn. Today it is Tunisia, and tomorrow it is Egypt.”

(Inter Press Service)