After Tunisia, Is Egypt Next?

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CAIRO, Egypt -- On Friday evening, within hours of Tunisian ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fleeing the popular uprising against him, approximately one hundred Egyptian activists demonstrated in front of the Tunisian Embassy in Cairo. Though they were ultimately beaten back by security forces, their swift mobilization immediately revived activists' hopes for a region-wide "Arab Spring," in which the "Tunisian scenario" would be replicated in Egypt and beyond.

"What happened in Tunisia is a model," says Amir Salah, a researcher at the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. "It shows that can we can do it."

Egypt's liberal activists overwhelmingly come from the wired generation of Twitter and Facebook, and this makes them optimistic that pro-democratic movements can go viral, even in a political environment as traditionally illiberal as the Middle East. Pointing to recent demonstrations in Jordan and Algeria, they insist that Tunisia's "Jasmine Revolution" will be contagious - if only people build off its momentum.

Yet Egyptian activists face tremendous odds - in particular, an entrenched dictatorship that is determined to discredit the very idea of domino-effect democratization. This has been President Hosni Mubarak's specialty throughout his thirty-year rule - which is why, for the moment, his regime is behaving quite confidently.

Despite rampant chatter of protests scheduled for Saturday, the two major thoroughfares of downtown Cairo - Tahrir Square and Talaat Harb Square - were flowing normally and without any visibly heightened security presence. During previous episodes of anticipated anti-regime activity, riot police surrounded these areas preemptively and, in some cases, effectively closed them to traffic. But for the vast majority of Cairenes the day after the Jasmine Revolution felt like any other day - normal, except for the rain. And this sense of normalcy is precisely what the regime hopes to project moving forward, since normal days do not produce popular uprisings.

"The regime already has an unstable situation due to the Alexandria incidents," says Global Voices contributor Mohamed ElGohary, referring to the demonstrations that erupted earlier this month following a deadly terrorist attack on a Coptic church in Alexandria. "So they don't want to do anything stupid to increase what's already going on."

To bolster this sense of normalcy, the Mubarak regime is working to paint a picture of stability in Egypt and unrest in Tunisia. During a Friday night debate on the state-run el-Mehwar channel, a ruling party economist highlighted Tunisia's higher unemployment rate and equated Egyptian and European capitalism, as if to say that conditions in Egypt don't warrant a revolution. Throughout Saturday, Egyptian stations emphasized chaos in Tunisia, showing images of theft, police brutality, and sabotage. The message was clear: revolutions can get messy, so don't bother.

Meanwhile, the regime has worked to keep its vocal liberal opponents cornered - sometimes literally. On Saturday afternoon, a handful of April 6th Youth and Kefaya activists returned to the Tunisian Embassy, hoping to build momentum from the previous evening's demonstration. Immediately, security forces crowded them into a small plot of pavement across the street, with battalions of riot police standing shoulder to shoulder and surrounding them. These riot police were soon joined by additional rows of riot police, with still extra battalions of riot police stationed next to the Tunisian Embassy in a devastating show of potential force. The demonstration was thus made invisible to the passing cars, and it quickly thinned to roughly twenty people.

"Those people who have the courage to cross the police barriers to come here are few," said radio announcer Saif al-Ghadban, who is affiliated with Mohamed ElBaradei's Association for Change.

Yet in talking to Egyptians throughout the day, fear of police retribution for protesting the regime rarely came up. Instead, Egyptians remarked that while they admired the Tunisian revolution, an anti-authoritarian uprising in a foreign land wouldn't be enough to inspire action here. If a revolution comes, they said, it will be sparked by something sudden, unpredictable, and uniquely Egyptian.

"One month ago, nobody could predict what would happen in Tunis," noted Muslim Brotherhood official Essam El-Erian. "A few days ago, a young man put himself on fire, and that started it. You can't predict a revolution."

For now, the Muslim Brotherhood is staying on the sidelines. Though the Brotherhood released a statement praising the Tunisian revolution, it seems to fear that intensified anti-regime action on its part could undermine domestic support for change. As El-Erian noted, the Mubarak regime has historically used "the Muslim Brotherhood as a bogeyman to frighten the people and the Western countries." If the Muslim Brotherhood misjudges the moment by acting too radically against the regime, it would face severe punishment - potentially rallying foreign governments, and many Egyptians, behind Mubarak.

But Egypt's liberal activists have no such concerns. Their strategy is to slowly build momentum for regime change so that people are ready if and when the moment for a Tunisia-like uprising is ripe. As part of this effort, various liberal factions are uniting for a major protest on January 25th, to coincide with the national holiday honoring Egypt's police forces.

"The people in these organizations have suffered a lot at the hands of the policemen, so we will protest them and the regime more generally," says Ghad party youth activist Moshira Ahmed Mohasseb. "We're not weaker than Tunis."

Still, the best hope for the "Tunisia scenario" to repeat itself in Egypt would likely come sometime after January 25th. After all, Mubarak is pushing 83 and reportedly ill, with First Lady Suzanne Mubarak said to be grooming their son Gamal for succession. Opposition party leaders routinely call this possibility intolerable, and rumors regarding the army's displeasure with Gamal could make his ascent a destabilizing time for Egypt.

"I am hopeful that by the time of the elections, we will have the momentum to push for change," says Ahmed Salah, a leader in the April 6th Youth movement.

Of course, the safe bet in Egypt is always on regime stability. But as Tunisia has demonstrated, anything is possible.

Photo: Egyptians rally outside of the Tunisian embassy in Cairo. By Mohammed Abed/Getty Images.


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Eric Trager is the Esther K. Wagner Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

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