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.

Presented by

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

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