A Letter From Cairo

by Chris Bodenner

A reader yesterday wrote:

I'm a US national studying Arabic at the American University in Cairo, and I live in Abdeen, Downtown Cairo, about three minutes' walk from Tahrir Square and a block from the Interior Ministry. The area has been on a pretty firm lockdown since yesterday morning, with thousands of riot police deployed to blockade every street for a kilometer around the Ministry to foot traffic as well as vehicles.

One can't look at the police here as faceless, jackbooted thugs - they're some of the city's poorer inhabitants, perpetually hungry-looking guys in their twenties that look like they're in their forties. And for the last two days, they've looked scared. Every local I've talked to over the last thirty hours, regardless of their politics, has said the same thing: this is the craziest it's ever been.

The National Democratic Party (that is, the government) has launched a press offensive blaming the protests solely on the Muslim Brotherhood. To be fair, the Alexandria protests were likely more along those lines, but here in Cairo, it's students leading the charge, accompanied by people from all walks of life. The government's position is unsurprising, and speaks to their immense lack of creativity. The Brotherhood has been an extremely useful bogeyman in the past - as long as they remain the democratic favorite and the only viable opposition, it has long been thought that the educated classes wouldn't utter a word of protest even if Mubarak were nailing dissidents to crosses in Tahrir. This protest might begin to suggest otherwise.

It should be noted, though, that as tempting as it is to conflate these protests with the Tunisian ones, there are several important distinctions between the two countries. The NDP has a wide base of political support spread among all social classes. There's little chance that the military will break with the existing leadership, as was the case in Tunisia. And from the US perspective, it should not be forgotten that there is a great deal of money at stake. Egypt is the second greatest recipient of US military aid, after Israel, to the tune of two billion dollars a year for the last several decades. If that doesn't represent a significant investment in the continued militarization of this country, I'm not sure what would.

Mubarak won't be driven from the country overnight a la Ben Ali. But this does represent a strong challenge to his continued rule.