Thursday, January 27, 2011

Egypt, Tunisia, and the Qualities of Revolution

I've been extremely busy this week, and so am just catching up on things, but the ongoing protests in Egypt represent the most significant challenge ever faced by President Husni Mubarak. While on a research trip to the District of Columbia Tuesday, I attended this panel on Tunisia, and the question arose as to whether Tunisia would inspire similar uprisings elsewhere. Someone, I don't remember whom, suggested that Tunisia could act to increase the appeal of anti-government activism among marginal potential participants in other countries by showing what was possible. This has clearly taken place.

Hossam el-Hamalawy says it this way:
"In Egypt we say that Tunis was more or less a catalyst, not an instigator, because the objective conditions for an uprising existed in Egypt, and revolt has been in the air over the past few years. Indeed, we already managed to have 2 mini-intifadas or 'mini Tunisias' in 2008. The first was the April 2008 uprising in Mahalla, followed by another one in Borollos, in the north of the country.

"Revolutions don't happen out of the blue. It's not because of Tunisia yesterday that we have one in Egypt mechanically the next day. You can't isolate these protests from the last four years of labour strikes in Egypt, or from international events such as the al-Aqsa intifada and the US invasion of Iraq. The outbreak of the al-Aqsa intifada was especially important because in the 1980s-90s, street activism had been effectively shut down by the government as part of the fight against Islamist insurgents. It only continued to exist inside university campuses or party headquarters. But when the 2000 intifada erupted and Al Jazeera started airing images of it, it inspired our youth to take to the streets, in the same way we've been inspired by Tunisia today."

El-Hamalawy also calls attention to the role of independent trade unions in mobilizing the Tunisian working classes, and the gap Egypt has in that area. El-Hamalawy calls them youth protests, which it should be emphasized means a lot in a country where "youth" probably encompasses the majority of the population. Jonathan Wright also notes that in Cairo, a city of 17 million, what's happening can't really be considered a mass uprising, though the vast working class neighborhoods may be at a tipping point. The situation may be different in Suez, which looks like a war zone, though I'm having trouble finding details, as I am also with a lot of other cities around the country.

Starting tomorrow, however, the stakes will be higher, as Muhammad el-Baradei and the Muslim Brotherhood will join in. Both matter for different reasons. El-Baradei is a leader, but not one who generated the protests. Going after him will not remove the protest leadership, but his presence as a credible transition voice should Mubarak go the way of Ben Ali. The Muslim Brotherhood brings further numbers and organization, and I noticed that a senior leader quoted by The National said that, "We are not pushing this movement, but we are moving with it. We don't wish to lead it but we want to be part of it." This is well calculated to hinder regime attempts to portray this as a clash between itself and Islamists.

Will Egypt become the next Tunisia? I will not hazard a prediction until this weekend. Twitter traffic suggests the government is trying to sever communications links, but if they do face a mass movement, they can't do much about the word of mouth within neighborhoods, nor are they likely to interfere with mosque and church attendance. (Many Egyptian Christians attend weekly services on Friday.)

(Crossposted to American Footprints)

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing the comment by Hossam el-Hamalawy which gives some context. Also, interesting what Muslim Brotherhood is saying. The TV news is so lacking.

2:20 AM  

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