01.25.11

Egypt Protests: The Tunisia Effect

With echoes of Tunisia’s recent uprising, today’s riots against Cairo’s 30-year regime have already left three dead. Newsweek’s Babak Dehghanpisheh and Mandi Fahmy report from the scene.

It’s the Tunisia effect. For nearly two weeks, Middle East pundits have speculated whether the ousting of Tunisian dictator Zine al Abeddine Ben Ali would lead to further unrest in the region. And the answer came today: Thousands of protesters poured into the streets of Cairo and a handful of smaller Egyptian cities to chant slogans against President Hosni Mubarak and demand more rights. It was the biggest protest the country has seen in years, and riot police responded with tear gas and water cannons.

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Egyptians have many of the same grievances as their Tunisian counterparts: a corrupt and ineffective government, dismal economic conditions, and torture at the hands of security forces. That’s why the protest organizers deliberately planned their gathering for today, which is the government’s official “Police Day.” A Facebook page set up by the protest organizers racked up more than 90,000 participants. The Egyptian government must have realized that, as with Tunisia, the Internet can serve as a powerful rallying tool: Twitter reportedly was blocked almost all day Monday. “It’s exceeded all expectations,” says Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center. “People were skeptical about turnout. There have been these Facebook-organized protests before. But there’s a difference between cyber-activism and street-activism. Today was the real deal.”

Egypt’s vast security apparatus is widely viewed as being much more brutal than its counterpart in Tunisia.

In Cairo, the protests centered around Tahrir Square, one of the largest open spaces in the city and the location of the famous Egyptian Museum. Wael Abbas, one of Egypt’s most famous activist bloggers, who’s been arrested and threatened several times, arrived early at this morning’s demonstration in Cairo, with low expectations. But instead, Abbas found himself surrounded by thousands of people. “There were all kinds of people, people who I’ve never seen at protests before,” Abbas says. Protesters chanted slogans such as, “Down, down with Mubarak” and “Egypt’s revolution is coming no matter what.” Others were more clever with their barbs, including some who singled out Mubarak’s son and possible successor, Gamal. One group chanted, “Gamal, tell your father: Egypt's people hate you. Gamal, tell your father: this isn't his ranch.” Protesters threw rocks at police in some locations and even attacked a water truck. Others tore apart posters of Mubarak that lined the streets and even set them on fire.

Many of the protesters in Cairo today described the same kind of shared problems. The grievances also seemed remarkably similar to those that spurred the self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi, the fruit vendor who kicked off the Tunisian revolution. Ahmed Atta, a 33-year-old law graduate, says he had joined the demonstration because he couldn’t find a suitable job and had no special connections in the government to help him out. “The country has been boiling even before Tunisia, but the Tunisians took the step before Egypt. We were late taking this step,” Atta says. “Our ministers are corrupt and our water is contaminated. I buy bread that's not good to eat, but we eat it. What can we do? Die of hunger?” Tarek Hamdy, a 31-year-old veterinarian, is also struggling to find a job. He had searched for more than five years but could only find odd jobs that earned him less than $100 per month. Leaving Egypt now seems like the best option for him. “The only way to get a job is through contacts or through bribery. This shouldn't be how we end up after our parents spend a lot of money on our education,” he says. “I am not against the police. I am against the regime as a whole.” Even some of the policemen among the crowds were sympathetic to the cause. In one central Cairo location, a NEWSWEEK reporter asked a nearby police officer if he agreed with what the protesters were saying. He replied, “Of course!”

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Egyptian demonstrators clash with the police in central Cairo during a protest on Jan. 25. (Mohammed Abed, AFP / Getty Images), MOHAMMED ABED

The wild card today was the Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s biggest opposition group. The group announced it would not officially attend the protest, and the government seems to have taken steps to ensure it would stick to its word. Policemen prevented a handful of former Brotherhood parliamentarians from leaving the offices of the Bar Association in the afternoon, presumably to keep them out of the protests. Still, some members managed to join the crowds. Gamal Heshmat, a former Brotherhood parliamentarian, came all the way from Damanhour, a town roughly 100 miles northwest of Cairo. “Every person should demand their rights,” Heshmat said. “Change is on the way.”

Will Mubarak soon be joining Tunisia’s Ben Ali in Saudi Arabia (as some protesters were chanting today)? For the moment, that seems unlikely. Egypt’s vast security apparatus is widely viewed as being much more brutal than its counterpart in Tunisia, and has managed to keep Mubarak in place for nearly 30 years. Wire agencies reported a handful of protesters being killed in today’s demonstrations. If the protests continue, the casualties will surely mount. “The regime is going to come back very strongly,” says Hamid, of Brookings. “Unlike their Tunisian counterparts, they’ll be more ruthless. They’re not going to simply sit back and let this protest movement grow.”

With Mike Giglio in New York.

Babak Dehghanpisheh was named Newsweek’s Baghdad Bureau Chief in December 2006. He has been covering Iraq regularly for the past five years.