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In Depth
Can Egyptians revolt?
Inspired by the Tunisian example, Egyptians take to the streets in their own protest. But can it last?
Last Modified: 26 Jan 2011 13:49 GMT
Egyptian protests have emulated the Tunisian model very closely, from spontaneous protests in the streets to catalysing the movement through social media to attracting the attention of Anonymous [CC - Collin David Anderson]

The traditional wisdom has always been that Egyptians don't revolt simply because they are an agricultural society. Farmers require stability and patience to tend their land.

Farmers also need a strong central government to protect them against natural disasters, such as floods and droughts.

Egypt is no longer an agricultural society.

But since the 1952 military led revolution which ended monarchism in Egypt, the country has been ruled by semi-authoritarian national regimes that used the resources of the state, large security apparatuses and a centralised economy led by a gigantic public sector, to suppress political opposition, buy public satisfaction, and build legitimacy for its economically inefficient and politically oppressive government.

This has also changed since the 1970s when Egypt was forced to liberalise its economy. At that time, the country faced a shocking military defeat by Israel in 1967. Its economy was exhausted after bearing the cost of several wars. It also wanted to move west under the rule of Sadat and his successor, the current president Mubarak who has been ruling since 1981.

The liberalisation of the Egyptian economy slowed down in the 1980s because a timid Mubarak did not want to antagonise the population by making any major political or economic changes during his first decade in power.

In the 1990s Mubarak was forced to speed up the privatisation process under the pressure of a daunting foreign debt crisis and foreign international lending organisations, such as the World Bank and the IMF, who made privatisation a pre-condition for aid.

A new elite

Since then a new political and economic elite was created. A class dominated by the owners of the newly privatised public sector companies.

The new business class was quickly and widely seen by Egyptians as a corrupt and greedy elite created by the regimes and under its watchful eyes to take ownership of the country's newly and chaotically privatised economy and to support the regime in return.

Egyptians widely feared that the new business elite were given a lot of advantages by the regime. They were sold large public sector companies for below market values. They were granted huge bank loans, massive tax cuts, and large pieces of land to buy their loyalty and support.

In return, the ruling National Democratic Party has been increasingly counting on the new business elites as its base for financial and political support.

After privatisation, the new business elite gained control over millions of workers or potential voters who used to work for the public sector in the past. The new wealthy elites can now buy the loyalty and votes of millions of private sector workers through wages and other economic benefits. They also have much needed cash to support their political campaigns and their parties if needed.

As a result, 20 per cent of the seats of People's Assembly, the lower chamber of the Egyptian parliament, was occupied by businessmen in 2005. Their exact presence in the newly elected parliament in November is still unknown. But, it's widely expected to be higher.

They also control senior positions in the ruling party and its policy council led by Mubarak's son and expected heir, Gamal.

New challenges

But, the new changes have created many challenges for the regime.

It meant that the regime can no longer buy the support of millions of public sector employees by controlling their wages and jobs. The regime has to open its ranks to the new business elite and to tightly control its political tendencies. With privatisation throwing millions of Egyptians out of their public sector jobs and subjected them to increasing unemployment, creating a significant problem for the government as it deals with their growing anger.

Unlike the failed Tunisian regime of Ben Ali, Mubarak understood that he has to give Egyptians room to breathe.

He tolerated the establishment of more than 20 political parties, mostly small and unknown to the majority of Egyptians. He allowed the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, the largest organised opposition group in the country, to run in parliamentary and professional unions elections. He also gave media a wide margin of press freedom and allowed small demonstrations and political movements to grow and protest.

However, Mubarak's political tolerance has always been limited and calculated. He cracked down on opposition, media, and public protests before major political events such as the latest parliamentary elections. He kept the opposition weak, divided, and vilified. He kept the Muslim Brotherhood in defencive mode through constant arrests, media campaigns, and political marginalisation.

He relatively opened up under foreign and domestic pressure during the war on Iraq and quickly closed down again a few years later. He even passed many constitutional changes to make himself or whoever his regimes chooses the only possible successor.

Still, Mubarak's control has never been perfect and yesterday's events are an important and rare witness.

What Egypt witnessed yesterday was a public show of anger never seen before during Mubarak's rule. Tens of thousands of angry Egyptians from all walks of life marched in the streets of Cairo and several major cities around the country calling for a Tunisian-like revolution.

They wanted a full regime change, a new government and parliament, fair elections, and a new political system all together.

Caught by surprise

Like in Tunisia, the large protests took many by surprise. They even surprised the leaders of the established political opposition groups who participated in the protests but did not expect them to be that large or inspiring.

They were spontaneous protests fed by public anger, disenchanted youth, and the Tunisian example.

Pictures and information fed from Egypt on Twitter, Facebook, and international TV channels showed a new image of Egypt. Showing that this collective anger should never be underestimated and that Egypt should prepare for the unexpected.

There is a new generation.

Millions of youth who have grown up in a more open and competitive Egypt have a more cynical view of their country, future, and the world. They're more fearless than their parents, who used to work for the government or the public sector, and have less to lose and have less respect to the establishment, its security forces, and economic power.

The youth share the support of millions of poor and disadvantaged Egyptians who feel they were left behind by the regime and its new business elite.

Then comes the role of media and the Tunisian uprising that taught Egyptians and Arabs that if they act together and go to the streets in big numbers they can overcome or at least defy the power of their regime and its security forces.

Still, Egypt is not like Tunisia.

Many renowned Egyptian analysts disappointedly noted that Egypt will not follow the Tunisian model because of the low levels of literacy among its population, the spread of apathy and defeatism among its citizens, and the negative role played by religious groups inside the country.

In this respect, analysts described Egypt as a country increasingly divided along religious lines, Copts versus Muslims and competing Islamist groups against each other.

Still, the events of January 25 will make many rethink their understanding of Egypt and ask again if Egyptians can revolt. Time will only tell.

Source:
Al Jazeera
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