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CIAO Focus, February 2011: Days of Rage in Egypt

On January 25, students and young professionals organized a "Day of Rage" with the aid of Facebook and other social media.  The demonstrators, joined by Egyptians from all walks of life, converged on Tahrir Square where over the course of more than two weeks now crowd estimates have fluctuated between several thousand and several hundred thousand.  Similar protests broke out in Alexandria, Ismailia and Port Said, all calling for the ouster of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak who has ruled the country virtually unopposed for 30 years.  Some people are calling it the “Facebook Revolution.”   

The long term causes of the revolt are legion: decades of crippling poverty, increases in food and rent prices, rampant government corruption and a state controlled repressive apparatus in addition to lack of employment opportunities, especially for the college educated youth.  However, the inspirational spark that set off the tinderbox was the popular uprising in Tunisia which successfully brought down the autocratic regime of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.  

In an apparent show of force Mubarak dispatched the army into Tahrir Square only to have the crowds jubilantly welcome the soldiers and tanks as being in solidarity with the people.  This has put the army--one of Egypt’s only institutions to enjoy popular legitimacy--in a difficult position.  It remains loyal to Mubarak, but if it opens fire on unarmed protesters its reputation and standing in Egyptian society would be irreparably tarnished. 

To a certain extent Mubarak has managed to divide the opposition by promising to step down in September and implement some reforms.  Although the majority of the protesters remain steadfast in their demand for immediate regime change, many Egyptians (especially those who fear anarchy) say this gesture is enough and that Mubarak should be allowed to leave with dignity when his term officially ends. 

The popular uprising in Egypt has both awed and rattled governments in the United States and Europe, which have cautiously supported the aspirations of the protesters without completely breaking with the current regime.  The big concern is that a power vacuum caused by Mubarak’s precipitous departure could lead to civil unrest or a government takeover by the anti-western Muslim Brotherhood, which might then come under the sway of Iran or Al-Qaeda.  But while it is true that the Brotherhood is both well organized and influential as a political force, these fears are greatly exaggerated.  The Brotherhood enjoys only limited support in Egypt, is not the dominant voice of the pro-democracy demonstrations, and is loved by neither Iran nor Al-Qaeda.  In all probability the Muslim Brotherhood would become part of any pluralistic post-Mubarak government, but as The Economist rightly points out in its Feb. 5th-11th issue, Islamist parties have for some time now been peacefully participating in elections in countries like Turkey, Malaysia and Indonesia which are all considered nascent democracies.    

Ultimately though, it is the Egyptian army that will more than likely play the pivotal role in deciding whether Mubarak stays or goes and what kind of government the country will have after his departure. 

--Robert Sedgwick
Editor, CIAO


From the CIAO Database:

Military Holds Key to Egypt's Future: Interview with Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor,

Egypt's Security Forces: A Key Factor in the Crisis

Egypt: before and after

The Tunisian Revolution: An Opportunity for Democratic Transition

Is There an Islamist Alternative in Egypt?

Deciphering Egypt's Transition: What do Egypt's botched elections mean for the EU?

The Camp David Accords: A Case of International Bargaining


Outside Sources: *

BBC News: Egypt Unrest

Informed Comment (Juan Cole)

10 Reasons Americans Should Care About the Egyptian Revolution,2

Middle East Research & Information Project

Live blog: Protests in Egypt - as it happened (The Guardian)

Audio: Economic Repercussions of the Turmoil in Egypt (Peterson Institute for International Economics)

Crisis Group Statement on the Situation in Egypt Group Statement on the Situation in Egypt.aspx

Egypt: Seeds of change (Al Jazeera)

* Outside links are not maintained. For broken outside links, CIAO recommends the Way Back Machine.