When I was in Egypt just over a month ago, I was surprised at the lack of political vibrancy there. In fact, several of my conversations focused on that. Even the widespread (and largely undisputed) claims of election rigging did not generated much protests (apart from the sporadic clashes between members of the Muslim Brotherhood and the government). But now things have changed. Tens of thousands of people today came out to protest Mubarak's rule. Even if the current protests are unsuccessful in removing a 30 year dictatorship and the three decades of emergency rule, they would still succeed in transforming the political culture.
Couple of quick points: While Tunisia is the inspiration, the local political and scene of Egypt is quite different than Tunisia (see an earlier post: How important is the internet in Tunisia uprising?). For starters, the chief opposition to Mubarak in the form of Muslim Brotherhood is stronger (still in a relative sense) than some of the Islamist groups in Tunisia. Up until recently, Mubarak has been quite successful in playing the fears of an Islamist takeover in the case of fair democratic elections. So it was interesting today that Muslim Brotherhood officially declined to join-in the Egypt protests - and it is unclear how many of the individual members were there. Indeed, the protesters appear to represent a broad spectrum of the Egyptian society:
The reality that emerged from interviews with protesters — many of whom said they were independents — was more complicated and reflected one of the government’s deepest fears: that the opposition to Mr. Mubarak’s rule now spreads across ideological lines and includes ordinary people angered by corruption and economic hardship as well as secular and Islamist opponents. That broad base of support could make it harder for the government to co-opt or crush those demanding change.This may be a smart move on part of the Brotherhood. But then again, with all this turmoil, it is unclear what will happen in the coming days. One thing is clear: Arab political scene is currently changing at a lightening pace. And it is vibrant!
And New Media is again appear to be playing its role. Today's protest was instigated with the help of Facebook.
In the days leading up to the protests, more than 90,000 people signed up on a Facebook page for the “Day of Revolution,” organized by opposition and pro-democracy groups to be held on Police Day, a national holiday. The organizers framed the protest as a stand against torture, poverty, corruption and unemployment. The Muslim Brotherhood said it would not officially participate, though some of members were among the protesters in Cairo.
But many people said they did not belong to any particular group and were attending their first demonstration. They included Ramy Rafat, 25, who said he lived in El-Marg, an impoverished neighborhood in north Cairo. Mr. Rafat, who has a master’s degree in petroleum geology and is unemployed, said he learned about the protest on a Facebook site for Khaled Said, 28, whose family says was fatally beaten by police officers last year.
“There are a lot of things wrong with this country,” Mr. Rafat said. “The president has been here for 30 years. Why?”It is still too early to really assess the larger impact of social media. But it is becoming quite clear that Facebook and Twitter are certainly playing an important, if not central, role in the organization and mobilization of these protests. And it appears that Twitter, at least for some time, was blocked in Egypt:
But there were signs of other containment tactics: Several times Tuesday afternoon, cellphone networks appeared to be blocked or otherwise unavailable for people calling from Tahrir — or Liberation — Square. Many people had trouble getting access to Twitter, the social networking tool that helped spread news of the protests. Twitter confirmed that its site had been blocked in Egypt, Reuters reported. For much of the day, state television made no mention of the demonstrations.But I think it will be hard to control this for a long period of time. In Iran, the government was able to regain control with excessive use of force. Though we may still have to see the long-term impact of that.
Tunisia. Egypt. Any others who want to add to the drama?
Here is an interview with El Baradei from CNN: