"Egypt is not Tunisia. There is no comparison whatsoever," an Egyptian official said firmly and abruptly. What the Tunisia crisis might auger for Egypt was the first and last question this tense official accommodated from Ahram Online.
The reaction that was meant to block any parallels between the riots that swept Tunisia, first upon socioeconomic grievances and then championing political demands, and possible future scenarios.
According to sources reached by Ahram Online — including those close to cabinet ministers — the "Egypt is not Tunis" refrain was repeated many times during the past 24 hours as the toppled Tunisian President Zein Al-Abdine Ben Ali fled popular revolt and hundreds of thousands of demonstrators who drew an end to over two decades of his autocracy.
Many Egyptian officials were mesmerised, sources say, before their televisions. According to the same sources, many watched the events directly via Tunisian TV. Technicians were summoned to the offices of two ministers to get Tunis TV programmed on their cable receivers.
"He was slowly sipping his tea and saying this could never happen here," said the secretary of one senior official.
Egypt indeed is not Tunis. Even the harshest critic of the Egyptian regime would have to admit, as one Cairo-based Western diplomat suggested, the scope of freedoms in Egypt remains much larger than that of Tunisia. This, he adds, applies to political freedoms and to freedoms of expression.
"Some of the articles that I read in your papers could never have been printed in Tunis, never," said the Western diplomat.
Nevertheless, the limited gathering of scores of Egyptians Thursday evening in front of the Tunisian Embassy in Cairo to show solidarity with the Tunisian people and to call for more freedoms in Egypt was very carefully monitored by the authorities, according to one security official.
Concern of a replay of the Tunisian drama, which started with one individual setting himself on fire to protest chronic unemployment and that developed into four weeks of restless demonstrations before it ended with Ben Ali fleeing Tunis without a clear destination of refuge, does not seem to be prevalent. After all, the bread riots of 1977 — the strongest expression of popular dissent in Egypt's post-monarchal history — did not topple then unpopular late President Anwar Sadat.
"In Egypt, we know how to let off steam, and there will be some considerable letting off of steam in the next weeks," said an informed official who asked for his name to be withheld.
In other Arab capitals, however, there is greater concern — highest perhaps in Algeria and Jordan where socioeconomic demonstrations have already started. Authorities in both countries have announced economic packages to ease public anger over the twinning of soaring prices and hiked unemployment.
In Morocco, too, there is a growing sensitivity to the demands of better economic management and wider freedoms. Some announcements, said one Arab source, should be expected in the near future, but not right after the toppling of Ben Ali to avoid giving a sign that the regime might be concerned.
"But they are concerned in Morocco," added the same diplomat. There is also "concern in Yemen" and other Arab capitals, he added.
"It is only wise to be concerned. After all, Tunis was doing much better economically than other Arab countries; under Ben Ali it had a solid per capita income, high level of literacy and considerable recognition of women's civil rights," the same diplomat said.
He added that the fact that the political Islam movement in Tunis was neither influential nor much involved in the demonstrations that toppled Ben Ali is a reminder that public anger is not only Islamist driven.
"And this brings an end to the argument that is forwarded by many Arab regimes to the West that the only alternative (to their own rule) is an Islamist regime," commented a Washington-based Arab diplomat.
According to the same diplomat, the Tunisian scenario of applying democracy by the force of the people ended the feeling that many Arab regimes have been promoting amongst their people that the alternative to them was chaos.
"There is a sense of realisation now in Washington that contrary to previous perceptions Arab peoples could bring about change and that change would not necessarily be inspired by one particular opposition leader. Yes, like Mohamed ElBaradei in Egypt," the same Washington-based Arab diplomat suggested.
According to one Brussels-based Arab diplomat, "What Tunis did over the past day is show the West that an Arab people managed to force a dictator out, and this was neither a military coup nor a religious revolution. It was just the power of the people, clear of all forms of foreign intervention."
He added that the fact that this happened in one of the countries where the grip of security was the strongest is making many in European quarters wonder which country in the Arab world will follow the Tunisian example, even if in a different style.