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A day of anger and revolt, but now what?

Why did Tuesday's protests escalate, what was different about them, and will we see change anytime soon?

Yasmine Fathi , Thursday 27 Jan 2011
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When the message first came out that a revolution was being planned for January 25th, Egyptians were as equally sceptical as they were amused.

“Who on earth schedules a revolution? What a funny idea,” was the echo on the streets.

Inspired by the revolution in Tunisia, which in a matter of weeks ousted a leader who had been in power for 23 years, Egyptians started a full-fledged electronic campaign to try to secure the same for their ailing country.

The call for January 25 began just after Ben Ali fled on January 14th. Youth activists began to distribute electronic newsletters and videos calling on people to revolt.  At first, it was received with the usual Egyptian jovial spirit. People joked about it all asking “what time exactly” is the Egyptian revolution scheduled for – morning or night - so that they can “put it in their diary”. Mostly people winked, thinking of witty names for the so-called revolution. No-one expected it would amount to anything.

So, along with other references such as the ‘Freedom Revolution’, it became the “Day of Anger”.

What started lightly though took an unexpected turn. The country is no stranger to protests – in the lead-up to the 2005 presidential elections, they were happening weekly. But even then, they would gather, at most, several hundred people.

On Tuesday, in an unprecedented show of support, and a huge surprise, the demonstrations drew in thousands, catching even the government by surprise. What started as a peaceful day with only chants for change, unfolded, into a day, and subsequent ones, with unprecedented wide-spread brutality at the hands of police and their thugs. The protests have been so big, so raucous, so unrelenting, that they have earned comparisons to the 1977 bread riots, when in a similar display, Egyptians took to the streets to protest increases in the prices of bread and other basic food items. The question: what happened to make January 25 different, and what may happen next? Was it just Tunisia?

Analysts say that there are similarities in this case to both Tunisia and 1977, but there are also differences – notably, the build up of frustration and concerns.

“We cannot deny the impact of the Tunisian revolution, this was very inspiring and gave people the confidence that they can create change through mass mobilization and not through elite politics,” explains Rabab El Mahdi, political science professor at the American University in Cairo. “Add to that the continuous use of systematic torture in police stations which became obvious to the public through the Khaled Said incident,” she adds, referring to the young businessman who was beaten to death at the hands of police in broad daylight last June.

“The other issue is that people now see an opportunity for change with the coming presidential elections and they see how the regime is blocking this opportunity,” El Mahdi told Ahram Online.


Indeed the calls for January 25 involved demands for a number of issues. The deteriorating economic situation has been a key one. In their widely distributed statement the organizers of the day discussed the “30 million Egyptians suffering from depression.” They pointed out to the more than 100,000 thousand attempted suicides in 2009, the 48 million poor people and the three million who remain unemployed.

Yet still, although these figures – at least symbolically – are known, Tuesday took even the country’s most seasoned analysts by surprise.

Diaa Rashwan, an analyst at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies insists that the important factor in Tuesday’s events “is that they have been unprecedented”. Speaking to Ahram Online, he said that in Egypt, we are used to “spontaneous protests,” in which there is an action by the government that garners a reaction from the people so they demonstrate. These protests, says Rahswan, are usually held on normal working days where pedestrians can join in. This time, he says, it was a holiday, which coincided with midterm exams, which meant that Egypt’s cities were empty and quite and people would have normally stayed at home.

“But Tuesday's thousands of Egyptians left their homes with the intention of going out to a protest,” he said. “This has never happened before at this level in Egypt. This is new and pre-decided and shows what will happen next.”

Rashwan added that most of the people who joined the protests on the 25th and 26th of January were unexpected. They were from the upper-middle and middle-middle class and not the lower-class as expected. “Another unusual aspect of Tuesday's protests was the large presence of females. Not since the 70s when we used to have a lot of women join in have we seen this heavy presence of women, since Egyptian protests are usually male dominated,” he said.

Hisham Kassem a newspaper publisher and seasoned activist adds that the social media played a big role in mobilization, naturally quite different from the 70s.

“The social media now is making connectivity and the exchange of ideas and the ability to mobilize much higher,” says Kassem. “What we saw Tuesday was the natural outcome of the situation and was going to happen sooner or later.”

Kassem believes that despite the magnitude of the situation not much will change.

“They will try to address the situation in cosmetic matters,” insists Kassem. “But nothing real or tangible will be done.”


Political scientist Mahdi agrees.

“They will use a combination of massive coercion to deter people like what happened Tuesday when they used tear gas and rubber bullets and they would also use the cooptation mechanism where they will issue statements about the possibility of political change,” she said. However, she insists that what happened on the 25th “was not a small matter”.

“It’s going to be a long term process,” Mahdi said. “But Tuesday's events are monumental in setting the process of real change, hence the potential for change is much more than 2005, the horizon has opened for much wider change.
”

What exactly the government will do remains to be seem. Consensus, is that change has to come – in one form another: January 25 and its ripple effects have been too large to ignore. 

Aliaa El Mahdi, member of the policies committee in the National Democratic Party, says that the government has to listen to the thousands of voices that were raised on the 25th asking for change. “If I was from the government I would listen and respond,” she said “What happened Tuesday showed that some factions, specifically from among the young people who have problems, some political nature and others social and economic. The government has to respond and offer solutions.”

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