In Egypt, activism escalates, spurred by Tunisian riots and local violence

Yasmine El-Rashidi , Saturday 1 Jan 2011

In an ominous turn, Egyptian activists have declared solidarity with Tunisian rioters. They are set to demonstrate in downtown Cairo on Sunday, in a protest that may unite causes, condemning Saturday's church bombing too

Egypt’s youth activist population is itching to revolt. Typically locally-focused, their activities -- which range from demonstrations and protests to ardent pledges, statements, and calls for Egyptians to unite -- have recently taken an interesting turn: in solidarity with insurrection-afflicted Tunisia.

Rioting in Tunisia, a North African coastal Republic that lies 2000 kms from Egypt, erupted two weeks ago, when a 26-year-old Tunisian man, driven to depression by unemployment, attempted suicide by setting himself on fire. His act instigated riots by Tunisian youth in the town of Sidi Bouzid, who took to the streets in protest of wide-spread government corruption and unemployment.

Much like Egypt, where the government fast clamps down on any dissent, containing protestors and crushing the prospect of dissident revolt, Tunisia is governed by equal tyranny. The regime of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali operates the popular European tourist destination as a police state, tolerating little in the way of critique. That the Tunisian riots lasted two weeks, spreading to several cities and claiming at least three lives, came as a surprise.

The Tunisian youths’ violent revolt, and their evident breaking point at the hand of a dictatorship that led them to take risks with their lives, has ruffled the feathers of neighbouring governments who fear similar prospects at home. It has also stirred the interest and intrigue of equally disenfranchised Egyptian youth, whose discontent has led to small-scale protests and stone-throwing, but never outright revolt.  

A largely French-speaking country that shares little in common with Egypt save for a colonized past and economic woes, Egyptians have little affinity for Tunisians. That they have been prompted to declare fervent solidarity is revealing of the state of a nation, of pent up frustration, and of a desire to find reason to strike out in their rally for change. If the Tunisians can do it, why not us, Egyptian youth activists have said.

The unity with youth rioters in Tunisia mounted online, with bloggers and activists taking to Facebook and twitter to declare solidarity and support. In a search of tweets that are tagged #sidibouzid and #egypt, hundreds of entries come up. The Tunisian struggle is the Egyptian one, activists here are saying. It is also an Arab one.

“#tunisia #egypt #sidibouzid we are one. Down with arab dictators”, one Cairo-based tweeter wrote.

“Remember that the regimes of #Tunisia #Algeria #Egypt #Syria #Morocco #Yemen #Jordan have this in common: they r THIEVES #sidibouzid” wrote another.

In Egypt, a nation governed by Emergency Rule, much political activism and dissent happens online. It is somewhat easy to muster the courage to post 140 characters in support of a fight against authoritarian regimes and the wide-spread unemployment that afflicts youth across Egypt and the Arab world. But to take to the streets in support of a cause that extends beyond national borders, is unusual.

The demonstration on Sunday, which will be held in downtown Cairo’s Talaat Harb Square – named after the leading Egyptian economist and nationalist who established Banque Misr in 1907 – is being fervently promoted by a variety of youth activist groups. Among them, the 6th April Movement, whose 6th April demonstration in Cairo last year ended in police brutality, is especially active.

In a series of declarations released by the group via email, Facebook, and blogs, they expressed empathy with the situation faced by Tunisian youth. Citing it as a regional affliction, they have offered to commit all their resources to helping further publicize the situation and bring media attention to the strife, which activists say government’s have tried to downplay and hush. Or, in the case of the United States – known to be a source of pressure on regional governments – has completely ignored.

#sidibouzid : Should Tunisians make #suicidal #attacks to attract local and foreign media immediately ????? #tunisia #egypt #tunisie” one activist wrote following the bombing on an Egyptian church early Saturday that immediately received worldwide attention.  

“Lesson of the day in Middle East: Terrorism= lots of media coverage, democratic revolution: little media coverage. #sidibouzid #Egypt”, another tweeted.

This region-wide solidarity may well be the first step in the revival of a different form of activism across the Arab world. For Egypt, the pro-active response to the strife in Tunisia comes on the back of a frustrating few months that revealed simmering dissent and an ominous turning.

Egypt’s parliamentary elections, which took place last month, were witness to wide-spread violence, vote-rigging and corruption at the hands of the government’s security apparatus and a bevy of thugs. The opposition was pulverized in the elections, giving the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) a sweeping, corruption-bought win. Several deaths were reported at the hands of state security and NDP thugs – allegations the government has denied. Opposition groups have since said they will unite to form a parallel parliament and government.

In the days before that, clashes broke out between police and activists near the Pyramids in Cairo, following a government moratorium on construction on a Coptic Christian community centre in the area. The demonstrators wielded banners and chanted slogans protesting persecution of Egypt’s minority Christian population and calling for an “Egypt for all”. The protest ended with two people dead and over one hundred detained.

The demonstration on Sunday could go one of two ways. It may be halted completely by State Security, or it could turn into a much broader appeal that is indicative of what is to come. Egyptians awoke this Saturday morning to news of 21 deaths at the hands of a terrorist attack and suicide bombing targeting Christian Copts outside a church in Alexandria – an incident that claimed the lives of Muslims too, and yet another act of persecution that activists have long rallied against. By this afternoon, clashes had already broken out between the police and protesters denouncing the attack.

The cumulative and unprecedented peak of discontent - of the elections, the persecution, and the long-standing economic troubles that plague the majority of the nation’s 80 million population - may very well serve to unite disparate groups of activists and politicians, bringing them together in a larger, more forceful movement for change. And the example of Tunisia, and the courage its youth have displayed in risking their lives, may very well be the impetus Egypt’s own youth and activists need to take their activities to a new level of vitality. The question, this time, is how fast the government will react and what measures it will take to crush any imminent threats to its stability and rule. The planned demonstration may very well serve as an indicator and forewarning of what is to come.

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