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In Cairo, cynicism instead of revolution

On social networking sites and the city's streets, Egyptian reactions to copycat Tunisian acts highlight the contrasting attitudes of the countries' citizens towards similar problems

Tuesday 18 Jan 2011
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When Mohammad Bouazizi set himself on fire in Tunisia on December 17, he triggered an outbreak of protests culminating in the “Jasmine Revolution” that swept the country’s ruling regime into exile. On Monday, Abdou Abdel Moneim, a 49-year-old Egyptian did the same in front of his country’s parliament, prompting people to wonder on Facebook and Twitter whether Egypt was about to follow Tunisia.  

“Viva revolution, Egypt is next,” said Samy on his Facebook status while Ibrahim asks “anyone intends to burn himself tomorrow?”

Meanwhile Nevine is surprised at the “farcical tone. Are you joking? No one cares. The guy burnt himself and everything is normal, nothing happened on the streets, the Egyptian TV is in denial.”

Everything is normal and articles like “Tunisian dictators: crossroads for Arab dictators” were being tweeted and posted on the internet.

On the streets the argument is similar. In front of El-Mounira hospital where Abdel Moneim is being treated, the intensified media and security presence has roused the curiosity – and wry cynicism – of passersby and people working in the area.

“Why did they save him? Now the security will beat the hell out of him. They will show him the real democracy. The Egyptian authorities will say he is a foreign agent who wants to disturb the national security,” said Ayman Sami, 40, a kiosk owner in front of the hospital.

Indeed Doctor Mohammed Abdel Hadi, who is tending to Abdel Moneim, described his burns as superficial, adding that he will be able to leave hospital within a day but he doesn't think police would "allow him out soon."

Police prevented journalists from seeing Abdel Moneim and monitored every statement made by his friends, relatives or doctors. The minister of health’s advisor gave his expert opinion that “the patient didn’t intend to commit suicide, and only wanted to make a show. He suffers from psychological problems.”

Statements like this were the subject of protests online and in the media. A psychiatrist refused to comment on state TV saying it is improper to disclose the private and medical details of any individual on television.

“By denial, the government seems to be dealing with everything, they think we are going to buy this, that Abdel Moneim is crazy, and that he inflamed himself because of a fight over bread.” said Mohammed Abdallah, 25, an engineer outside the hospital where Abdel Moneim is being treated. “The only thing that was not said yet is he is an Israeli agent.”

Back on Facebook, Mahmoud asks "even the guy who set himself on fire is mentally unstable?"

“I suggest the government provides enough asylums for 80 million Egyptians, at least they wouldn't worry about a meal and a bed," says Fatima.

As to whether a revolution is likely in Egypt, the comparisons with Tunisia are grim. “People here are dead, they are like stones. The Egyptian regime is by far more corrupt than the Tunisian,” says Salah Abdel Qader, 30, who works for a multinational company. Abdel Qader adds angrily that the “Tunisian people have dignity, they are well educated, they are brave. But here people are used to being treated inhumanely, and they won’t revolt. It is a mixture of laziness and ignorance.”

“This is an act of despair, not an act of protest,” says 25-year-old Layal as she sips her coffee in the district of Heliopolis. Her mother Marianne disagrees, “this guy saw what happened in Tunisia and wanted to make a statement. He is willing to pay his life for change. This can’t be an act of despair, it is an act of revolution.”

“Egypt is not Tunisia,” counters Layal, “the people are different, the president is different and the media is different. Here the state media brainwashes people. They won’t let a revolution happen. They are much more experienced here in directing public opinion.”

A presenter on a popular talk show on state TV felt compelled to warn viewers that Egypt is not Tunisia; if you set yourself on fire here the revolution is not going to happen. Another presenter was incensed by the minister of health’s visit to Abdel Moneim in hospital, saying “if you are afraid, leave your position, Egypt is a big country, and officials have to be confident of themselves.”

Other shows on evening television would only say of Abdel Moneim’s action that it is not worth covering, preferring to focus on positive things in Egypt. 

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