Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Riot Like an Egyptian

What the heck is going on in the Arab world? Tunisia first last week, and now a threat to the 30-year Hosni Mubarak regime? From the people:

Police responded with blasts from water cannons and set upon crowds with batons and acrid clouds of tear gas to clear demonstrators crying out "Down with Mubarak" and demanding an end to Egypt's grinding poverty, corruption, unemployment and police abuses.

Tuesday's demonstration, the largest Egypt has seen for years, began peacefully, with police showing unusual restraint in what appeared to be a calculated strategy by the government to avoid further sullying the image of a security apparatus widely seen as little more than corrupt thugs in uniforms.

With discontent growing over economic woes, and the toppling of Tunisia's president still resonating in the region, Egypt's government - which normally responds with swift retribution to any dissent - needed to tread carefully.

But as crowds filled downtown Cairo's Tahrir Square - waving Egyptian and Tunisian flags and adopting the same protest chants that rang out in the streets of Tunis - security personnel changed tactics and the protest turned violent.

It's the youth:

“It was the young people who took the initiative and set the date and decided to go,” Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said Wednesday with some surprise during a telephone interview from his office in Vienna, shortly before rushing home to Cairo to join the revolt.

Dr. ElBaradei, a Nobel prize winner, has been the public face of an effort to reinvigorate and unite Egypt’s fractious and ineffective opposition since he plunged into his home country’s politics nearly a year ago, and he said the youth movement had accomplished that on its own. “Young people are impatient,” he said. “Frankly, I didn’t think the people were ready.”

But their readiness — tens of thousands have braved tear gas, rubber bullets and security police officers notorious for torture — has threatened to upstage or displace the traditional opposition group.

That opposition group is typically the Muslim Brotherhood, who have definitely been repressed but are a no fun organization dedicated to instilling religious law.

Analysis and questions from Juan Cole, expert on the area:

One question is whether these demonstrations are food riots as in 1977 or whether now they want more, i.e. political reform. (Political reformers certainly backed the protests, but these groups, such as al-Ghad (Tomorrow) and supporters of former IAEA head Muhammad Elbaradei, are small and previous calls by them for masses to come out have gone largely unheeded. The Muslim Brotherhood did not actively back the demonstrations, though it allowed individual members to participate. These crowds were mainly newbies without strong political affiliation).

A second is whether the army and security forces will stand unified behind the Mubarak regime, as they have in the past. In Tunisia, the army refused to fire on demonstrators on behalf of Ben Ali. But Mubarak is a former Air Force general, who came out of the military to rule the country, as part of a military regime established in 1952. A caution: Egypt is not Tunisia.

Take a look:

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