A popular uprising in Tunisia recently persuaded the local President-for-Life to explore his retirement options in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi monarchy welcomed former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali with open arms, but the people were much less enthusiastic. “Just as they were speculating about whether Syria or Egypt would be next,” reports the Financial Times of London, “their joy turned to anger as the learned that Ben Ali would be living in the kingdom.”
As it turns out, Egypt was next. The streets of Cairo are filled with protesters, unleashing a “day of rage” that turned into a melee with security forces. Even as violence broke out in Cairo, other major Egyptian cities reported protestors appearing in the streets. Tear gas has been deployed, and there are reports of at least one fatality.
The Associated Press reports buildings are splattered with graffiti denouncing President Hosni Mubarak, who has been in office for six years longer than Ben Ali was. References to Tunisia are everywhere, with no small number of Tunisian flags peppering the crowd. The protestors have been chanting “Mubarak, Mubarak, Jeddah awaits,” suggesting the Egyptian President should pop over to the Saudi city to visit the deposed Tunisian strongman and never come back.
These protests come on “Police Day,” a national holiday dedicated to the police back when they were viewed as heroes opposing British occupation, instead of oppressors maintain the power of a regime. A Facebook page dedicated to a young man beaten to death by the police was instrumental in organizing today’s riots. Something like 90,000 web page visitors said they would answer the call.
Western coverage of the Egyptian riots has been surprisingly muted thus far. This may be due to some ambivalence about the storyline. Mubarak is an autocrat, but he’s been an autocrat the West could work with, and his repressive regime has been repressing some very ugly Islamist elements. Both Tunisia and Egypt have an underemployed, educated class that might be interested in stable, democratic government… but a lot of the muscle behind them in the crowds has different ideas.
Unlike Tunisia, Egypt has some high-profile opposition leaders who might be able to minimize the chaos of a government collapse, including Nobel laureate Mohammed el-Baradei. He has expressed sympathy for the protestors, telling the Egyptian police that “One day, I hope that you will regain your role as the protectors of the people; rather than protectors of fraudulent elections. I am sure that every one of you deep inside is looking forward to the day that his role will again be with the people and a part of them, rather than against them.”
It’s interesting to compare the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings with the tragic failure of the similar movement in Iran. All of them shared numerous features in common, including the use of social networks like Facebook and Twitter for organization. The obvious difference is that Iran was willing to murder protestors in order to bring them under control – not just deaths in the heat of battle against riot police, but straight-up executions. The more subtle difference is that Iran did a better job of convincing the general population that the protests were futile.
Autocratic control over an uneasy population requires trapping the citizens in a fog of isolation and hopelessness. Everyone must feel they walk alone through a sea of potential informers. The key ingredient for establishing a dictatorship is revolutionary fervor, but the essential ingredient for maintaining one is despair.
In Tunisia, economic deprivation, widespread unemployment, and distaste for a corrupt government became common denominators that helped individual citizens realize everyone was unhappy. At that point, the matter becomes a contest of wills between a determined populace, and weary authoritarians who must decide how many bullets they’re willing to invest in continued power. President Ben Ali lost the contest.
The religious character of the Iranian dictatorship is a valuable weapon in its arsenal. Their brand of totalitarian Islam is very useful for convincing individual citizens that resistance equals opposing the will of the nation, rather than a corrupt government. Lacking such a tool, Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali crumbled in the face of popular resistance, and Hosni Mubarak may soon be faced with a similar situation. It’s obvious a sizable portion of the Egyptian populace wants him to go. It remains to be seen if he’s past the point where he can convince them he can’t be gotten rid of.