Egypt forbids Protests a Day after it was Shaken by Thousands of Demonstrators, 3 Killed

Egypt was wracked by demonstrations on Tuesday’s “Day of Rage,” called for by the April 6 committee of youth activists on social media last week. The protesters were hoping to profit from the momentum for reform in the region created by the Tunisian revolution, which forced the Ben Ali regime from power nearly two weeks ago.

Egypt Demonstration, 25 Jan. 2011

Cairo Demonstration, 25 January 2011


Courtesy alasmari on Twitter

CNN estimates that at the height, the rally was 15,000 to 20,000 strong in Liberation Square (Maydan al-Tahrir), downtown Cairo. The rallies protested the high unemployment rate, high price of food, and long years of ‘emergency rule’ by President Hosni Mubarak, under regulations that suspend most civil and human rights on grounds of national security.

The pan-Arab London daily, al-Hayat [Life], wrote: Thousands of youth in Egypt yesterday disappointed expectations that the call for a “Day of Rage” put out on the internet last week would fail. Numerous big demonstrations were mounted in the center of Cairo and a number of provinces. This, even though the streets were thick with security personnel. Their attempts to disperse the demonstrators failed, but two bystanders were killed by gunfire in a provincial city. When demonstrators in Cairo started throwing stones at the parliament building, Egyptian police intervened with tear gas.

Egypt is of the utmost geopolitical importance. In one recent year, 7.5 % of all the world’s trade passed through the Suez Canal (and a much higher percentage of seaborne trade). Over 4% of world petroleum trade went through the canal. Egypt, with a population of 81 million, is the 15th largest in the world. A middle income country, it has the world’s 36th largest GDP in nominal terms, putting it ahead of Malaysia, Nigeria, Israel, and the Czech Republic. Egypt’s soft power in the Arab world, as its cultural center, and its peace treaty with Israel, make it a crucial ally of the United States. Unrest in Egypt puts a great many things in doubt that are important to the US. Were a government to come to power that was more hostile to Israel and more committed to the Palestinians, that development could roil the region.

I lived in Cairo for altogether about three years, off and on, know Egyptian Arabic, and have written two monographs and lots of articles and book chapters about modern Egypt. I was there in January, 1977, the last time the country was shaken by demonstrations on this scale. Seeing these events reminded me of the late afternoon I came out of a public lecture at the American University in Cairo onto Liberation Square, to find throngs in the streets and the sky darkened with debris. People were throwing rocks, bottles, pieces of wood. Young men were carrying friends on their shoulders. They taunted then President Anwar El Sadat. The demonstrations were caused by Sadat’s decision to listen to the International Monetary Fund and to cut subsidies on bread, other staples, and natural gas canisters, making all of them shoot up in price and harming the working and middle classes. After three days of rallies and fruitless government attempts to impose order, Sadat announced he was restoring subsidies, and Egypt calmed back down. Because it was purely a food price protest, it suddenly evaporated when the government met its demands.

As for yesterday, Jan. 25, 2011– 34 years later– ITN has video:

Hundreds or thousands also came out in other cities yesterday. In Alexandria, a crowd of 1,000 called for President Hosni Mubarak to leave the country, as Zine Ben Ali departed Tunisia for Saudi Arabia. They taunted Mubarak “Saudi Arabia is waiting for you.”

The US embassy denied rumors that the president’s wife, Suzanne Mubarak, and his son Gamal and his daughter-in-law had fled the country on private jets.

In the course of the demonstration and an attempted crackdown, one brave youth faced down a water canon all on his own.

Protesters called for further rallies on Wednesday, but the Interior Ministry declared that such demonstrations would be banned.

Authorities closed off Twitter access and slowed down the internet as a way of keeping protest leaders from communicating with one another. Dissidents were said, however, to be able to use instant messaging to get around government interference in communication.

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.

25 Responses

  1. I don’t think the demonstrations are about food prices and what not. I think the Arab world is fed up with these authoritarian regimes. It’s purely political and it has alot to do with the weakness of the united states. People feel more powerful, they feel they can make a change. Lets wait and see what happens.

  2. Juan, I was at the protest yesterday for many hours and some of the published accounts are grossly exaggerated when it comes to numbers. I have some experience at estimating crowd size and I would estimate it peaked in Tahrir Square at about 3,000. Some of the wide-angle shots from low angles make the numbers appear much greater. You can check my observations on this and other aspects at link to jnthnwrght.blogspot.com As I note, in many ways the real number doesn’t matter any longer.

  3. The US embassy denied rumors that the president’s wife, Suzanne Mubarak, and his son Gamal and his daughter-in-law had fled the country on private jets.

    Could someone explain to me why the US embassy is doing PR for the Mubarak regime? I thought diplomats were not supposed to involve themselves in the internal politics of sovereign states.

    • I’m sure that the US embassy in Egypt would have been bombarded with questions from concerned citizens who want to know if it’s time to grab their passports and head to the airport until things cool off. That would have been my response were I in Egypt during all demonstrations.

      They also would have been queried by American media who I expect would be quicker to notice unrest in Egypt than in Tunisia because the country is bigger and more important for anyone looking to maintain influence in the region.

      Anyone who wonders why the United States is so resistant to progressive change in third world allies and protectorates need look no farther. The disenfranchised have to look to each other for encouragment because they’re rarely supported by those who have it better than them, at least not if it looks like they’re going to seriously rock the boat.

  4. Thanks Juan. I await the reports from assorted stenographers, in which we will be solemnly told that the Arab masses must live under our appointed tyrants so that freedom may be preserved in the world. Ahh, the white man’s burden, so noble we are to shoulder it.

  5. Egypt is not Tunisia. But how different is the Egyptian from the Tunisian?

    • Demonstrations have now taken place in Yemen, too. Seems to me this has little to do with food prices or whatnot, and everything to do with Tunisia. The message to the Arab street from Tunisia is, “It’s possible.” Sometimes that’s all it takes.

  6. I don´t know the answer, I´m just curious: how can one tell that the Muslim brotherhood does NOT surf on this wave?

    Egyptians have been fed up with Mubarak for quite some time now… but IMHO there are also more Egyptians who have quite a lot to lose when the situation gets out of control compared to Tunisia.

  7. Professor Cole,
    You say Egypt is not Tunisia. Details would be very useful; certainly the middle class protesters looked much like those of Tunisia.

    But I see at least two ways in which Egypt is not Tunisia:

    1) Cairo is Tien An Men (not to mention Tehran), where police and military (in China, country boys with no sympathy for middle class urban protesters) did not hesitate to terrorize protesters;

    2) Washington thinks Egypt is “too big to fail.”

  8. Dr Cole concluded with the same comment that I sadly put on Facebook earlier this morning. Egypt is not Tunisia. A better parallel might be Iran. (what do you think Dr Cole?) I too noted from the videos that I have seen that the crowds are not that large. It is long past time for Mubarak to go, but…

  9. Didn’t the Egyptian government or media ever deny the reports that Mubarak’s son, wife, and son-in-law had fled the country?

    According to the initial report, officials would not confirm the reports. Why ever would they not deny them?

  10. Having been to both, I don’t think comparing Egypt to Iran is a useful exercise. to start, there are too many Christians in Egypt. Equally there is a real middle class in Egypt where Iran had a much smaller middle class when their so-called revolution came along. Mubarak may go, but there is no Ayatollah in the wings.

  11. I’ve read several accounts lately about how Wall Street operators have taken to betting on basic commodity prices – nothing new in that, but it’s the scale that’s different now. If they drive up the price of basic foodstuffs to make short-term profits, the unintended consequences of their actions are likely to include the toppling of regimes “friendly” to the USA.

  12. Dear Prof. Cole,

    Despite keeping a low profile, Ihwan seems to have published an article on its website “authorizing” its affiliates to take part in the protests if they wished so.

    My question is: what´s their strategy? Why is Ikwan keeping all this restraint?

    • Because they are incompetent to take on any legitimate responsibility if a revolution does succeed. The role of the Muslim Brotherhood is blown out of proportion, and they wouldn’t know what to do with a substantial governmental role. They have been out of practice for quite some time now…

  13. […] The main reason was that authoritarian governments would be on their guard against contagion, and would act quickly to snuff out any rising revolutionary tide. Thus far, that's precisely what the Mubarak regime seems to be doing, and they have a lot of practice at this sort of thing.  See here for an eyewitness account. As Juan Cole warns, "Egypt is not Tunisia." […]

  14. The so-called “Islamists” are discredited. They have been a hodge podge. Borrowed revolutionary ideas that seem sophisticated but are in fact an import (read “heresy”). In cahoots with with knee-jerk, tribalistic conservatism and sectarianism the seems to be based on the premise that the more “us” and the less “them” something is – the more true to Islam it must be. All backed up with thuggish “them or us” rhetoric that exactly mirrors that of George Bush. Much of the whole populist Islamist phenomenon relies on ignorance of the religion and insecure men trying to out-tough the next guy. If there was peace justice and stability – and education – they would only have faint support and just from the backwoods. They only even appear to get any following if they can ignite some terrible situation such as in Iraq, and raise the temperature sufficiently.

    However the manner in which Egyptians protected the Coptic Christians from attacks earlier this month shows how sickened they are of this kind of thing. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood must know this. If they wish to remain a force they will have to totally inoculate themselves against this kind of thing. Mind you Abdullah Azzam used to do that, and look what happened to him for his efforts.
    Extremists can only get a following in a blood bath. Some operatives in Iraq knew this a few years ago when they bombed the Golden Dome. I hope the same kind of events do not take place in Egypt. It would serve the interests of evil men all too well.

  15. I would raise the important question: suppose these *are* food riots. Does Mubarak have the *ability* to address the demands for cheap bread, the way Sadat did? The prices currently are not the result of a simple political decision which is reverseable.

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