By Tamim Elyan and Abdel-Rahman Hussein
CAIRO: One outcome of the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia has been the expectancy that similar civil revolts might be replicated throughout the region, as the autocratic rule and economic ills that spurred protest in Tunisia are very much apparent in various other Arab countries.
Following Tunisia’s recent revolution, Egypt has been identified by many analysts as the country most likely to succumb to a similar type of revolt in the Middle East. Like Tunisia, Egypt suffers from an autocratic regime that limits freedoms, vast corruption in top government positions and widespread poverty that afflicts the majority of the population.
However, a stumbling block to such a scenario playing out in Egypt is the geographic and demographic differences between Egypt and Tunisia. A rallying cry for protest in Egypt — with a total population eight times larger than Tunisia’s that is composed of citizens that are generally less politically unified — would prove to be far more difficult.
Opposition leaders from various political streams said that the Tunisian example is very applicable to Egypt and expressed their hopes that the Egyptian people would carry on a similar popular uprising to affect political change.
“What happened in Tunisia is very inspiring,” said Ayman Nour, the head of Al-Ghad Party and a former presidential candidate in the 2005 elections.
“The Tunisian model is very similar to its Egyptian counterpart, and the extreme happiness in the Egyptian streets for what happened [in Tunisia] indicates that Egypt might witness solutions like the Tunisian one soon,” Nour added.
Egypt has been witnessing an increasing wave of protests since 2004, with political movements such as the Kefaya Movement, the April 6 Youth Movement, and the Youth for Justice and Freedom all having emerged to exert pressure on the sitting government.
“The Tunisian revolution is an earthquake [and] its aftermath will reach neighboring countries — especially Egypt — where aspirations for change have [existed] for a long time now,” said Abdel Halim Qandil, the general coordinator for the Kefaya Movement.
According to Qandil, the lessons learned from Tunisia were that change can be spurred by thousands of people and not necessarily millions, and that a price must be paid to obtain liberty.
“We need to stop seeking fake heroes and descend [on] the streets,” Qandil stated.
“The conditions in Egypt are worse than [in] Tunisia, and the regime in Egypt isn’t less authoritarian [or] corrupt than [that in] Tunisia,” said Hamdeen Sabahi, the founder of Al-Karama Party. “The Egyptian people’s ability to affect change isn’t less than [that possessed by] the Tunisians [either].”
“What happened in Tunisia was inevitable and a natural result for the political oppression of the opposition, forcing a police state and monopolizing power and wealth in the hands of one political faction,” said Mohamed Al-Beltagy, a former MP affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood (MB).
Al-Beltagy said that the opposition in Tunisia played an important role in mobilizing the masses to create change.
“The Egyptian opposition will play a very different role than the one it used to play, and I guess it is capable of that,” Nour said.
Opposition leaders and representatives from across the Egyptian political spectrum announced the launch of the “popular parliament” this week in response to what they described as a “fake” official parliament dominated by the ruling National Democratic Party.
However, opposition members warned that spontaneous popular uprising may get out of control.
“The post-revolution chaos that took place [in Tunisia] wouldn’t be controlled in Egypt,” said George Ishaq, a former coordinator of the Kefaya Movement. “That’s why we are asking the Egyptian regime to allow political streams to operate freely, [in order] to avoid this scenario.”
In his final attempts to save his regime, ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali warned that Islamists could take over Tunisia. But with the presence of the MB in Egypt, a group that most believe to be the country’s strongest opposition force, experts stated that the possibility of Islamists taking over Egypt after a potential revolt would be very likely.
“This [warning of an Islamist takeover] is a false claim that Arab regimes always use to cover their crimes,” Al-Beltagy stated. “It is an old and well known tactic … democracy doesn’t differentiate between political factions, and I don’t think that there are concerns in these regards.”
Government and local reaction
The Egyptian government for the most part has downplayed any similarities that may exist between Egypt and Tunisia, claiming that what happened in Tunisia had no connection with circumstances in Egypt. Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit went as far as to label the possibility as “nonsense.”
Speaking to reporters in Sharm El-Sheikh on the sidelines of the second Arabic Economic Summit, Aboul Gheit said, “The talk about the spread of what happened in Tunisia to other countries is nonsense. Each society has its own circumstances … if the Tunisian people decide to take that approach, [that’s] their business. Egypt said the Tunisian people’s will is what counts.”
Aboul Gheit also sent out a warning to those who believed a similar event could take place in Egypt.
“Those who imagine things and seek to escalate the situation will not achieve their goals,” Aboul Gheit stated.
He also accused “some Arab satellite television [networks] of seeking to incite Arab societies and destroy them.”
However, Emad Gad, a political analyst for Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, told Daily News Egypt that there were countless similarities between Egypt and Tunisia, and that a similar revolt in Egypt could indeed occur.
“The similarities [between Egypt and Tunisia] are numerous — a closed ruling system with unlimited terms for [the] president, one political party that dominates the landscape, corruption, poverty, unemployment, and a heavy reliance on security,” Gad stated.
“So [a mass civil revolt] could happen in Egypt,” Gad continued, “but it might not necessarily be the same spark that caused the Tunisian revolution.”
Gad also dismissed claims that the high level of literacy in Tunisia played a factor in the recent revolution.
“It’s not about education levels, the reasons [behind the revolts] are socioeconomic,” he said. “It has to do with public awareness, and the [proportion] of the population that has it — which admittedly is easier in Tunisia because of its smaller population.”
Various international media outlets and experts pointed out a possible “domino effect” sweeping across the Middle East; however, it has been noted that each country has its own unique circumstances, making it unlikely for a typical scenario to take place.
“It might be too soon to predict a populist revolution erupting throughout North Africa any time soon following [what just occurred in] Tunisia. But these recent social uprisings in a region of the world important to Europe and the United States should serve as a warning call,” said John Entelis, a professor of political science and the director of Middle East Studies at Fordham University, in a CNN editorial.
“Youths, Islamists, union workers, university graduates, women, elements of the intelligentsia, along with human rights activists, journalists and media personalities are all expressing a universal anger with their governments and their policies,” he added.
According to John Drake, a Middle East senior risk consultant at the AKE Group for Risk Solutions, there are many differences between Egypt and Tunisia.
“Egypt has more incidents of unrest, protest — and even rioting — than Tunisia [does],” Drake told Daily News Egypt. “[But] there is also more freedom of expression, and even freedom of association, with opposition groups … in Egypt. The [Egyptian] authorities could therefore be regarded as more flexible than [those] in Tunisia.
“There is [also] a lower unemployment rate in Egypt … the army is [arguably] stronger, and Mubarak is popular with them,” Drake added. “There is also less social homogeneity in Egypt, which means there can often appear to be more social tension and inter-communal divisions, but it also means there would be less national unity in the event of a popular uprising.”
However, experts warned of an “unfavorable” scenario for the current regimes’ western allies if Islamists were to take control of the country following a civil uprising.
“The politics and demographics in these countries mean that [whoever] replaces the corrupt old regimes could be even worse, [thereby] strengthening the hands of terrorists and radicals,” wrote Mark Almond, a visiting international relations professor at Bilkent University, in an editorial for the Daily Mail newspaper.
“The presence of a strong Islamic movement in the opposition means that any political uprising could be fragmented,” Drake said. “Minority groups and secularists may not support a Muslim Brotherhood uprising.”
According to him, a similar revolt in Egypt could bring two risks along with it: casualties, and economic turmoil.
“A challenge on the state monopoly over the use of violence [could] precipitate a situation whereby civilians, including bystanders, [might] be killed,” Drake said. “The subsequent unrest [might] also lead to looting and further unrest.
“The tourism sector is highly risk averse, so any signs of unrest in Egypt could lead to a major decline in [tourists], which in turn could lead to a sharp drop in national revenue,” he added. “Route closures could also lead to the disruption in the supply of goods.”
Drake said that investors would likely be extremely wary of the subsequent instability and might look negatively upon the Egyptian business environment as a result. If that were to occur, foreign businesses currently in operation within Egypt would likely react with a lowered perception of the country as a potentially lucrative place to do business as well, according to Drake.