An expert's point of view on a current event.

Egypt’s Struggle for Freedom

Egyptians are taking to the streets to demand their rights. Shame on America if it stands in the way.


A classical Arab idiom maintains that a flood begins with a mere droplet. For freedom-aspiring citizens across the Middle East, Tunisia was akin to the first shower of rain. Two weeks ago, no one could have predicted the overthrow of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s repressive regime in Tunisia. Today, the chatter of citizens and officials across the Middle East is when, not if, the "Tunisia scenario" will completely unfold in Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous country. Egyptians have struggled for many decades with an authoritarian regime whose rule is marred by repression, corruption, and political and economic stagnation.

The social contract that former President Gamal Abdel Nasser had with Egyptians — to liberate Arab lands from colonial powers, subsidize food staples, and guarantee employment to all university graduates — has been unraveling for more than three decades. Egypt unscrupulously maintains a peace treaty with Israel, despite that country’s relentless occupation of Palestinian, Syrian, and Lebanese territories. The government has also pursued a policy of economic liberalization without regard to its impact on the Egyptian people. Despite its success in achieving moderate rates of economic growth, this strategy has left millions of families impoverished and unemployed.

Income inequality has reached levels not before seen in Egypt’s modern history. According the United Nations Development Program, at least 23 percent of the population lives under the poverty line (earning $2 a day), and many more are just above it. By 2020, Egypt’s population will reach 100 million, the majority of which will be young people under 30 years of age. This is a recipe for unrest. President Hosni Mubarak’s regime, however, refuses to offer Egyptians a new social contract based on democratic representation and political freedoms. It elects to rule primarily through coercive martial law and a limited network of civilian and military patronage.

Egypt has been restless for a few years, but the uprising in Tunisia offered Egyptians living proof that, if they expected change to come, they needed to take matters into their own hands. As millions of Egyptians cheered on the Tunisian crowds ousting their dictator, some young activists called for a "day of revolt against corruption, injustice, unemployment, and torture." This Facebook-initiated protest, meant to coincide with a national holiday honoring the police, was dismissed by the government and the "official" opposition alike.

The Wafd and Tagammu parties, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood and even former International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei, all decided not to partake in the protests. The Ministry of Interior, desperately seeking to rehabilitate its image, decided it would tolerate the marches — expecting hundreds of activists at most. Yet, when these hundreds of activists walked down the streets of Cairo on Tuesday, tens of thousands of apolitical citizens joined in. Suddenly, the protests spread to other Egyptian cities. "Mubarak, the plane is waiting for you," many chanted, referring to Ben Ali’s hasty retreat into his Saudi exile.

The chants for justice, liberty, and human dignity reveal the depth of Egyptians’ discontent, and their aspiration for a democratic system. The Islamists, most notably the Muslim Brotherhood, did not officially partake in the initial demonstrations (though the Brothers have announced their support for Friday’s protests). Like Tunisia, Egypt is flirting with a democratic revolution, not an Islamist takeover.

The success of Egypt’s (and Tunisia’s) budding revolution remains to be seen. Traditionally, authoritarian regimes collapse only when the people sustain their protests over a long time and across a wide geographic territory. They also collapse when their security forces disobey orders to kill peaceful demonstrators. In Tunisia’s case, 78 Tunisians were killed before the military refused to continue. In the case of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the shah’s forces killed thousands before surrendering.

Historically, the role of external pressure tends to be paramount in isolating the dictators and causing divisions within their regimes. This factor should be a cause for concern among the brave protesters on Egypt’s streets. The United States is heavily invested in the survival of Mubarak’s dictatorship, which it views as vital to American interests in the region. So far, Washington has been timid in its requests for the regime not to shoot at protesters, even as several of them have already been murdered and tortured. Indeed, despite the lip service U.S. administrations often pay to democratization in the Middle East, they are often too myopic to see beyond their current interests. The George W. Bush administration backed off its "Freedom Agenda" in the region, for example, after the Muslim Brotherhood gained seats in Egypt’s 2005 parliamentary elections and Hamas scored electoral gains in Palestine in January 2006.

History, to be sure, is not linear. The current wave of protests may die down or be brutally repressed. Nevertheless, they represent the beginning of the end of Mubarak’s regime. Watching events unfold from Washington, U.S. officials should keep in mind that when regime changes occur — and they eventually do — populations often do not forgive those who worked to prop up the old guard. The United States must now contemplate cutting off its lifelines to Egypt’s autocratic regime and paying more attention to Egyptians’ demands for their fundamental rights. Like Iranians before them, Egyptians may neither forget, nor forgive, those who kept them under the thumb of an oppressive ruler.

Yasser El-Shimy is a lecturer at the Catholic University of America and a former diplomatic attaché at the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.