Egypt and Tunisia: Lessons in social unrest

Representatives of the young anti-government protestors camped out on Cairo's Tahrir Square could join talks between the Egyptian government and other opposition leaders on Thursday.

Representatives of the young anti-government protestors camped out on Cairo's Tahrir Square could join talks between the Egyptian government and other opposition leaders on Thursday. The disparate factions on Tahrir Square have resolved their differences and have formed a delegation that includes Egyptian-born Google executive Wael Ghonim, who was recently released from custody.

Ghonim, the head of marketing for Google in the Middle East and North Africa, spent almost two weeks in custody for his role in organizing the protests. Upon his release, he gave an emotional speech honoring the protestors who lost their lives that turned him into the face of the protest movement.

Vice President Omar Suleiman, who is leading the recently formed commission on constitution reform, called on the young protest organizers to drop their demand for the ouster of the president, Hosni Mubarak. Suleiman has warned that insisting on Mubarak's immediate resignation and continuing the protests would lead to greater chaos in the country.

Earlier this week, Suleiman announced the formation of a committee to monitor the progress of reforms. But will this be enough to satisfy the protesters?

The importance of strong governance

Street demonstrations in Cairo are likely to continue into the weekend, but the fervor appears to be subsiding. The anti-government protests, which began on January 25, have already claimed 300 lives and have left thousands of people injured. But this is not the only result of this popular uprising. There are lessons to be learned from the recent events in Egypt.

For example, Egypt has show that a popular uprising can stop short of a full-scale revolution upheaval in a country run by a strong leader. Indeed, President Mubarak's prowess and the loyalty of his inner circle have proved instrumental in preventing a coup and an impromptu transition of power in the country.

Mubarak and ousted Tunisian president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali have a lot in common.

Both overcame their humble origins to ascend to the highest echelons of political power, and both remained in office for decades. Career military officers by training, both men worked their way up to the top of the army. Both recognized Washington's leading role in the region and fought against Islamic radicalism.

Mubarak, 82, and Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, 74, both belong to the generation whose formative years coincided with the national liberation and anti-monarchy movements in the Middle East and North Africa. The overthrow of old rulers provided them with a chance to propel their political careers forward.

During their time in office, their respective countries enjoyed periods of prolonged stability. But the past few years have seen growing public discontent.

The Egyptian president has proved more resolute and cold-blooded than his Tunisian counterpart. Mubarak and his inner circle are aware that Egypt's 80-million population, with its underlying differences, will be much harder to pull back from a bloody feud than Tunisia's Westernized population of just 10 million.

One of the reasons why Ben Ali fled his country on January 14 was his betrayal by his political allies. Some of them sought to ride the wave of popular discontent into power, but these expectations were not met, and these former confidants of the president ended up losing all their clout, privileges and wealth.

Tunisia's Interior Ministry has now suspended the ruling Constitutional Democratic Rally and froze the bank accounts of many top-ranking members of this 2-million-strong party.

Egypt's ruling National Democratic Party, however, is carrying on, despite the recent overhaul in leadership. Many top party officials had to quit their posts at a party congress over the weekend, including Mubarak's 47-year-old son, Gamal, once tipped as the incumbent's heir apparent.

Business as usual

Salespeople in souvenir shops on Tahrir Square, local restaurant owners, tour guides and other people involved in the hospitality sector in Cairo and around Egypt do not want the turmoil to continue. They need stability in order for their businesses to thrive.

According to the Saudi subsidiary of the French investment bank Credit Agricole, the Egyptian economy has sustained losses of more than $3 billion since the anti-government protests began on January 25. And the World Bank has warned of the danger the protests pose to the economy of Egypt, where 40% of the population lives on just two dollars a day.

Egypt's elite is now trying to prevent a repeat of the rapid redistribution of property that occurred in Tunisia. The disgruntled middle class is counting its losses and is growing increasingly concerned by the outbreak of crime.

In Tunisia, the government lost an estimated $5-$10 billion over the course of the month-long protests, Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi told The Financial Times in a recent interview.


The developments in Egypt and Tunisia show several common trends characteristic also of other modern states, including the former Soviet republics.

Yevgeny Primakov, the former prime minister of Russia, wrote in an op-ed that "in our assessments, we were right to concentrate on the growing radical Islamist movement, but we lost sight of the possibility of ordinary popular unrest."

In both countries, the ruling elites failed to effectively deal with corruption, the yawning gap between the rich and the poor, and the people's discontent with their standard of living.

Mubarak has been aware of these challenges for some time now. Here is what he told me in a detailed interview several years ago: "Running a country is no easy task. Egypt's population grows by 1.3 million every year, but incomes cannot keep up with that pace. It's all quite tricky, you see..."

Egypt's case is not unique. The system of handing power from father to son may have worked in the region in the early 2000s (Syria and Azerbaijan are just two examples), but it is no longer viable.

The drastic changes taking place all over the world, combined with the lingering effects of the global economic downturn, will likely force us to reevaluate many other forms of so-called managed democracy.

Methods that were acceptable in the past are losing relevance in the age of the Internet and social media, which are becoming forums for the disenfranchised to express their anger.

Yelena Suponina is a political analyst specializing in the Middle East; she holds a degree in philosophy.

The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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