Egypt Protests Upset Assumptions About the
Arab World

Tens of thousands of Egyptians took to the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, Suez and other Egyptian cities on January 25th‘s “Day of Rage” to protest poverty, unemployment, and police brutality. As events have unfolded, however, it has become clear that Cairo’s protests are actually a Tunisia-inspired call for regime change.

The “Day” of Rage—now entering its third day—proves that the old calculus relied upon by political “realists” grossly underestimates both the anger and will of the Egyptian people, as well as the generalized discontent of Arabs living under dictatorships. Pundits like Steven Walt, who asked to be “color(ed) skeptical” at the notion that Tunisia’s unrest could spread, rely heavily on differentiations between the machinery of Arab states and their security apparatuses. He thus ignores the more important point that these states—whatever their balance of autocratic power—do not enjoy even minimal legitimacy among their swelling populaces.

Worse than this kind of professional political myopia are so-called “political culture” arguments, such as the one recently proffered by Robert D. Kaplan in a New York Times piece about Tunisia’s cultural—and thus revolutionary—uniqueness, titled: “One Small Revolution.” In it Kaplan explains that Tunisia is special because it’s “less part of the connective tissue of Arab North Africa” than a “demographic and cultural island” enjoying “upwardly mobile European aspirations.” He asserts that Tunisia’s cultural superiority is established by its desire to be European. The lesson: Tunisia revolted because they are culturally superior aspiring Europeans while states to the east have no such capacity.

The reality in Egypt belies such simple analysis. For years we have endured the notion that ‘the Arab street’ alternates between indolent catatonia and frothing rage in the face of cartoons. Egyptians, who have been called too illiterate, poor, spiritless and lulled by “stability” to revolt, have staged impassioned protests for nothing less than their own freedom and dignity across the country. The ferocity and depth of these protests have shocked even their most hopeful supporters. Reports from the scenes in Tahrir square in central Cairo describe a level of cooperation unseen in recent memory; people share their water, bring each other blankets, hold hands to ward off security forces and face down tanks in a scene widely-regarded as Egypt’s Tiananmen Square moment. These protests are nonsectarian and do not hew to established ideologies, disproving yet another common assumption in political science about the so-called “exceptional” Arabs who, we are are told, are moved mainly by ideological slogans along sectarian or religious lines. None of this is happening at present in Egypt.

What will become of these protests? The major question is the army, which has been shielding Mubarak’s regime for 30 years and which has not been called in to confront protesters—so far. Few know how a conflagration between the army, the regimes most lethal card, and protestors would turn out. One thing is clear, however: for the protests to topple the regime, the numbers on the streets must reach into the millions—not an especially far-fetched goal for a nation of 80 million. But whether or not Mubarak goes the way of Ben Ali, something has changed in Egypt and in the region. A young, Harvard educated Egyptian lawyer put it best, writing the following on Facebook the morning after: “As I walked back from work, everything looked the same in Zamalek, but nothing is really the same. 25th of January was decisive. The regime is still here, but the fear is gone. And that is irreversible.”