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Egypt's Unrest Like Tunisia's, But Arab States Differ

Anti-government demonstrators shout slogans against President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo, Egypt, January 27, 2011.

Anti-government demonstrators shout slogans against President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo, Egypt, January 27, 2011.

Anti-government protestors in Egypt continued to defy a ban on demonstrations on Thursday, clashing with police in several cities. The unrest follows similar protests in Tunisia that toppled the 23-year rule of President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, who fled the country January 14th.

Observers say the protests against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who has led the country for nearly 30 years, are unprecedented. But Amin Saikal, director of Arab and Islamic Studies at the Australian National University in Canberra told VOA’s Victor Beattie, there are key differences between what happened in Tunisia and what is currently unfolding in Egypt.

“Egypt had serious riots in 1977, but that was some four years before President Mubarak came to power. And this is the first time that there has been a very popular uprising against President Mubarak’s Egypt, and for that matter, my feeling is that this uprising is significant, and I think it could mean the beginning of the end for President Mubarak and the possibility of his son succeeding him. I think now the time has come for urgent reformation of the Egyptian political and economic system, and that is something that also the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called for."

Who is behind the unrest and what are the reasons? There are some indications that it’s primarily young people who are involved and they’re frustrated by the lack of economic opportunity.

“Uprisings or demonstrations have been very much inspired by the success of the Tunisian people and overthrowing their authoritarian ruler, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, who fled the country to Saudi Arabia.
But, at the same time, Egypt shares a number of conditions which led Tunisians to rise against their rulers, and that is poverty, corruption, malfunctioning of the administration as well as political repression, and I think it’s come to the point that the Egyptian people want to take their destiny [into their] own hands, but, at the same time, it has to be pointed out that Mubarak’s regime is still very strong. And in some ways, Egypt is very different from Tunisia.
In Egypt, the level of education is not as widespread and as high as has been the case with Tunisia, and also, the level of social and political consciousness is somewhat limited in Egypt than has been the case with Tunisians. Of course, these factors could have an important role in terms of enabling the regime to regain control but, at the same time, the demonstrations have sent a clear signal that his era may be over.”

Is there a threat that Islamist radicals in North Africa may take advantage of what’s occurring in Tunisia and Egypt?

“I don’t think there is a strong possibility of Islamists taking over in Egypt. I think what could transpire in Tunisia is more of a semi-secular government rather than an Islamist government in the sense which came to power in Iran in the wake of the Iranian revolution in 1978-79.
But in the case of Egypt, there is a strong Islamist movement that is the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been a banned opposition under President Mubarak and, for that matter, under his predecessors. They, of course, could take advantage of the situation in order to regain their strength.
But I think the Egyptian people on the whole probably would like to have a government which would not really push them in the direction that Iran has been led to and, therefore, they may want to opt for a government which is going to be democratic, reformist and capable of delivering the necessary services and commodities that the Egyptian public requires very badly.”