An Egyptian unknown unknown, revealed


The most significant thing about today's protests across Egypt is that their scale was totally unexpected. Yes, there has been a wave of protests since late 2004. But none have been nationwide to this extent, and none have been as big. We still do not have a clear picture of what transpired in much of the country, and media focus tended to be on the main protest in Cairo's Midan Tahrir. But that is enough to know that these may be the biggest protest movement since at least the 1977 bread riots and perhaps even the biggest since the 1950s.

It was not predictable, just like Tunisia, because it was an unknown unknown — we did not know that the threshold for such an event had been reached, partly because previous protests had fizzled out or were effectively contained by the regime . While we (here I mean the press, analysts, and activists) knew many Egyptians were tired of the current state of affairs, we did not know that an external change (what happened in Tunisia) could have this kind of impact on a country that, after all, has been protesting for years and that is nowhere as repressive and controlled as Tunisia was under Ben Ali. I suspect the staggering effrontery of the regime during December's parliamentary elections and the moment of national unity after the New Year's Eve January bombing also played a role. A significant number of Egyptians simply do not find the regime credible anymore, and hold it responsible for much of the deterioration of the country — in terms of the socio-economic situation, sectarian relations, and political accountability. Today, a red line has been irrevocably crossed, a barrier of fear transcended.

What tomorrow brings is anyone's guess. The regime might contain and diffuse this, but will probably have to make some significant concessions (such as Minister of Interior Habib al-Adly's head, for a start). Or it might snowball into something much bigger. 

This movement, for now, has no leadership. Some opposition personalities participated, but it was mostly organized on Facebook by the campaign in memory of Khaled Said, the young Alexandria killed by police last year. The Muslim Brotherhood did not back it. Mohamed ElBaradei did not back it. The Wafd party did not back it. It appears to be largely a movement of young people inspired by the Tunisian example and the culmination of over six years of activism and rising resentment against the regime, the 30-year reign of Hosni Mubarak and the apparent acceleration of the project to have Gamal Mubarak replace his father in the last six months. It is also, of course, a protest against an increasingly unaccountable and uncontrollable police state, which is why Police Day was chosen (Mubarak must be kicking himself for making it a public holiday last year). It may become even less accountable if reports of a violent attempt to disband the Tahrir protest are to be believed. As I write these lines, it appears police are successfully driving away people from the square. Three people have thus far been reported dead, a number wounded and countless arrested.

For the first time in recent memory, Egyptian security has also implemented a communications clampdown. Twitter, Bambuser, Ustream are all reported to have been shut down. Some ISPs, including Vodafone Egypt, say that the problem is not with them but with the national internet link. Communications may have also been disabled in specific areas. It's worth remembering that the US is said to have intervened forcefully against Tunisia's disruption of communications (which went beyond this to include hacking of major social media sites) and that Hillary Clinton launched an internet initiative last year — this gives her traction to act here (if the other reasons aren't enough). Mrs Clinton's initial statement was pretty weak, but also came early in the days' development. Personally, I think the US acted as well as can be reasonably expected in Tunisia and should do the same in Egypt, including reaching out to different elements of the regime to convey dissatisfaction (ahem — major euphemism here). But we'll see their fuller reaction tomorrow.

I was not at the protests, so I cannot give an account of the evening. Here are a few places to go, though, for eyewitness accounts and commentary:

There are a lot more around, too — and in English I would follow the reporting from from Daily News Egypt, al-Masri al-Youm, Ahram Online and Bikya Masr. On TV, watch Al Jazeera (English and Arabic) and CNN, whose correspondent Ben Wedeman has been doing some sterling reporting and tweeting.