Egypt was not Tunisia after all

Remember how, in early January, Egyptian officials and many a pundit warned that "Egypt is not Tunisia," suggesting an uprising against Mubarak was unlikely? I wrote about this in one of my first long pieces on the uprisings in the LRB, before Mubarak was toppled, and have thought about it a lot since. I take to task the centrality of the Egyptian uprising in a new piece in The National (part of a series of three looking at the Arab uprisings), and argue that Tunisia must be given its due. To me, the Tunisian revolution (because it is that, a revolution) was the most remarkable event of 2011, and I'm glad I got a chance to witness key parts of it.

It has often been written in the past year that the beating heart of the Arab uprisings is Cairo's Tahrir Square. In this view, the events that took place the month before in Tunisia were a mere precursor to the real deal - the Egyptian revolution - as if the Tunisians were simply the warm-up act for the star of the show.

The fall of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, after all, was the most unexpected and counterintuitive of events: Ben Ali's Tunisia had been a well-run, orderly little place with its share of social problems and a pervasive police state, but no real political fissure on the horizon. Hosni Mubarak's Egypt, on the other hand, was a disaster waiting to happen, in which an elderly president, his ineffectual son and a divided regime were gearing for battle as a leadership succession loomed.

In other words - from this perspective - tiny Tunisia was an uprising that could have easily ended differently if, during a few hours of panic on January 14, the president had not caved into the advice of his security chief and decided to leave the country. In expansive Egypt, long a gravity well of the Arab world, the spark of Ben Ali's downfall found ready kindle to unleash a much larger revolt that spread like wildfire.

I beg to differ with this analysis, which puts the horse before the cart. It is true that few saw the Tunisian uprising coming, despite waves of social unrest in the country's poor hinterlands in 2008 and the unceasing and dull brutality of Ben Ali's security forces. And it is true that the Tunisian revolt was less filled with tension and drama than the Egyptian one, which had the world's cameras perched above Tahrir Square and a people given to dramatic performances to enchant them. But we should not confuse the spectacular nature of the "Arab Spring", as brought to you by CNN and Al Jazeera, with its reality.