Inspired by Tunisia, Egypt's protests appear unprecedented

Egypt's protests today appear to be the largest public call for democratic reform and an end to the Mubarak regime for years.

By , Staff writer

The scope of Egypt's protests today, calling for greater freedom and downfall of strongman President Hosni Mubarak, is unprecedented.

Though tens of thousands took to the streets of Cairo in 2005 calling for democratic reform, today's protests are far beyond the action in the capital. Reporters and activists on the scene in Cairo say there was a spirit of anger and defiance in the crowds and there were protests of varying sizes in at least a half-dozen Egyptian cities.

By late afternoon, thousands of protesters converged in Tahrir Square, not far from the US embassy, the Interior Ministry, and the five-star hotels looming over the Nile. Police water cannons and tear gas barrages did little to deter them.

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For now, it's hard to imagine the aging Mr. Mubarak and the apparatus of the state being swept from power in the same way that President Ben Ali was chased from Tunis. Egyptian military spending is much higher than in Tunisia and the circle of people who have everything to lose if the system is upended much wider.

But the riveting images beamed into millions of Egyptian homes of the Tunisian uprising appear to have led to a shift in the public consciousness, at least for today. A small group of leftists and democracy activists have been trying to organize protests like today's for years, but have generally failed to get large numbers out on the streets. Average Egyptians, mired in poverty and afraid of the consequences of participating in protests they suspect are doomed to failure, have stayed away.

That clearly changed today. Activists were reporting on their Twitter feeds (until Twitter service was shut down in Egypt at about 3:30 pm local time) that thousands from working-class neighborhoods like Shubra, a warren-like neighborhood with millions of mostly poor residents, joined the protest marchers as they passed, and joined in shouts for Mubarak, his son and presumed heir Gamal, and Interior Minister Habib el-Adly to be driven from power.

Monitor correspondent Kristen Chick is among the crowd in Tahrir Square, where marchers from at least three different locations converged by mid-afternoon. She says it briefly got ugly, with protesters tearing up pavement and throwing rocks as the police brought tear gas and water-cannons to bear, but that the police soon backed off, ringing the square but leaving the protesters unmolested for the moment.

"I’ve seen middle-aged women with expensive jewelry, women in niqabs (full black Muslim veils), guys with suits and briefcases, young people from the poor neighborhoods," she says. "They're demanding their rights, and end to unemployment, poverty and torture."

Not far from Tahrir, Al Ahram was reporting clashes between demonstrators and police as protesters tried to storm parliament. Shortly after I got off the phone with Kristen, activists talking to others on the scene were reporting baton charges and more tear gas use by the police.

While the smart money isn't betting against the Egyptian regime yet, upheaval there could have far wider implications than the uprising in Tunisia, a small country of 10 million people that is both culturally and economically peripheral to the Arab world.

Egypt is the largest Arab country (more people live in Cairo than in all of Tunisia), home to one of Islam's most prestigious universities, and one of only two Arab states to have a peace agreement with Israel. It straddles the vital Suez Canal and is a close ally of the US, which has tolerated the regime’s anti-democratic excesses in the interest of stability.

As in the case of Tunisia, a tough question to answer is "why now?" The frustrations of average Egyptians and the demands of today's protesters have been present for years.

Where is this headed? In 2007, I reported on a wave of protests and labor strikes that the regime ruthlessly put down, jailing journalists, over 1,000 members of the Muslim Brotherhood – the country's most organized opposition movement – and labor activists. Torture, long a tool of the state, appeared to be going through the roof.

"Is police torture a bigger problem today? There's no question," says Gasser Abdel Razek, the director of regional relations for Human Rights Watch. "Fifteen years ago, we used to say that this or that police station is bad, or if that you were an Islamist and you got picked up after a bombing, you could count on being tortured. Today, I can't name a single police station that's good. And the victims are middle-class, they're educated, they're homeless. It doesn't make any difference."

One case that caused particular shock and revolution was the death of a 13-year-old boy, Mamduh Abdel Aziz, after he was taken into police custody in August in the delta town of Mansoura. He was charged with theft. The boy died in hospital, four days after he was beaten while in police custody. Before his death, the nearly comatose boy was shown on a video posted to Youtube.com with extensive burn wounds in his genital area.

A case of police abuse lies at the heart of these latest protests, too. Khaled Said, a middle-class businessman beaten to death by cops last year, prompted an online campaign demanding justice that morphed into the organizational backbone for today's protests.

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