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.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
Dan Murphy is a staff writer for the Monitor's international desk, focused on the Middle East. Murphy, who has reported from Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, and more than a dozen other countries, writes and edits Backchannels. The focus? War and international relations, leaning toward things Middle East.
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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.