Congo may be poorer than Egypt, but that's not enough to turn Kinshasa into Cairo
The Democratic Republic of the Congo has disaffected youth and poverty, but political networks there are not strong enough to sustain large protests against a government that would likely use force.
About three weeks ago, the various Congolese listservs I am subscribed to stopped talking about the Congo and started transmitting messages about Tunisia and Egypt full with "Congo is next!" and "Make the Gare Central into Tahrir!"
So it is possible? I doubt it. For the following reasons.
The Egyptian uprising was carried out by several groups. (1) A networked and discontent middle-class of Facebook-savvy urbanites who rallied through social groups such as "April 6th movement" and "We Are All Khalid Said; (2) a mobilized labor sector that, especially later in the uprising, was able to bring part of Egypt's economy to a standstill through strikes; and (3) a well-organized Muslim Brotherhood that bridges professional and workers' classes and was able, especially later in the demonstrations, to organize and rally more people against the regime.
In addition, the fervor of the Tunisian uprising served as a direct inspiration to the Egyptians, who saw themselves in a similar situation. Media from around the world, but especially Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, broadcast images to millions of Egyptian households throughout the demonstrations, spreading the word and further mobilizing the population. At the same time, foreign media flocked to Egypt, aware of the country's importance in the region due to its economy and its role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This made it difficult for Mubarak to crush the uprising with brute force.
In the Congo, there are factors that could, on the face of things, foment unrest. The absolute misery of the people is much worse than in Egypt in terms of health, nutrition and general welfare. Kinshasa is the third largest city in Africa behind Cairo and Lagos and has plenty of disaffected youth. In 1992, the "Marche des Chrétiens" brought hundreds of thousands of people into the streets of Kinshasa against Mobutu, and the recent return of Tshisekedi may have sent similar numbers onto the streets.
But the political networks are not sufficiently strong or deep to sustain large protests for very long in face of a government that would likely use force before abdicating. According to the International Telecommunication Union, 21 percent of Egpyt's population has access to the internet and 5 percent are on Facebook; in the Congo, the corresponding figures are 0.5 percent and 0.1 percent.
In Egypt, GDP per capita is around $2,200 and the inequality (Gini) index is 32 (the high, the more unequal the income distribution) and around 15 percent of the population finish university. In the Congo, GDP per capita is $171, its Gini index 44 and around 3 percent have university schooling. While this is not enough of an indicator of middle-class strength, numerous other factors suggest that there is much more of an educated, semi-affluent middle class in Cairo than in Kinshasa or elsewhere in the country. This is a factor not just for creating strong, politicized networks, but also for maintaining people in streets – in the Congo, a key problem for demonstrations is that people eat from hand to mouth, surviving on what they can make each day.
You don't need to be educated to belong to a strong social group. But most political parties in the Congo have relatively meager loyal followings, and the unions that exist and strike regularly (doctors, teachers) do not threaten to bring the economy to a standstill.
There are, of course, some notable exceptions. Tshisekedi's UDPS has certainly shown that they can mobilize people, and the Catholic church can be a huge force if it overcomes some internal divisions. But, on several occasions – in 2005-06 during the UDPS boycott of the electoral process, and in 1997 when the AFDL arrived in Kinshasa – the UDPS has also shown that it has a hard time sustaining large, peaceful demonstrations in the face of possible violence. When I lived in Bukavu under RCD rule, we used to march by thousands in the streets against the RCD, supported by the Catholic church and civil society. But the local officials obviously didn't care at the time, nobody was watching on TV or Facebook, and we were faced with hundreds of soldiers with AK-47 who were not shy at using them.
And that brings us to the last, important point. My guess is that protesters would have to face a greater risk of violence that Egyptians. Not that the hundreds of Egyptians who died do not testify to the bravery of the protesters there. But in the Congo, the army and police are probably less well trained, more poorly equipped and less wedded to serving civilians as their Egyptian counterparts. And if the army opens fire and kills hundreds of civilians, donors and international press would be less likely to raise a stink. After all, something similar happened in Bas-Congo in 2007, and donor protest soon abated.
Of course, nothing is impossible. If Egypt and Tunisia taught us something, it is that when revolutions arise, they do so suddenly and unexpectedly.