A dam breaking in Egypt

Today Egypt experienced the largest outpouring of public fury at the government since January 1977, when cuts in government food subsidies saw hundreds of thousands of Egyptians pour into the streets in an uprising that shook the government of then President Anwar Sadat.

That ended three days later with dozens dead but the Egyptian poor who spearheaded the action triumphant: Sadat restored the subsidies.

The protests in Egypt today, with tens of thousands on the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, industrial Nile Delta towns like Mahalla El-Kubra and Tanta, and the port city of Suez, were thankfully nowhere near as violent (though late in the evening in Cairo on Tuesday there were reports of security forces taking a tougher line with protesters camped out in Tahrir Square). And the chances of today's protesters having their demands met in anything like the time-frame of 1977 are slim and none.

After all, they're seeking the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, who ascended to the presidency after Sadat's assassination in 1981. A popular uprising in Tunisia may have just pushed out President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, but Egypt -- the Arab world's largest country, with a vast security establishment -- is something else again.

But activists, political analysts, and average people in Egypt insist that something crucial shifted for Egypt today. Egyptian political scientist Mustapha Kamel Al Sayyid predicts that now the dam has broken, protests will continue. “The reservoir of discontent is huge,” he says. He adds it is much too soon to talk about a revolution in Egypt, where several factors would make a Tunisia-style toppling of Mubarak much more difficult.

Though both nations suffer from high unemployment and a have a large youth population, Egypt has a much smaller middle class than Tunisia. The regime’s power is not only concentrated in the security forces, as Tunisia’s was, but also in the Army. Tunisia’s military is credited with helping to bring about Ben Ali’s demise, while Egypt’s military is loyal to Mubarak, he says.

And while the corruption of Tunisia’s ruling family was a rallying point for protesters, corruption in Egypt extends further, meaning a widespread base of people who would have much to lose from the fall of the regime. Yet Egyptians have hope.

“All this is happening because we are not afraid,” said Shaimaa Morsy Awad, a young woman who held aloft an Egyptian flag during the protest. “Every day more people will join us. We are still weak, and there’s a lot of work we have to do. But there’s a revolution coming.”

- Kristen Chick is a Cairo-based Correspondent for the Monitor.

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