Egypt protests and the demonstration effect of Tunisia

Shouts of 'Tunis' and 'down with Mubarak' at Egypt protests.

Egyptian democracy activists gathered to protest in Cairo and at least 3 other Egyptian cities today, taking inspiration from the popular uprising that toppled the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia.

The protests on "Police Day," in which the government had hoped to rally public support for the continuing rule of President Hosni Mubarak and his National Democratic Party – which exerts the same iron grip over formal politics in Egypt as President Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali's Constitutional Democratic Rally did in Tunisia until just a few weeks ago – appear to be some of the largest in Egypt for years, at least.

Egyptian activists have been inspired by the swift, almost formless popular uprising that toppled one of the most ruthless police states in the Arab world (Correspondent Kristen Chick wrote a strong piece on the genesis of the Tunisian uprising). They've been organizing online for the past week, with commitments from almost 100,000 people on a Facebook page to join the protests today.

From the looks of the protests so far, turnout is probably short of 100,000. The English-language website of Al Ahram has been posting running updates on the day's events. By 3 pm in Cairo, Al Ahram had reported "thousands" of protesters chanting "Tunis" had spilled out onto the corniche along the Nile in Central Cairo, hundreds of protesters in the industrial Nile Delta town of Mansoura, hundreds of protesters in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria and small protests in Aswan and Assuit.

Back in Cairo, the Arab world's largest city and with more residents than Tunisia and Lebanon combined, activists reported that average citizens were joining a protest shouting "down with Mubarak" in the sprawling and very poor neighborhood of Shubra, which is home to millions.

The Egyptian security forces, too, have had time to prepare. AFP is reporting that over 20,000 police have been deployed in central Cairo alone. Egyptian human rights groups are reporting dozens of activists arrested in Cairo, Assuit and Tanta. In Cairo in the late afternoon, riot police were massing near the Interior Ministry – a hated and feared symbol of government repression in most Arab states – to prevent protesters from getting near the building.

Still, the day looks like at least an organizational victory for Egypt's democracy movement, which had appeared to run out of steam in recent years with protests generally attended by the same small circle of committed activists and a government crackdown on independent journalists and bloggers. One element that was missing today was the organized support of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest and best-organized opposition group.

The Islamist movement, which saw hundreds of its activists arrested in the run up to Egypt's November parliamentary election, sat this one out. That election, the most fraud-marred in Egypt in decades, saw the Brotherhood's representation in Parliament reduced to a postage stamp, and some senior members received lengthy prison terms for their political organizing.

Though the Brotherhood could mobilize large numbers on the streets, and some of the secular activists who helped organize today's protests reached out to the group, the movement’s calculation appears to be that it has more to lose than to gain by a confrontation now.

Protests in Egypt are nothing new. In March 2003, about 10,000 Egyptians took to the streets of Cairo to protest the US invasion of Iraq in a demonstration that quickly evolved into a protest against the heavy-handed autocracy of President Mubarak, who is closely tied to the US in the eyes of the Egyptian public.

In 2005, after mass demonstrations in Lebanon helped drive Syria out of Lebanese politics (at least for a time), a group of pro-Palestinian and democracy activists coalesced around the slogan Kifaya – "Enough" – and managed a series of mid-sized protests against Mubarak before petering out in the face of heavy-handed police tactics and rigged elections.

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