Egypt's Hosni Mubarak: following missteps of ousted Tunisian leader?

Egypt's Hosni Mubarak at first ignored protesters, and then responded with force. 'I don’t think Mubarak learned anything from the Tunisian case,' says one observer.

Marco Longari/AFP Photo/Newscom
An Egyptian demonstrator holds a sign up following prayers in Tahrir Square in Cairo, on January 31, the seventh day of mass protests calling for the removal of President Hosni Mubarak.

Tunisia’s deposed President Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali seemingly provided the Arab world a textbook in what not to do to avoid being ousted.

Yet instead of avoiding Mr. Ben Ali's missteps, observers say, Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak appears to be taking pages from his playbook.

“I don’t think Mubarak learned anything from the Tunisian case,” says Mustapha Kamel El Sayyid, political science professor at the American University in Cairo.

In both countries, uncontrollable protests only worsened when police tried to forcefully restrain them; police pulled back and an ensuing security vacuum prompted neighborhood residents to patrol their streets to protect their property; and people gave a joyous welcome to the Army when it stepped in to secure streets.

The similarities in the responses may not bode well for the Egyptian leader, or for the United States. While Tunisia’s revolution was a wakeup call to the Arab world and the West, the toppling of Mubarak, America’s most stalwart ally in the Middle East and leader of the most populous Arab country, would have far wider consequences for the region.

Similar roots of unrest, anger at police

The revolution in Tunisia was sparked by widespread anger not only over rising unemployment and increasingly difficult living circumstances, but the ruling family’s flagrant corruption and the government’s crushing repression. In Egypt, protesters as well have combined economic grievances with a stronger call for freedom and an end to the 30-year-rule of their autocrat.

The Egyptian protests are moving somewhat faster than in Tunisia, perhaps thanks to the example of the nation whose population is a little over half the size of Egypt’s capital, Cairo. While in Tunisia the demonstrations began as a protest against the government and did not, until the end, coalesce into clear calls for Ben Ali to leave, signs saying “Down with Mubarak” and “Mubarak out” have been a fixture at Egyptian demonstrations since the first one on Jan. 25.

As the demonstrations got bigger, police in both nations used force to try to put them down, in what Sayyid says was a key factor in pushing demonstrators over the edge.

Protesters fought police, welcomed Army

Tunisia’s Army did not step in to restore order on the streets until after Ben Ali’s departure. Egypt’s military began patrolling the capital after protesters overwhelmed police on Friday. But in both cases, the people welcomed the military with cheers, hugs, and flowers. The internal security apparatuses of both nations have earned the hatred of the populations after decades of being used to suppress them. Torture at the hands of police is common in Tunisia and Egypt.

The militaries of both nations, on the other hand, have not been used in domestic repression and are seen as professional. The scenes of Egyptians taking photos of their children with Egyptian Army officers in front of their tanks are almost exact replicas of the scenes that played out over and over again in Tunisia the week before last.

And when police retreated in both countries, unleashing chaos in the form of looting and violence, residents formed informal neighborhood watch committees to protect their property and families. Even the predominant weapons they used were the same: makeshift sticks and clubs.

Mubarak's speech echoes Ben Ali

Mubarak at first ignored the protests, not making a formal statement until Friday evening, though the massive uprising began Tuesday. To be sure, that was much swifter than the 11 days it took Ben Ali to make a televised response to the unrest sweeping his nation. But when he did, he both tried to reduce the distance between himself and the people, while at the same time criticizing the protesters. Neither attempt went over well with Egyptians.

"I understand these legitimate demands of the people and I truly understand the depth of their worries and burdens,” he said, in an attempt to wash away the stereotype among Egyptians that he’s out of touch with their problems. "I'll always be on the side of the poor."

It was reminiscent of Ben Ali’s final speech, when he dropped the formal Arabic normally used for public addresses and instead pleaded in the Tunisian dialect, “I have understood you.” Both attempts at closing the gap between leader and people were dismissed by the masses.

Failed attempts to offer reforms

But Mubarak also criticized the protesters for unleashing chaos in Egypt, and said the road to reform was through dialogue, not violence. Like Ben Ali’s first speech, in which he called the protesters terrorists and enraged the nation, Mubarak’s words infuriated the protesters who had taken to the streets peacefully, only to have the police use tear gas, batons, and bullets against them.

Both leaders attempted to pacify protesters with concessions that were rejected: Ben Ali fired his interior minister and promised more freedoms, but protests only grew stronger. Mubarak last week dissolved his government and appointed a vice president for the first time, yet Egyptians are not satisfied by these moves.

“With Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt, the concessions were not satisfactory to the people, and they wanted no less than the complete change of the regime,” says Sayyid.

Many Egyptians hope that Mubarak will take one more cue from Ben Ali, and flee to Saudi Arabia. As read one sign that a woman held on Friday: “Oh Mubarak, Saudi Arabia and Ben Ali are waiting for you."

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