For many Americans, the recent mass protests in Tunisia, and the eventual fall of the Tunisian government, was the first time they had heard of that country. And while everyone’s heard of Egypt, it’s likely that many think of the North African country simply as home of the pyramids, land of the pharaohs, a tourist destination. It doesn’t come as much of a surprise, then, that much of the discussion around the current unrest in both of these countries has been overly simplistic and largely without context.
In thinking about the Tunisian “revolution” and the ongoing demonstrations in Egypt, let’s not jump to conclusions. What happened in Tunisia is not a model for the region’s regimes, nor is Egypt the new Tunisia. That would be a nice, clean, easy narrative and a great story, but it overlooks the realities that distinguish each of these countries from the other.
Certainly, the demonstrations in Egypt—which have so far killed at least three people and wounded many others—are in part inspired by the success of the Tunisian people in overthrowing their government through mass protest. Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians have taken to the streets in Cairo, gathering in the city’s downtown core and calling for the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak. There are reports of similar protests in some half a dozen cities throughout the country.
I lived in Tunis during my senior year of high school, and my parents lived there for seven years, up until last summer. I lived in Cairo for six months when I was in the 11th grade, and have spent at least twelve summers there over the years. In both countries, there has always been a pervading anti-government sentiment.
In Tunisia, the demonstrations began after a fruit vendor publicly set himself on fire to protest government corruption. In Egypt, it is widely believed that the protests are in response to a controversial case of police brutality dating back to last summer. In both countries, the unrest can be understood as a reaction to frustration with the corrupt, despotic regimes that have ruled since the ‘80s. These widespread demonstrations have been a long time coming, and likely would have happened without the aid of Twitter or Facebook or WikiLeaks.
Tunisia has been a police state for years, since President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali (himself now overthrown) ousted Habib Bourguiba’s government in 1987. I frequently heard that 25 percent of the population was employed in some form of state security; in other words, Ben Ali’s government had the country on lock. So the anti-government sentiment there has been marked with fearfulness as much as frustration. Police officers roamed the streets, taxi drivers were often undercovers, Internet access was heavily censored. There were complaints about police brutality, the suppression of political dissidence, rampant corruption on the part of the president and his family. But all the talk was done behind closed doors. The anger was quiet, but it was there.
In Egypt, anti-government sentiment hashes itself out more publically. President Mubarak and his family have been the punch line to many jokes for as long as I can remember. Unlike Tunisians, who are largely private, Egyptians tend to be political people. This is not to say that political speech in Egypt is free—it isn’t. But mass protests are common and the state does not have the apparatus necessary to completely silence the public.
Despite the very high unemployment in Tunisia—which runs up to 30 percent for some segments of the population—poverty is fairly low, especially when compared to its North African neighbors. The economy is solid, education is of relatively good quality, the universal healthcare system is functioning. The country has a significant middle class, made up of a skilled workers and professionals. Egypt, on the other hand, has a huge poverty problem. The country’s middle class is negligible; instead there is a large (and growing) lower class living abysmally, while the upper classes live like royalty. Egyptians are generally worse off than Tunisians.
And though both peoples have been incredibly frustrated with their respective governments, it’s not that simple: it would be unrealistic to expect a similar scenario to play out in Egypt as it did in Tunisia. While the same kind of popular frustration that pushed Ben Ali’s government out does exist in Egypt—and perhaps even more so—the factors that led Tunisia’s government to crumble overnight in a relatively peaceful manner do not apply as cleanly to Egypt.
For one, Tunisia’s population is small and more or less homogeneous. The entire country, which is bordered to the North by the Mediterranean and is sandwiched between Algeria and Libya, has a population of just over 10 million. It is made up almost entirely of Arabs and Arabized Berbers, nearly all of whom are Sunni Muslims but not particularly religious. The importance of Tunisia’s homogeneity cannot be overstated.
Egypt is huge, almost 10 times the size of Tunisia in terms of land mass and with a population of nearly 83 million people. Cairo’s greater metropolitan area alone is double the size of the entire country of Tunisia. And, perhaps more importantly, Egypt’s population is far from homogeneous. While most Egyptians are Sunni Muslims, there is a significant Coptic population that makes up nearly 10 percent of the population. As suggested by the recent bombing of an Alexandria Coptic church, there are long-standing tensions between Muslims and Copts. And that’s putting it mildly. Relations between Muslims and Copts in Egypt are complicated further by what is considered to be widespread persecution of the latter.
Among other things, the inter-group differences mean that a smooth transition between the ouster of a president, the assembling of a new interim government, and the transition into fair, representative, peaceful elections is infinitely more complicated…and unlikely.
Secondly, Egypt’s place in the world is very different from Tunisia’s. In the case of Tunisia, it is true that Ben Ali’s government was an ally of the U.S. in helping to keep Al Qaeda at bay and monitoring its presence in North Africa. But Ben Ali was not important enough to warrant intervention on the U.S.’s part. Egypt, on the other hand, is a “key ally” of the U.S. and of Israel (which, by the way, frustrates many Egyptians about their government) and, to its east, borders Israel and the Gaza strip. Though Mubarak’s government is known to be corrupt and oppressive, it is unlikely that the world will watch him fall without intervening. There’s no telling how such a scenario would play out, but it’s highly doubtful that the U.S. would stay silent in the face of a coup in Egypt.
Third of all, the dynamics of political power in Tunisia and Egypt differ greatly. While there is some degree of in-fighting and political strife in Tunisia, no one seems to have ambitions of power. The Tunisian military did not have allegiances to Ben Ali, nor did it seek to taking over and establishing a military rule. In Egypt, though, the military is very much political. For now, the Egyptian military supports Mubarak. But as an entity, it is largely thought to be ambitious and that could factor in very heavily in the event of an ouster of Mubarak.
Still, as of this writing, the Egyptian government is hanging tough. Whereas Ben Ali indicated his weakness by making concessions and attempts to appease the population early on, Mubarak has done no such thing. On the contrary, the government has suggested that the extent of the protests is reflective of just how free the country is. Either way, it is clear that the unrest is boiling up to a new point and that there will be a change of some sort. But whether that change will come in the form of a new government remains to be seen.