Amid public discontent, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt faces a perilous situation. Vigilantes patrol the streets of Cairo to protect their nation from looters and rally against the authoritarian regime. All walks of life have come together to revitalize the nation from below. But cries for democracy resonate in the city streets, hidden gently behind the chants and sirens. Though there lacks a concrete plan for the future, shouts call for what has been nonexistent in Egypt for half a century: change.
The impetus, The New York Times reports, began in Tunisia where a 26-year-old man set himself aflame last month in protest of the autocratic regime, inciting public demonstrations that resulted in President Ben Ali’s resignation. Since then, four men have self-immolated in Algeria, three in Egypt and another in Mauritania.
Political science professor Wendy Pearlman, the Crown Junior Chair in Middle East Studies, says though the similarities among the nations amount to basic grievances, the difference lies in the strength of the regime.
“In the right bastion, anything can be a flame,” she says. “It’s dissatisfying from the perspective of political analysis because it’s extremely difficult to predict. People who study politics in the Middle East are spinning theories and analysis to explain why it happened, how it spread and so forth. We never saw this coming.”
Though radical to the weary eye, the demonstrations manifest the longstanding discontent with government’s apparent inability to legitimately govern their people. These public displays, however, merely nudged the longstanding public discontent found throughout the city streets.
But in the sea of discontent lies a youthful intonation, a solitary voice uncanny to the older generation. It is embraced with trembling arms, personifying a previous resistance to combat the dominant regime.
“I was taken by surprise that the Egyptian spirit is not dead,” says Ragy Mikhaeel, an Arabic lecturer at Northwestern who worked as a freelance journalist in Egypt. “These young men are not what we expected. They have a vision. They have a thought. They are braver than the older generation and they took the initiative to at least express themselves openly in a society where the political regime doesn’t accept such kind of expression.”
The issue, Mikhaeel says, is the failure of the current government to address the country’s basic needs.
“This used to be an agricultural country. We don’t have enough bread. We don’t have wheat. We need to borrow from the states. See what I mean?” he says. “When you are looking for bread, a huge staple in Egypt — morning, lunch, night — then there is absolutely something wrong.”
The message spreads not when one man sets himself aflame but rather when the informal democratic fabric of the nation comes to an agreement after years of doubting the government’s legitimacy. The gap between the ruling elite and the people widened with each misstep — stemming from the government’s inability to fulfill promises to the people, and the country’s slow economic growth. In 2009 Egypt’s GDP growth rate fell from 7.2 to 4.6 percent, primarily due to a reduction in manufacturing and tourism, according to the CIA World Factbook.
In an effort to spark the flame toward visible change, the people coalesced under a leaderless force, carrying their distaste in the tears in their eyes and the life in their voices. Until recently, there was a belief that the nation would not face an explosion of violence.
“In Egyptian riots or revolutions, when someone is hurt, and there is some blood here or there, everybody stops,” Mikhaeel says. “It’s their peaceful nature. When there’s a drop of blood, it becomes, ‘That’s enough. We can’t take much more of that.’”
More than 297 people have been killed during the riots, according to the Human Rights Watch.
Speculation arises that the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist nationalist group, and the return of Nobel laureate and diplomat Mohamed ElBaradei will solidify the country’s identity, but empowerment circulates among groups that mobilize under an online presence.
But rallies and protests have occurred without the label of a “social media revolution,” as Malcolm Gladwell posits in the New Yorker, showing that despite the uproar over the social media effect, social movements have, and will continue, to occur. This is not a Facebook revolution; rather it is a pure social revolution from below, fueled from the corners of Cairo, from the poor to the middle class. The youth within the city streets, despite receiving a college education, relies on the bureaucracy to provide them with jobs. Fifty-one percent of the population works in the services industry, according to the CIA World Factbook.
The similarity between the protests in Egypt and, for instance, the Civil Rights movement, is that during desperate times, when the social structure works against the minority and the “man” is corrupt and unrelenting, people rally together under a leaderless identity, unifying into one voice that represents the hardships of many. Still, Mikhaeel says though he doesn’t subscribe to the idea that this revolution is a purely Facebook revolution, he is surprised by the Egyptian youth’s ability to organize through social networking.
The communication gap between the government and its people shortens, as the calls for transparency echo behind closed doors, in the basements of buildings where organizers coordinate with the click of a button.
But reporters like Nicholas Kristof worry that the mass empowerment in Tahrir Square relates to the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. From this fear emerges the inevitable question: what has, and what will, the military do?
It appears nothing for the time being. Some soldiers have sided with the protesters, according to reports. But the majority have monitored the situation, making sure the unrest does not result in violence.
The volatile situation, however, erupted in the past few days as pro-Mubarak demonstrations clashed with the anti-authoritarian protesters, resulting in eight dead and over 900 injured, the Wall Street Journal reports. Opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei issued a statement calling on the military to “intervene decisively to stop this massacre,” according to the New York Times. The armed forces’ actions may dictate the direction the riots take — whether it will result in bloodshed or peace.
“I feel enormous, enormous relief in the army’s stance as they could have made the difference,” Pearlman says. “The army as an institution normally has a tremendous amount of respect and legitimacy over the Egyptian people. They see it as the force protecting the nation and a reflection of national pride. The army is of the people. Look who goes into it: ordinary folks, the sons of normal Egyptian families.”
Until now, the military has called for an end to the demonstrations and declared they would not use force against demonstrators expressing “legitimate grievances,” Time reports. Yet the hopes for a peaceful transition would require social stability. A transition, Mubarak fears, will turn chaotic if he leaves immediately, according to ABC News. Mikhaeel says despite the public outcry, there are positives to take away from his rule over Egypt for the past 29 years, in that he protected society from political extremists, allowed for a secularism and avoided war with Israel. If video feeds are indicative of what’s happening on the ground, stability appears to be his final wish.
“He wants to get out of the government, but in a respectful way,” Mikhaeel says.
Yet the news shifts like clockwork, as reporters flock Egyptian streets to cover the public rather than to focus on the government. The story has changed from that of dissatisfied people chanting “Down, down Mubarak” to one of social empowerment, a rejuvenation of an embittered society and hope for authentic change under novel leadership — a new way of living. Still unable to combat the rise in the college-educated, Egypt’s youth face 25 percent unemployment, according to the International Monetary Fund. Rather than relent to Mubarak’s pleas and decision to not seek re-election in September, the people stand hand-in-hand, shoving aside those who appear foreign, unified under a solitary cause: change.
As journalists continue to get attacked and detained, Americans in Egypt flock the embassies to leave the country and pro-Mubarak supports clash with anti-Mubarak revolutionaries, it’s easy to lose sight of what’s important. The beauty in the protests lies not just in the reunification of the people under the prospect of change but also the unification under an anti-authoritarian identity.
As the youth coalesces into an informal democracy and time ticks toward the end of Egypt under Mubarak, the national identity will reform under the people’s vision. What will Egypt look like after Mubarak’s reign? No one knows.
“Every day, it’s changing,” Pearlman says. “It’s invigorating. It’s inspiring to see where it goes. The old rules of the game have been broken. The past has past.”
But as violence amid protests gradually diminishes and the regime concedes into a state of dormancy, one voice persists, united under a faceless persona. Though the future is uncertain, the youth have risen and set forth their calling. The Egyptian spirit, it appears, is here to stay.