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Egyptian unrest

January 28, 2011

The violent protests that have rocked Egypt have also rattled President Hosni Mubarak's regime. Could Mohamed ElBaradei's return be the galvanizing force to form a cohesive leadership which could push for real change?

Egyptian riot police group to push back protesters
ElBaradei hopes he can unite the oppositionImage: AP

Egypt is bracing for widespread demonstrations on Friday, as Egyptians angry with the 30-year authoritarian rule of President Hosni Mubarak continue their protests against corruption, unemployment and government oppression. The interior ministry has warned that it would use "decisive measures" to crack down on the demonstrators.

The opposition movement Muslim Brotherhood said it would take part in the protests. At least 20 members of the country's largest opposition force were arrested overnight. So far seven people have been killed in clashes between police and the protesters and more than a 100 injured.

The unrest began on Tuesday, called by some the "first day of the Egyptian revolution." Protesters called on the 82-year-old leader to stand down and leave the country in echoes of the recent revolt which toppled the government in Tunisia.

Mohamed ElBaradei, who has been calling for political reforms and is seen by many as the oppostion figurehead, called on Mubarak to step down and said he would be willing to lead an interim government if the public asked him to do so. "It is a critical time in the life of Egypt. I have come to particpate with the Egyptian people," he said after returning to Cairo late on Thursday.

Disillusionment with the Mubarak regime has been growing rapidly since the parliamentary elections in November handed the president's NDP party a 93-percent majority. Mubarak's opposition rivals claimed the polls, seen by observers as the least free and fair elections in a long time, had been rigged.

With presidential elections scheduled for later in the year, a new breed of anti-government activists have apparently taken heart from events in Tunisia, and to a lesser extent in Algeria, where popular uprisings over poverty and oppression have sent shockwaves through northern Africa's Arab states.

Shouting slogans such as "Depart, Mubarak" the coordinated crowds, organized by a coalition of online activists, ignored police announcements deeming the gathering illegal, occupying city centers in numbers large enough to initially shock the security forces into inaction.

Alliance of activists combine to put pressure on Mubarak

Protesters are confronted by riot police as they demonstrate in downtown Cairo
Protests were organized by an online alliance of activistsImage: AP

Following the ouster of Tunisia's president Ben Ali, several protest movements called for a mass demonstration that they called 'Anger Day' on January 25, which is the Police Day in Egypt, explained Moaaz Elzoughby, a researcher at the Arab Reform Initiative (ARI), a consortium of Arab research and policy institutes currently based in Amman, Jordan. Especially those opposition groups very active online, such as '6 April,' were involved, he said.

"Almost all the Egyptian opposition movements joined the alliance and some, like the Al-Ghad party, participated actively in the organization of the protests," Elzoughby told Deutsche Welle. "The Muslim Brotherhood participated as well, but on an individual basis. The brotherhood did not mobilize all its members."

According to Elzoughby, the alliance has a number of socio-economic demands, such as a minimum salary of 1,200 Egyptian pounds (some 150 euros), the suspension of the state of emergency which has been in place since 1981, a number of constitutional amendments and "a pledge from Mubarak that he will not run for a new mandate," he said.

It was an unprecedented show of opposition to the ruling regime in a country whose hard-line approach to dissent is notorious and where protests are outlawed and usually quelled quickly and with brutal force.

However, true to form, the demonstrations soon turned violent as they had done in Tunisia and Algeria earlier this month. Tunisian flags were seen flying alongside Egyptian banners as protestors responded to tear gas and water cannon assaults with barrages of stones in Cairo's Tahrir Square.

Lack of leadership undermining the push for real change

Despite the strong show of defiance, Clara O'Donnell at the Center for European Reform, a London-based think-tank, believes the opposition lacks a unifying leader to rally behind and push for real change.

Tunisians protesters
Analysts doubt that Egypt will become the next TunisiaImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"There is a big challenge to bring the opposition together in Egypt as there is no one key leader among them," she told Deutsche Welle. "So these are headless protests in a way and it makes it hard to imagine these protests leading anywhere, especially a Tunisia-style overthrow."

Almut Möller, the head of program at the Alfred von Oppenheim Center for European Policy Studies at the German Council on Foreign Relations, agrees that Egypt is unlikely to follow Tunisia's lead to the same conclusion. But she believes Egypt is still entering a time of great uncertainty.

"The question now is: where will these protests lead?" Möller told Deutsche Welle. "Most people who know the country well say that Egypt will never really change and that even though the conditions for most people are so severe, they will just have to continue to endure those conditions. The regime has a lot of means to control but you have to wonder where the tipping point may be."

Möller believes that the protests, the coming presidential elections and the flashpoint issue of Mubarak annointing his unpopular son Gamal as his successor could combine to influence the president's next move.

"With the presidential elections coming up, will Mubarak still be able to push for Gamal in this climate?" she said. "The regime is nervous and usually when there is such opposition, it comes down hard. But will they be able to crackdown with such attention focused on Egypt?"

Criticism tempered by cautious approach to reform

Mubarak and Obama
Obama has slowly toned down US support for MubarakImage: AP

That international focus was led by the United States, one of Egypt's main international allies, which called on the Mubarak regime to be "responsive" to the protestors' "aspirations" and to "pursue political, economic and social reforms" which would improve people's lives. The White House statement reaffirmed the US commitment to "working with Egypt and the Egyptian people to advance these goals."

The European Union has called the protests "a signal" of the Egyptian people's "wish for political change" and urged the Mubarak regime to respect and protect the right of citizens to express their aspirations in peaceful demonstrations.

Europe's balancing act leads to timid support

The reluctance of the EU to issue a stronger statement, according to O'Donnell, has much to do with the delicate balancing act the bloc has to maintain with repressive states with whom it has to do business.

Palestinian militants from Hamas ride on a truck with their weapons
A push for reforms led to Hamas taking power in GazaImage: AP

"The EU supports democracy and human rights in Egypt but it has been pretty reticent since pushes for democratic reform led to gains for Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon," O'Donnell said.

She said that the EU was being a lot more cautious now.

"Unfortunately the EU is now weighing up the benefits of pushing for reform in Egypt because there is a real risk of instability."

"Additionally, should a change in regime take place, there is the risk that the new leaders are even more unsavory than the old ones. There are concerns about the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt but there are far more dangerous groups there who could exploit a more open society. The EU is wary of that."

Author: Nick Amies, Rob Mudge (dpa, Reuters, AFP)

Editor: Rob Mudge