Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

Cook examines developments in the Middle East and their resonance in Washington.

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Protests Rock Egypt

by Steven A. Cook
January 26, 2011

It’s 2am and I am finally back in my hotel.  It’s been an extraordinary day.  Tens of thousands of Egyptians—perhaps more—took to the streets across the country to demand change.  Even the “Red Sea Riviera” was not spared the anger of Egyptians who are fed up with the brutality and lies of the regime.  

I have been helping to shepherd a group of CFR members around Cairo the last few days. At each and every meeting with an Egyptian official or NDP member, we were told that the possibility of large demonstrations was minimal, it was all “the media,” maybe 50 people will show up. Why?  Because Egypt is a democracy, of course, and while there are “some problems,” people are free.  Although it is true that the Egyptian people did not rise up en masse today, many of them did.  If they are so free and the economy is growing so fast that Egypt can be “another BRIC” (seriously!), why are so many people mad?  Why do they want the Mubarak family to leave?

It’s not clear at all whether they believe them or not, but the Egyptian elite have been telling themselves lies and half truths for years.  Today may have been the day when those lies and half truths caught up with them.  Clearly, the many thousands of people in Tahrir Square today/tonight don’t take the regime’s claims about reform seriously.  The press has focused on economic grievances—perhaps taking their cues from government spokesmen—but the only demands I heard tonight were political.  The young men and (some) women in Tahrir want freedom and liberation from Hosni Mubarak, his family, and the National Democratic Party.  As an aside, no matter how this thing turns out, it seems far less likely that Gamal Mubarak will succeed his father.

So far, this is an event of mostly 30 and under with the exception of a number of notables including Dr. Alaa al Aswany, the author of The Yacoubian Building.  The police cracked down heavily tonight, but there is a sense this is not over.  Cairo was not the only place that experienced big demonstrations.  Something is deeply wrong in Egypt. If the protests continue and ordinary Egyptians decide to join the students and other young people in the streets today, something very big is going to happen—perhaps even the end of the Free Officers regime.

Post a Comment 10 Comments

  • Posted by Imran Riffat

    Thank you for your comments that help us better understand the situation on the ground. Change in Egypt, long overdue, is now imminent. If these events were happening in China our policy experts and media would be a lot more proactive. However, for now, we stand by the aspirations of the people of Egypt and hope that things will take a turn for the better.

  • Posted by Rana

    I really like what is happening in egypt now, but I think if more people go out and participate in the protests real change can take place. I don’t see how 85 million people can allow themselves to be controlled by only ONE PERSON Mubarak.

  • Posted by William Meadows

    Why R they mad and rising up? Because Al-Kaida and/or the Mu-jahha-dean R stirring them up that is why.

  • Posted by Evan Helmuth

    First off, let me say that I love your blog because your analysis is generally impecable.

    However, given that Mubarak has got the best police state American money can buy and given the regime’s extensive experience in dealing with protest movements I wonder if your last paragraph doesn’t represent a bit of wishful thinking.

    In any case I’m hoping for stability in the near term as I have applied to study in Egypt next fall.

  • Posted by Maro

    Steven, I can’t wait for you to get back to DC and brief us all about your experiences there. Your tweets were very closely followed and you have given us an “in” when Al Jazeera, Al Ahram, Al Arabiyya were hardly reporting anything. PLEASE consider giving a talk or multiple when you get back and let us know!

  • Posted by Maro

    Steven, I can’t wait for you to get back to DC and brief us all about your experiences there. Your tweets were very closely followed and you have given us an “in” when Al Jazeera, Al Ahram, Al Arabiyya were hardly reporting anything. PLEASE consider giving a talk or multiple when you get back and let us know about them!

  • Posted by Nissl

    The question after watching Iran and Tunisia play out: how to convince the elites and (more importantly) military leaders that their personal interests are better served by ejecting Mubarak from power and embracing democracy?

  • Posted by Adrienne Medawar

    Steven, I am a member of CFR who is visiting family in Cairo. I read your blog and found it so true. I have been watching from the balcony of the family apartment on Ramses St. close to the syndicates of lawyers and journalists. You say you are with 20 other members and I wonder what is your assessment of the days to come. Are you booking your flights out of Cairo or are you waiting to decide after Friday’s events?
    Regards,
    Adrienne

  • Posted by Stephen Tyler

    The return to Egypt of putative presidential challenger Mohamed ElBaradei (about whom you presciently wrote in Foreign Affairs last year) may give tomorrow’s climactic anti-government demonstrations throughout the country a coherence which could eventually lead to regime change. I don’t think there will be an Iran-style revolution in Egypt; the opposition is too fractious and the population -notwithstanding the 1000s you mention in Tahrir Sq- is too inert for a poular revolution to gain enough momentum to be successful. However, the events of this week have opened the door to anti-Mubarak elements, which may well result in a new president -quite possibly ElBaradei-in September’s election.

  • Posted by Bradley J. Fish

    Having traveled and lived throughout SWA and the Horn of Africa throughout the past 14 years, and having coordinated the business trips of others through same, I’m sensitive to the appearance of stress evident in those “forward.” Accordingly, CFR best pull young Mr. Cook back soonest, as it’s sorely apparent in his writing that he’s personally overly invested in the Egyptian protesters, i.e., he’s “gone native.”

    When operationally forward, perspective is what’s most easily lost. For Mr. Cook: If the appearance of “tens of thousands” of protesters in Cairo is sufficient to overthrow a 30-year administration, shouldn’t last summer’s Tea Party movement, consisting of “tens of thousands (surely hundreds of thousands)” within the D.C. mall suffice to assume the renunciation of the Obama administration?

    Keep your powder dry Mr. Cook.

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