Throughout the past two weeks, we have witnessed something that hasn't occured in the Middle East since 1979: a popular uprising that forced the collapse of an authoritarian regime. After 23 years of iron-clad rule, Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and his entourage fled the capital and took refuge in Saudi Arabia. This is the first time an event like this has transpired in an Arab country in quite some time.
Already, the self-immolating Tunisian vegetable vendor that sparked the demonstrations in Tunisia seems to have inspired others across North Africa. Similar self-immolations have occured in Algeria and Mauritania. In Egypt, a string of self-immolations in recent days have raised eyebrows about the possibility of a Tunisian-style uprising in that country. It may be too early to tell if the demonstrations in Tunisia will give rise to similar uprisings in other Arab countries plagued with similar (and worse) problems of high food prices, few jobs, and an authoritarian political environment. Nevertheless, these cases of people literally setting themselves on fire in order to express their frustration and despair speak volumes.
If the events in Tunisia have transnational implications (and in light of the role played by al-Jazeera and social media, how could they not?), the obvious question is what sort of impact they will have on Egypt. Egypt will hold a presidential election in September, and by all indications, the aging Hosni Mubarak is expected to seek another six year term. Sensing the inevitable uncertainty associated with such a move, the regime has signicantly clamped down on dissent in the last few months. Recent parliamentary elections were among the most blatantly rigged yet, as the Egyptian government appears to not be taking any chances this time.
So in that context, how do people feel about the chances of a Tunisian-style uprising in Egypt? For his part, opposition leader Mohammed el-Baradei is not advocating for that type of change. In an interview with The Guardian, el-Baradei explicitly said that he supports change from within the existing system over revolutionary change from the streets. He's taken some heat from grass-roots activists for this stance, as they have leveled the charge that he is not "a man of the street." But so what, we knew that already. After all, Baradei's position is not surprising. Egypt has a lot of societal problems lurking beneath the chimera of stability apparent on the surface, so a chaotic popular uprising could precipitate some messy scenarios. This debate about change from within as opposed to revolutionary change is nothing new, although it is sure to be a debate likely to intensify in the months ahead. The Guardian article also mentions that massive anti-government demonstrations are planned for next week in Cairo and Alexandria, so stay tuned.