Who said Egyptians are indifferent to politics? That popular canard - always brought forward in order to explain low levels of interest and voter turnout in Egyptian elections - certainly rings hollow this week. On Tuesday, thousands of Egyptians poured onto the streets and squares of Cairo, Suez, Alexandria, Tanta, and several other cities throughout Egypt. Though the Mubarak regime has repeatedly tried to portray the demonstrations as the work of the Muslim Brotherhood - its bogeyman of choice - the demonstrations are clearly a popular expression of frustration with a sour economy, rising food and gas prices, high unemployment, and an authoritarian political system.
The organizers of Tuesday's "Day of Wrath" (Youm al-Ghadab) belong to a previously obscure opposition group called the April 6th movement. The movement's namesake refers to a strike by textile workers that occured on April 6th, 2008, and was crushed by security forces. Using social networking media, young activists formed the movement in response to the strikes and the regime's harsh response. After witnessing the successful Tunisian uprising a few weeks earlier, the group planned these demonstrations for Tuesday, Egypt's Police Day, which happens to be a national holiday.
The fact that these protests are arguably the largest since the bread riots in 1977, and possibly since the 1950s, is highly significant. Of course, Egypt is not immune to the occasional public demonstration. However, there is definitely something different about the demonstrations that have swelled in the last few days. Not only are they the largest in quite some time, but they are nation-wide. Perhaps most significantly, they aren't protests organized by some elite opposition political party, but seem to have grass roots support among Egypt's youth. Indeed, the heterogeneous collection of opposition parties in Egypt lack credibility with many of the protesters, as they are seen as having collaborated with the regime throughout its reign.
The New York Times seems to be linking these widespread demonstrations to Mohammed el-Baradei's umbrella group, the National Association for Change. It seems to me that the organization is certainly playing a role in the demonstrations, but Baradei himself is not playing much of a role. However, according to al-Masry al-Youm, Baradei has declared that he is ready to assume power in a temporary role if the Egyptian people desire so.
For now, the National Association for Change has called for President Mubarak to announce that he will not seek re-election, and that his son Gamal will not run for the office either. If the protests continue to escalate, these demands may escalate as well.
A lot of attention has focused on whether the Egyptian protesters will follow their Tunisian counterparts. I think it is difficult to make clear cut analogies here. There's no question that what happened in Tunisia is inspiring many protesters. But there are some crucial differences. First, the Tunisian military played a crucial role in facilitating the revolution by not getting involved. I don't see the Egyptian military as being so averse to intervening. Second, the NDP (the ruling party in Egypt) is powerful and entrenched in so many layers of society. There are a lot of people with a vested interest in the status quo, and I'm not sure a few tens of thousands of protesters can change that. Then again, if the Egyptian stock market continues along this path, who knows what can happen? (How could I not link to this article, given that it is co-written by the Kevorkian's own Liam Stack - bravo Liam!)
It's no use trying to predict how this will end up. At this point, the situation is pregnant with a multiplicity of possibilities. The only thing that is clear is that the entire region seems to be in flux. A successful uprising in Tunisia, unprecedented protests in Egypt, Algeria, and now Yemen. Meanwhile, a part of Sudan just seceded, Hezbollah just nominated the new prime minister in Lebanon, and al-Jazeera might have just put the final nail in the coffin of the Palestinian Authority by its release of embarrassing (but frankly not surprising) documents from its negotiations with Israel. 2011 already looks like it will be quite an eventful year.
PS - for those who read Arabic, check out this article in Egypt's semi-official newspaper Al-Ahram for a good laugh.