Middle East

No sign Egypt will take the Tunisian road

Egyptians demonstrating in solidarity with Tunisian protesters outside the embassy in Tunis, 15 January 2011
Image caption A handful of protesters gathered outside the Tunisian embassy in Cairo

If Tunisia is to be the first of a series of dominos, the first of many Arab autocracies to collapse, there is no sign yet of the contagion spreading to Egypt.

On the face of it, Egypt faces many similar problems.

Rising food prices and tough economic conditions have left many millions struggling. Official corruption is notorious. There is less and less opportunity for people to voice their feelings within the political system.

Parliamentary elections last November and December left the ruling party almost with a monopoly of power. The ageing president has been in office three decades, and looks likely to seek and gain re-election this autumn.

So it is no surprise that many Egyptians have been quick to welcome the downfall of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.

At a lunch stand in central Cairo, one unemployed man said: "I am very happy as an Arab. It is good for the people of Tunisia, that they succeeded. This is the level of democracy we need to reach. I call on God to make it happen in all Arab and African countries."

Another said: "This is just the start... I hear from a lot of Egyptians that they might do the same. We need complete change, not just political change."

Yet the bold words have translated into almost no action whatsoever.

A handful of demonstrators gathered outside the Tunisian embassy, calling on President Hosni Mubarak to follow President Ben Ali's example and go.

On one Facebook page, Egyptians are urged to begin the campaign to change their government - but not until 25 January.

And life here has continued as normal, no major protests, no visible extra security.

Anyone attempting to foment change in Egypt faces formidable obstacles.

No dream

There are deep frustrations in society. Yet Egyptians are almost as disillusioned with the opposition, as they are with the government. Even the Muslim Brotherhood, the banned Islamist movement, seem rudderless.

After their candidates failed to win a single seat in the parliamentary elections, they blamed ballot rigging, but staged no major protests.

Egypt is widely seen to have lost power, status and prestige in the three decades of President Mubarak's rule. It is not just the lack of achievements in the economy, or education or international affairs.

Egyptians will tell you that this country needs a dream, a vision. Under President Gamal Abdel Nasser it was Pan-Arabism. Under President Anwar Sadat it was peace with Israel and economic liberalisation.

Under President Mubarak there is no such dream, as a senior figure in the ruling National Democratic Party candidly acknowledged recently:

"While Egyptian officials fell in love with numbers - of streets paved, of hospitals built, the number of hotels and so on - somewhere the symbolic or the ideological mission of the state withered away," said Ali Eddin Helal.

"No state can live just by figures or by numbers. You have to give people meaning."

The response from Egyptians is a widespread feeling of hopelessness. Suicides have risen sharply in recent years, according to UN estimates.

Turnout in parliamentary elections, as a proportion of all Egyptians of voting age, is probably now down to single figures - and that is achieved with a degree of government "encouragement" to its employees, and plenty of vote buying.

Not aspirational

But equally, political demonstrations here usually only generate a few hundred people. Reporting on them in central Cairo, you soon become familiar with the faces of the handful of activists who reliably turn out.

Usually they are well outnumbered by the surrounding police.

Unlike Tunisia, the population has a much lower level of education. Illiteracy is high, internet penetration is low.

No-one could describe Egyptian society as "aspirational". Most people simply struggle to survive.

And historically, Egypt's strategic importance has made it highly vulnerable to foreign interference.

US President Barack Obama can watch what is going on in Tunisia with a degree of detachment. Similar disorder in Egypt could threaten his whole political future, just as events in Iran destroyed Jimmy Carter's presidency three decades ago.

The simple fact is that most Egyptians do not see any way that they can change their country or their lives through political action, be it voting, activism, or going out on the streets to demonstrate.

Maybe what is happening in Tunisia will change that. But in Egypt there are decades of inertia to overcome.

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