Will Egypt’s protests go the way of Tunisia’s revolution?

To understand what drove tens of thousands of Egyptians to erupt Tuesday in the largest protests in a generation against President Hosni Mubarak, you only had to see one photo of events in El-Mahalla El-Kubra, a Nile Delta factory city where an estimated 5,000 people turned out.

Some images from Tuesday show Egyptian police beating unarmed protesters and throwing rocks at them (sadly, an increasingly common tactic). But a photo of a man and a woman standing in Mahalla, posted on the citizen journalists’ Web site Rassd News Network, instantly conveys why Egyptians have taken to the streets.

The woman holds a loaf of bread and a Tunisian flag. The man next to her holds a loaf of bread and a sign that reads «Yesterday Tunisia. Today Egypt. Jan. 25 the day we began to take our rights back.»

It was no accident that the protests coincided with Police Day, as youthful activists sought to focus attention not on a sham holiday but, instead, on the systematic brutality associated with Mubarak’s security services. Egyptians in Mahalla in particular have smarted since three people were killed there by police in 2008 during massive protests that followed months of strikes.

The big question now is how loyal the armed forces are to Mubarak and what role, if any, they will play should the protests escalate. Thousands of citizens set up camp in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on Tuesday and vowed to occupy the space until Mubarak resigns. News reports from journalists and Twitter updates early Wednesday morning indicated that at about 1 a.m., security forces began forcibly emptying the square, spraying tear gas and arresting people. Protesters have promised more demonstrations.

Since a four-week uprising in Tunisia ended the 23-year rule of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali this month, the Arab world has been in a tizzy. Tunisia’s revolution marked the first time Arabs toppled one of their leaders. While ordinary citizens wondered whether the «Tunisia effect» might spread, long-serving rulers were conspicuously silent or protested (too much) that their country had nothing in common with Ben Ali’s mismanaged nation.

For years, Western observers of the Arab world have effectively helped shore up the dictators by stating as fact that Arabs don’t revolt. Much to Egyptian pain and chagrin, analysts would point to our country, where protests have been the preserve of a small, dedicated but not always connected group of activists. Mubarak, the longest-serving ruler in modern-day Egypt, would smartly give in to enough of workers’ demands as necessary to appease; then his security forces would beat and detain the street activists who persevered.

Whether tensions ran high over rigged elections, food shortages, Internet censoring, media repression or police brutality, the conventional wisdom has held that Mubarak would sleep without worry until thousands of Egyptians took to the streets.

Finally, on Tuesday, feet were on the ground. Thousands turned out in Cairo, Alexandria and across the country as the anti-government fervor fired up not just activists but families, too.

Watching Tunisians make possible what Arabs have always been told was impossible burned away the apathy that bound Egyptians – and revealed decades’ worth of smoldering rage. It also destroyed the myth of youth «slactivists» who some alleged were content with organizing on the Internet and speaking out only on social networking sites.

Young Egyptians, like their Tunisian counterparts, are the majority of the country’s population. They have known no leadership other than what they see as Mubarak’s occupation.

Since becoming president in 1981, Mubarak has kept Egypt under a «state of emergency» that allows him to suspend regular laws. He has turned our country into a police state where torture and brutality often go unpunished, and he has jailed an estimated 12,000 to 14,000 political opponents.

Mubarak accused his main political opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood, of provoking police violence on Tuesday, but the Islamist movement did not collectively join in. Although many individual members took to the streets, the Brotherhood said it would symbolically support activists’ call to protest but would not ask its members to mobilize as a movement. That’s a wise step in countering regime accusations but could affect its credibility with youth activists disaffected by politics.

Unlike Tunisia, Egypt is a major U.S. ally. When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Tuesday that the Obama administration’s «assessment is that the Egyptian government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people,» she showed once again how out of touch she is with popular anger at Mubarak. She also alerted Egyptians that Washington was as concerned about the protests and the potential «Egypt effect» as Mubarak must be.

Mona Eltahawy, an Egyptian-born writer and lecturer on Arab and Muslim issues.

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