February 2, 2011

THEY JUST COULDN'T BELIEVE THE ARABS HAD IT IN THEM:

How Cairo, U.S. Were Blindsided by Revolution (CHARLES LEVINSON, MARGARET COKER And JAY SOLOMON, 2/02/11, WSJ)

Just last Monday, few were paying close attention to Egypt. All eyes were on Tunisia, where to much of the world's surprise, President Zine Al Abdine Ben Ali had been chased from office by a month of rising popular protest. This was something the Arab world had never seen before. But the impact spread steadily.

In Algeria, Yemen, Jordan and Egypt, protests started breaking out. Often these were organized by local opposition groups but attended by a surprising number of middle-class professionals—a diversity that seemed to mirror the protests in Tunisia.

In Cairo, a beleaguered collection of opposition groups plotted another in a series of demonstrations, this time to coincide with Police Day, a national holiday to thank Egypt's police forces. To activists, it was the perfect irony: Almost a year earlier, a young man from Alexandria with no history of political activism, Khaled Saied, had been beaten to death by police. Activists had managed to bring national attention to the case, and they intended to use Police Day to build on that.

Opposition activists rallied around a Facebook page called We Are All Khaled Saied. To call for a protest, Mr. Saied's death became the focal point for people who hadn't been involved in the rights movement before, says Ahmed Gharbia, an Egyptian activist associated with the page. "He was an everyman, and it was very difficult for people who wanted to paint him as an outlaw to do that." In the past week, supporters of the page swelled from 75,000 members to over 440,000.

Other national shocks also incited Egyptians. November elections, widely viewed as fraudulent, had been a complete sweep by Mr. Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party. A bigger shock came on New Year's Eve, when a suicide bomber killed 30 worshippers at a Coptic church in Alexandria, the second biggest city. Muslims and Christians alike united in protest against sectarianism, and the government's handling of the assault.

"More Egyptians were more angry than they've probably ever been, and not just activists, but ordinary people. And then came Tunisia, and suddenly people saw that maybe they could do something about that anger," said Ziad Al-Alimi, an organizer for Nobel Prize Laureate Mohamed ElBaradei.

Mr. ElBaradei would return to Egypt to play a key role later. But he, too, failed to detect the early tremors of something new and remained in Vienna.

Despite fresh inspiration from Tunisia, even the organizers of the demonstrations expected them to come off like so many others—with protesters, far outnumbered by police, quickly driven off, beaten up and arrested. "We went out to protest that day and expected to be arrested in the first 10 minutes, just like usual," said Mr. al-Alimi.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 2, 2011 7:00 AM
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