Events in Tunisia may have inspired the largest street protests ever to challenge Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's nearly 30 years in power, but the anger fueling those protests is not new. It has been seething beneath the surface for many years, exploding at times, but never before in such widespread, sustained fury.
Events in Tunisia may have inspired the largest street protests ever to challenge Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s nearly 30 years in power, but the anger fueling those protests is not new. It has been seething beneath the surface for many years, exploding at times, but never before in such widespread, sustained fury.
The grievances are economic, social, historic and deeply personal. Egyptians, like Tunisians, often speak of their dignity, which many said has been wounded by Mubarak’s monopoly on power, his iron-fisted approach to security and corruption that has been allowed to fester.
Even some government allies and insiders have been quick to acknowledge the protesters have legitimate grievances.
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“A portion of their demands are recognized as valid,” said Abdel Moneim Said, a member of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party and chairman of the Al-Ahram publishing house. “There is a problem, we don’t know how to define it or deal with it, but that is something that should happen only through political means.”
The protesters have demanded that Mubarak step down, that he dissolve Parliament and hold free and fair elections, and that there be an end to corruption — demands flowing from years of pent-up frustration, Egyptians said.
“Egyptians are sick and tired of being corrupted, and when you live on 300 pounds a month [about $51], you have one of two options, you either become a beggar or a thief,” said Ghada Shabandar, a longtime human-rights activist. “The people sent a message: ‘We are not beggars, and we do not want to become thieves.’ “
All that anger has been focused on Mubarak, who has been in power since October 1981 and had appeared to be positioning his son, Gamal, a businessman and political leader, to inherit power.
“They hate Mubarak,” said Steven Cook, an expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C. “I think what has happened is that Tunisia has created this hope and possibility in people’s minds, that with enough determination you can unseat an Arab dictator.”
The litany of complaints against Mubarak is well-known to anyone who has spent time in Egypt. The police are brutal. Elections are rigged. Corruption is rampant. Life gets more difficult for the masses, as the rich grow richer and the poor grow poorer.
As Egypt’s economy enjoyed record growth in recent years, the number of people living in poverty grew.
“I graduated from the university about 16 years ago, and the only jobs open to me were cleaning other people’s houses,” Ali Suleiman said last week, offering a common lament.
“I am lucky I was able to start selling newspapers. I have three daughters, and I make about 20 pounds,” or $3.50, a day.
That is Mubarak’s Egypt, where about half the population lives on $2 a day or less, and walled compounds with green lawns and swimming pools and names like Swan Lake spring up outside cities. It is a place where those with money have built a parallel world of private schools and exclusive clubs, leaving the rundown cities to the poor.
“The whole system is seen as being his fault,” said Anne Mariel Peters, an assistant professor at Wesleyan University, who follows events in Egypt. “People do believe that Mubarak is the absolute dictator.”
To many Egyptians, and to many who have followed Mubarak’s authoritarian government, the surprise is not that he is widely despised, but that so many are no longer afraid to speak their mind.
That hostility may prove to be the epitaph of Mubarak, a former air-force general, who told Egyptians on the day of his inaugural in 1981: “We will embark on our great path: not stopping or hesitating, building and not destroying, protecting and not threatening, preserving and not squandering.”
Mubarak, 82, became president after his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, was assassinated while the two men sat in a reviewing stand at a military parade. He came to power with a vision — and a mandate — to try to preserve stability.
One of his first acts was the imposition of an emergency law. The law gave his government the ability to fight the extremists who killed Sadat and for years after would violently threaten the state.
What has impelled so many to the streets is the collateral damage, the hurt and anger after years of repressive rule and cronyism. Mubarak kept the emergency law in place so his government had the ability to arrest and detain without charge, to limit public gatherings and to operate a special state-security court.
Mubarak and his allies did not see the danger coming. In November, they thought they had succeeded in further consolidating power after widely criticized parliamentary elections in which the president’s party won about 500 seats in Parliament, leaving fewer than 20 to the opposition. That helped set off the recent days of rage. The anger was compounded by the speculation about Gamal Mubarak.
“We all want at least some minimum ground for democracy and a comfortable standard of living and some sort of justice in the distribution of income,” said Asmaa Mahfouz, 25, one of the founders of the April 6 Youth Movement, which organized the demonstrations this week. “We want to fight corruption. These are all things that we have agreed on.”
And one more thing, which the protesters shouted from the barricades: Mubarak has to go.