"The people want to bring down the government!" "Revolution!" "Revolution in Tunis and revolution in Egypt - Mubarak Out!" These have been the cries of tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands (depending on who's counting ) of Egyptian demonstrators since Tuesday. If numbers are an indication of success, then there is no doubt that local opposition movements have chalked up a huge victory, perhaps the biggest in Egypt's history.
Egyptians waited three weeks before responding to the Tunisian demonstrations, but their planning was successful: Blogs, Twitter and Facebook pages, which have proven to be effective means of organizing people in recent years, revealed the intent to shape this as a popular response, not a political one. Demonstrators were told not to show up with opposition party slogans or flags, or to invoke the names of presidential candidates. The leaders of these movements were asked not to appear on the front lines and even to refrain from participating, so as not to give the authorities an excuse to write off the protests as being merely factional.
This has been a major test for the regime. Under orders from the president, the security forces that filled the streets of Cairo and other large cities were instructed to avoid violence. They used tear gas and water hoses and arrested people, but were told not to shoot or beat them. The jury is still out on the outcome of the effort to curb the demonstrations, but it is clear the regime knows it no longer controls media coverage, and that while it can cut off Twitter and mobile phones, it cannot stop citizens from filming police violence and distributing the clips online.
Egypt, in contrast with Tunisia, has a lot of experience with demonstrations, strikes and protests, and its official responses take into account international reactions. And thus, if Tunisia burst the dam and toppled its regime, Egyptian leaders understand that not only are they protecting themselves, they bear responsibility for keeping the momentum from spreading around the Middle East.
But Egypt's experience did not help keep the demonstrations from growing. In spite of an order Tuesday night to end the demonstrations, people remained on the streets on Wednesday night as well - and the police did use tear gas and rubber-coated bullets. The number of casualties - at least four dead and several hundred injured - is relatively low given the scale of the events, as Tunisia's demonstrations ended with 60 dead, but the performance itself made a deep impression.
The Egyptian protest will not change the regime, but it might improve quality of life and push President Hosni Mubarak to be more serious about his campaign for the September elections. Egyptian experts believe Mubarak might announce plans to run for another term, thus eliminating the excuse some people used to protest: his intention to bequeath his seat to his son.
Ready to blow
For many years now, Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, Yemen and other Muslim and Arab countries have been stockpiling social, political and economic explosives. It seems a single spark could ignite a large-scale conflagration. But this impression is deceptive. Each country has a different relationship between the regime and the people, and each has its own "shock absorbers" - hence the different outcomes.
A "day of rage" was declared in Lebanon, too. There, the protest is dual: against Hezbollah and Syria's "stealing" the premiership, and over the split Sunni vote. Unlike Tunisia or Egypt, these are not popular protests against the economic situation, unemployment or the suppression of freedom of speech. Lebanon is the freest country in the Arab Middle East, and despite Hezbollah's political control, it is also the most secular. Unlike Tunisia and Egypt, in Lebanon the demonstrations were driven by politics. Therefore, Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati will not be judged based on his ability to reduce joblessness or to attract foreign investors, but rather by how well he soothes political rivals and handles the International Court of Justice's pending indictments over the Rafik Hariri assassination.
In one piece
There is a fundamental difference between Egypt and Tunisia, and Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. There are also differences between neighboring countries like Tunisia and Algeria. However, while Tunisia is falling apart, Algeria is still in one piece, and not because it is a model state.
"Thievery, murder, violent harassment, counterfeiting and the drug trade - all these are crimes we have not heard about except in countries like Colombia. However, to our regret this is the reality in our country, and there is no one who can stand up to these phenomena, expose their connections or unravel their networks," Mukhtar Zaidi, editor of Al Shaab, a leading Algerian opposition newspaper, wrote this week. "How long will we continue to live a life of fear?"
President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the man who brought about national reconciliation between the government and most of the Islamic organizations (in the past 20 years about 200,000 people were killed in Algeria ), quickly announced that he intended to establish "a national dialogue" to hear citizens' complaints. As compared to the president of Tunisia, who fled his country, Bouteflika enjoys public support, even though he too is accused of corruption and sharing the country's wealth with cronies.
There is twofold criticism of Bouteflika's regime. Human rights organizations say the army and police are continuing to use terror as an excuse to settle accounts with political rivals. Conservatives, on the other hand, claim that he is maintaining his policy of reconciliation with terrorists.
Apparently, however, the most significant difference between Algeria and Tunisia - the one that will determine whether the "street revolution" spills over into the neighbors' territory - is the relationship between the army and politics. In Tunisia the generals were detached from politics, but in Algeria, the army - and especially military intelligence - is the true political power.
Heading military intelligence for more than 20 years there is Gen. Mohamed Toufik Mediene, 72, known familiarly as Gen. Toufik. In 1999, after years of murderous civil war, Bouteflika came into power and reached an agreement with Toufik to clean out the military stables. The president wanted to show the world and the citizens of Algeria that the new regime was seeking reconciliation and peace. For the general this was a double opportunity: He could both get rid of Chief of Staff Mohamed Lamari, who had led all the attacks on the radical Islamist organizations, and also become the country's strongman.
Toufik was also well versed in the details of Bouteflika's embezzlement affair. In the 1980s, as foreign minister in Houari Boumedienne's government, Bouteflika was tried for stealing about $23 million (at today's values ). He fled and spent the next 16 years in Switzerland, where he served as a consultant for Gulf companies. In 2004, five years after he became president, Bouteflika ousted Lamari, with Toufik's help.
However, the general's ambitions did not stop there. After the last elections, in 2009, it was clear Bouteflika could not continue in office much longer because of his poor health. It was rumored that the president had cancer, and his associates began promoting his brother, Said Bouteflika, as a possible heir. The brother aroused Toufik's ire when he announced he intended to bring onto his staff Gen. Mohamed Betchine, who had been Toufik's boss in the 1980s; thus Said sentenced himself to political death.
Toufik had spent a decade encouraging the corruption among the political leadership. But a year ago, he exposed the corruption scandal at the national oil company, Sonatrach, which brings in 98 percent of the country's foreign currency. Not only was the company chairman forced to resign; his five deputies, Energy Minister Chakib Khelil and the strong Interior Minister Nouredinne Zerhouni were also fired. All were allies of the president. The hint was well taken and since then Said Bouteflika has not been mentioned.
In Tunisia, critics have often been arrested, tried and punished. The corruption there was led by the president's family, but there are few cases in which Tunisians "disappeared." Algeria, however, constitutes an empire of fear. One complaint is that the Algerian army, and especially intelligence, frequently used the excuse of fighting Islamic terrorism to justify murdering innocent civilians. Often the army used violence only because civilians were living on land it wanted.
Algeria has about 40 political parties whose names include the word "democracy" in some form. At this stage, most of the protests are being led by the secular party Rally for Culture and Democracy, headed by Said Sadi. That party, which is demanding freedom of speech and the cancellation of the emergency regime, is considered the representative of the Berber minority, which constitutes between one-fifth and one-third of the population.
At the start of the last decade, the Berbers drew thousands into the streets, facing off against security forces. The protest subsided after the minority's leadership signed an agreement with the president in 2005, but apparently the revolution in Tunis has reawakened the large minority's aspiration to change its status.
Here, it seems, lies the Algerian protest's second difficulty: It is perceived as a protest of minorities, not as a popular protest with foreign support. Anyone expecting an "epidemic of revolutions" in the Middle East, or at least in North Africa, will have to wait.