From Tunisia to Egypt: Protests for Democracy in the Arab World

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Egyptian demonstrators protest in central Cairo amidst tear gas fire by Egyptian police to demand the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak and calling for reforms on January 25, 2011. (Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty)

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's a Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on The Brian Lehrer ShowMona Eltahawy, a columnist on Arab and Muslim issues, talked about the protests in Egypt and the government's response.

Following the ousting of Tunisian ruler Zine al Abeddine Ben Ali in Tunisia, experts on Middle East politics had speculated that other parts of the region might also erupt in protest. On Tuesday, Egypt did just that, with thousands of protesters in the streets in Cairo and other Egyptian cities calling for the removal of President Hosni Mubarak and demanding greater rights and increased jobs.  

Mona Eltahawy said the Shoura counsel and Mubarak senior advisors are making no concessions and instead claiming that the ruling National Democratic Party cares about youth and will continue its reform program. The administration police have blocked access to Facebook and Twitter and rounded up protesters, but the protests continue.

For the past three days now we have heard of violent crackdowns in many Egyptian cities. The city of Suez ... has seen some of the worst violent crackdowns by Egyptian security forces there. It was under a state of curfew and security forces are using rubber coated bullets, tear gas, and water cannons.

Despite the violence, the uprising in Tunisia gives Eltahawy a lot of hope for Egypt and the region.

I have to temper everything by saying how absolutely worried I am for everybody on the street, their courage is beyond description. [A]s an Egyptian who knows the Mubarak regime has been in power for thirty years, who’s heard over and over again it is impossible to topple a regime like this — we are seeing the impossible become possible. People thought these red lines were never surmountable, people were always saying you cannot get across the idea of Mubarak and his security services we’re seeing it happen.

The big question now is whether the armed forces will show loyalty to Mubarak or side with the protesters. Eltahawy said there is reason to believe the protesters have a chance.

All these so-called experts on the Arab world who’ve always told us, Arabs are apathetic and they cannot revolt. Well, we’re seeing them now revolt. We’re seeing this unbelievable uprising. What Tunisia did to the Arab world is it set the imagination on fire. It showed people across the Arab world that you deserve freedom and dignity. We did it, and you can do it.

A caller from Queens has a brother who's a lawyer in Egypt who was arrested a few days ago for supporting arrested protesters.

If the U.S. government stops supporting Mubarak regime, the regime will fall. People there don’t want Mubarak. Simple as that…. It’s time to get rid of the dictatorship in Egypt…. It’s a democratic country, we’ve got to hand it to the youth.

Speaking about the New Year's Eve bomb attack that killed more than twenty people, Eltahawy said it was a turning point for people to realize that the Mubarak regime’s policy of discrimination against Christians was behind much of the sectarianism in Egypt. The revolution, she stresses, is not religiously motivated.

What we’re seeing on the street is Egyptians of every age and religious background, it doesn’t matter if you’re Christian or Muslim, it doesn’t matter if you’re secular or from the Muslim Brotherhood. This revolution in the making is without a leader, and it was called for by young people…This will continue because Egyptians are fed up with the Mubarak regime.

While the Obama administration was initially hesitant to support the protests, in his State of the Union speech, President Obama embraced the revolution, and on Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the United States supports the rights of the Egyptian people and urged the government not to stifle their right to protest. The U.S. has historically treated Egypt as an ally, despite the ongoing political repression, because of its diplomatic value as a stable country in the Middle East. Now, however, the administration will have to choose between supporting democracy versus possibly compromising regional stability.   

What Obama and the U.S. administration as a whole must understand is that this idea of stability has come at a price of the freedom and dignity of the Egyptian people, and President Obama has said again and again, he has warned tyrants around the world that they’re on the wrong side of history. And he promised people around the world fighting those tyrants that the United States would support them. It’s time to show that now.

Either way the U.S. is on shaky ground, as too much support might undermine the protests due to the wide distrust of the U.S. by young Egyptians who understand too well that aid from Americans allowed the Mubarak regime to continue its repression, Eltahawy said.

It is fundamental hypocrisy to tell people you believe in these values and to enjoy these values yourself in your country, while for the sake of stability for your country, other people are paying the price through their own freedom, through torture, through human rights violations. It’s unconscionable.

Yet Eltahawy warned against going to far, and creating another Iraq-style war for democracy. “Radicalism is the result of invasion for the sake of democracy.” Instead she said the U.S. must support of human rights of the people and move away from the idea that the countries will either be ruled by a dictator or under strict religious law. While many countries in the region have seen revolution lead to religious ruling, in Egypt, the call to protest was led by youth activists who have learned from Iran and other countries and from experience under oppressive regimes. “For the sake of the Islamist threat,” warned Eltahawy, “we must not give in to the tyrant’s threat.”


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Comments [32]


Is Europe as concerned with democracy as it is with stability in the authoritarian land to the South? Read more at:

Feb. 01 2011 09:51 AM

I have a terrible feeling that the crowds are being manipulated and what appears to be " a pro-democracy " movement is actually a setup. Egypt was finally poised for true "free-elections and the opposition was in position to win a voice through legitimate voting by the people. Instead we have this "internet inspired revolution " that will 'force " the military (us buddies through and through) to step in and continue the oppressive regime. Names at the top will change, of course, but the power sharing hopes will be squashed and the people will be sold into thinking they made a change.
I am sure it is not by chance that at the same time as the "revolt" started , the chosen futur leaders were getting their instructions in Washington.

Jan. 30 2011 02:45 PM

there's one way to make all those protestors disperse and go home.....without resorting to violent measures.......... spray sewage onto them.......i bet you they'll all rush home to clean themselves up! = )

Jan. 29 2011 10:31 AM
joetote from Las Vegas

While I agree that the turmoil in Arab countries is in fact age old, I wonder about the following.
You know, it just dawned on me! Could all the turmoil we are seeing in Muslim countries be an offshoot of perceived weakness on the part of the United States and her allies! I for one have always felt this President is firmly on the side of the Muslim world as a whole. Certainly he is the most antagonistic President as in his stance on Israel I have ever seen. As we now are at the point in which we have elected officials telling the Muslim world this country is full of racist hate and an administration that in almost every stance is extremely ” Anti-American ideals” why should one surprised that these radical Muslim Fundamentalists are taking their shots now? After all, the administration only yesterday as an example declared the Egyptian government was stable. No surprise from the blind mice running the show in D.C. now is it?

Jan. 28 2011 03:29 PM
Andy from United States

The hard choice for the Obama administration, is where would the collapse of the Mubarak government lead? It is very possible that the current government of Egypt would be replaced with an even more oppressive theocracy.

Jan. 27 2011 08:10 PM
Ed from Larchmont

The book is called 'The coming revolution'.

Jan. 27 2011 01:13 PM

Yo Ahmad!...history tells us one simple thing, whatever the Arab world achieved hundreds of years ago it is sorely lacking today! The reality is and I repeat the entire Arab League today is a disaster, not just in Political freedoms, but in every aspect of socio/economic society ...bottom of the ladder in virtually everything despite its massive petro any standard these are failed societies......suck it up, get off your arse and do something about it!...Good Luck.

Jan. 27 2011 11:33 AM
Nancy Y. from Brooklyn

My parents came from Egypt, though I was born abroad. The country has suffered so immensely from decades of dictatorship--not just economically (there is astonishing corruption and inept policy), but also culturally and intellectually (brain drain, emigration, and a stifled public sphere). In spite of all, there has always been a vitality and joie de vivre there. I'm proud of those protesters, pessimistic after what happened in Iran, but proud of the hope these demonstrations hold for a better future.

Jan. 27 2011 11:29 AM
Martin Chuzzlewit from Manhattan

Please, Ahmad.
We are free to make our statements here.(This isn't a theocracy.) If you don't like them, you call them 'hateful" or whatever. An old ploy.

You know nothing about me and how much I know about Mideast history just because I don't use an Islamic name....stereotyping by you again.

You have a lot to learn, my friend.

Jan. 27 2011 11:13 AM

@bubbareeves, chuzzlewit, jgarbuz.

Gentlemen, you don't seem to have much of a grasp on history, which makes your arguments moot. First, Arab history is long and extraordinary. While Europe was in the Dark Ages the Arab world was in full bloom. There science, mathematics, literature, poetry, etc were flourishing. There is a very distorted knowledge and understanding of the Arab world and of Islam here in the US and to a lesser extent in Europe. The extremism we currently see in the Islamic world is, to a great degree, a result of Europe and the US crushing and manipulating countries in the Middle East to extract oil. It's really pretty simple. For example, Saudi Arabia is a pretty iron fisted Dictatorship, they have a terrible record of human rights, and the wahabism they exported to Afghanistan and Pakistan is a large part of the reason those two countries are in such serious trouble. Yet, you never here anyone in the US calling for democracy there, or even challenging the Saudi regime; the reason of course is because of the oil.

To the above mentioned gentlemen. You can have your misguided and hatred filled views, but perhaps you should study up a little on world history before making xenophobic and incorrect statements.


Jan. 27 2011 11:05 AM
Amy from Manhattan

The demonstrators in Egypt may not want the Muslim Brotherhood to run things if/when Mubarak is ousted, but that doesn't mean it won't happen. To use Mona Eltahawy's own example, the students in Iran protesting against the Shah, many of them Marxists, didn't want a theocratic state, but that's what they ended up with when the ayatollahs took over.

The description of how the US is backing dictators in Arab countries reminds me of its role in Central America in the '70s (remember Jeane Kirkpatrick's supposed distinction btwn. "totalitarian" & "authoritarian" regimes?). If it's 1989 all over again, as Brian said, it's taking place against the same kind of background.

Jan. 27 2011 10:58 AM

Ms Eltahawys drivel is laughable!! Mubarak is a despot! a totalitarian , similar to every single one of his brothers in the Arab League...having said that if a 100% Democratic election were held in Egypt tomorrow the overwhelming victor would be the Moslem Brotherhood..IslamoFascists not too far removed from Al Qaeda or Taliban...This is the reality in the Arab world. her pathetic fantasy of democratic ,idealistic youth replacing Mubarak is exactly that ,Fantasy!!

Jan. 27 2011 10:53 AM
Jos from Brooklyn

Thank you for the program, Brian and Mona. I worked in Cairo last summer and agree with the caller who criticized the way in which millions of dollars of US funding (and not just military funding) has been used in Egypt for years. The US cannot continue to make a show of democracy while funding the repression and brutality that makes democracy and human rights an absolute impossibility.
I see this as a potentially hopeful and exciting time and wish all my Egyptian friends and everyone there well as they continue their bravery. The US has an important lesson to learn from their courage.

Jan. 27 2011 10:48 AM
David from Milllburn

Has American learned something from Iraq War? Stop meddling other countries' internal affairs!!!! We wish to see no one die in the uprising but I pray that American government will not get into the sticky business again!

Jan. 27 2011 10:46 AM
David from Milllburn

Has American learned something from Iraq War? Stop meddling other countries' internal affairs!!!! We wish to see no one die in the uprising but I pray that American government will not get into the sticky business again!

Jan. 27 2011 10:45 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

I see years of chaos ahead for Middle East, and whether secular democracy or Iranian-style Islamist "democracy" ultimately emerges is a tossup.

But Arab society has been tribal and clannish for thousands of years, and the way it worked was the toughest clan in the toughest tribe emerged as the strongman, whose job was to accumulate as much power and patronage for his clan as possible, until another tribe or clan overthrew him. Pretty much like feudalism in the "Dark Ages." But the intrusion of the West, and particularly the rapid spread of communications and education in the last two decades is creating a new phenomenon in the Middle East, and we can only keep our fingers crossed that democracy will take root as it did in Eastern Europe. But I wouldn't hold my breath.

Jan. 27 2011 10:41 AM
bernie from bklyn

now maybe the palestinians in israel will get real support from their egyptian neighbors instead of having to sneak everything through underground tunnels

Jan. 27 2011 10:39 AM
Mike L from NYC

If you haven't heard this, check out this incredible recording, as Guardian correspondent in Cairo, Jack Shenker, reports on his arrest and beating at the hands of Egyptian police.

He's locked in truck with 50+ protesters, who were also allegedly beaten by Egyptian forces, and he delivers a real-time audio report the whole time. Incredible.

Brian: Consider playing clips from this on air?

Jan. 27 2011 10:38 AM
Martin Chuzzlewit from Manhattan

Oh, Brian, Iran isn't a police state?
Taliban Afghanistan wasn't a police state?

Your hackneyed statements about tyrants could be cut and pasted into the NY Times drivel in 1979 about the Shah of Iran.

An old saying in the Mideast...."When there is a fight between tolerant moderates and religious fanatics....always bet on the fanatics."

What is your evidence to the contrary?

Jan. 27 2011 10:38 AM
Marc from nyc

Finally! Someone in the media telling it like it is.

Jan. 27 2011 10:36 AM
Greg from NYC

I hear you Ahmad, but disagree slightly.
I think Obama needs to get out ahead of this by supporting the street while calling for non-violence, government restraint, and free discussion. France's late and earnest support for Ben Ali's repression has been an embarrassment to that government. The US came out looking rather good by comparison. I hope that State draws a lesson from that and supports this movement rhetorically without interfering. Drop Mubarak: _Better late than never._

Jan. 27 2011 10:36 AM
Bob from 10009

US should always support democracy and civil rights. Will the removal of Mubarack make way for the fundamentalist groups to take hold, removing a police state for a religious intolerant state with other civil rights exacerbated?

Jan. 27 2011 10:35 AM

wondering whether George W. Bush is going to get any lasting historical credit for popular uprisings now in the Mid East - eeewww

Jan. 27 2011 10:35 AM


You said it brother: US foreign policy did lead to the attacks of 9/11. Wow, can't believe I heard that on a semi-mainstream news outlet. Good for you!

Jan. 27 2011 10:34 AM
Runar from Long Island City

in light of what's happening in Tunisia, Yemen and Egypt; I wonder if same popular and secular uprising would have happened in Iraq if Bush hadn't taken it on himself to change history? If so, many thousand of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis might still have been alive...

Jan. 27 2011 10:34 AM

@ Chuzzlewit

The US support of the Shah of Iran and his brutal, repressive regime is what caused the extremists to take over. US involvement in other countries always leads to extremist governments.

Best thing for freedom is to get US out of other countries.

Jan. 27 2011 10:33 AM
David Aronowitz from Riverdale

If we look back in history of our failed policies in example - Iran we were blindly supporting Shah - we did not have influence with the Khomeini and his group look what we have now.

It is important we must have some say with the other populist groups rather than siding with the dictators who eventually fall.

Jan. 27 2011 10:33 AM
Ed from Larchmont

Two weeks ago on The World Over with Raymond Arroyo an Arab guest said that in constrast to many young people in the Arab world turning to Al Queda, many are turning to pro-democracy movements, even in Iran. And the questions is whether the U.S. administration will help them.

Jan. 27 2011 10:30 AM
ebun okubanjo

The fallibility of human nature leads idealistic people to fall short of their aspirations- in fact to fall a distance that is directly proportional to the loftiness of those aspirations- Conrad

The question is what happens next? Does the brotherhood take over or do we get people such as Mohamed ElBaradei?

Jan. 27 2011 10:30 AM
Martin Chuzzlewit from Manhattan

Already you are calling this a "democracy revolution".........what nonsense.
Remember the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon? It has morphed into a Hezbollah government.

This is IRAN redux. To paraphrase David Makovsky yesterday...."We read the book in Iran and Lebanon, we don't need to see the movie in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen."

The American and and western Left supports these, naively believing that some of these moderates on your show will actually prevail when the smoke clears. No, it will be the Muslim Brotherhood.

You are all delusional.
Mubarak will look good compared to the next Khomeini-like theocracy.

Jan. 27 2011 10:28 AM
Yasmine from New York City

Egyptian in New York. I am filled with excitement and nervousness for the protesters all over Egypt. I have never known another president or another kind of Egyptian political system. The unknown potential of these demonstrations is both terrifying and exhilarating. I wish I could be involved, I am keen to show my support. It's such an exciting time. Godspeed the brave people of my country!

Jan. 27 2011 10:27 AM

Just goes to show how if you want democracy in the Middle East get US influence out.

Jan. 27 2011 10:25 AM

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