Stephen Reader covers politics for It's a Free Country, WNYC's interactive politics site. He joined the station in 2010 and has also worked for Studio 360, WNYC's Peabody Award-winning show about art, culture, and creativity.
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 Show,Mona Eltahawy, columnist and public speaker on Arab and Muslim issues, talked about the protests in Egypt and the government's response. Then, Amira Al Hussaini, Global Voices Online regional editor for the Middle East and North Africa, discussed how the online community is driving the on-the-street action.
Since the Egyptian revolution began on January 25th, President Hosni Mubarak's regime has tried a number of measures to quell dissent, sending armored police to confront protesters, calling out the army, and even shutting down the internet.
Mona Eltahawy says that Mubarak's government is grasping at straws; these extreme responses are the death rattle of a dictatorship. With public opinion so staunchly against the president, his only hope is to undermine the confidence of demonstrators.
They shut down the entire internet as part of this psychological warfare against the Egyptian uprising. What happened with the police force is, for the first four days of this uprising his security forces, which are known for their brutality, unleashed this force against the protesters: rubber bullets, water cannons, tear gas, horrendous amounts of tear gas. And when that did not stem the tide, the police very mysteriously just disappeared and armed forces were called onto the streets...This is a deliberate attempt at scaring people into falling back into line and wanting the Mubarak regime, and it's failing.
If the Mubarak regime collapses, it will only be the beginning of a long transformational process in the country. Eltahawy called the Egyptian revolution a "grassroots uprising," one that lumped together a wide distribution of citizens and ideologies. Eventually, a politically-diverse crowd of protesters will have to decide who should lead. Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel laureate and long-time critic of Mubarak's government, has emerged as a consensus figure for the Egyptian opposition, but Eltahawy says he may not have enough public support to take the reins.
What I've heard is that he has some following from people out there in the protest, but he by no means began this protest and he's not a leader of this protest, so those who don't follow him want him to remember that. To his credit, he never said, "I am the reason this happened," or, "I am the leader." But what I'm hearing is that because no one wants Egypt to fall into chaos and we know many people are capable of leading, some people are talking about a coalition to bring many people together.
Among the few certainties of this revolution, according to Eltahawy, is its focus. Some demonstrators—both in Egypt and the United States—have gotten attention for signage and social media activity denouncing the US. These activists decry the United States government for propping up Hosni Mubarak, which they allege was done in the name of American interests in the Middle East, such as preserving peace with Israel. Eltahawy says that despite what some Egyptians say about the United States' responsibility, make no mistake: their revolution is all about Egypt.
I would also demolish this idea that this uprising in Egypt has anything to do with the US or Israel. This is Egypt focusing on Egypt. Yes, Mubarak has been one of the major allies of US administrations for decades now, and they knew very well that he was a dictator and ran a police state, but this revolution is about getting rid of his tyranny and his dictatorship of 30 years. It has nothing to do with the US and Israel. It has everything to do with Egypt saying this it the time for our freedom and dignity.
Amira Al Hussaini has been monitoring the social media discussion in and about the Middle East over the past few weeks. Though it's up for debate how large a role websites like Twitter and Facebook played in organizing Egyptian protests, she says she's already seeing Arabs in other countries using these tools to plan demonstrations in other countries.
It's like we have a calendar of events across the region over the next few weeks. We have Syria penciled in for February 5th, Bahrain for February 14th, so that's two in a row, and then we have events scheduled in places like Morocco and Algeria.
Social media certainly played some part in Egypt's revolt, and may be helpful in other countries. But Al Hussaini said that the real lesson for the rest of the Middle East will be that true courage is shown on the streets, not just the internet.
It did start on Facebook, but we cannot attribute what's happening in Egypt today just to social media. There are pent-up regions and emotions and anger, and other economic factors that make people reach the boiling point we see today. I've been to Egypt and I know Egypt; I've never seen this anger in my life before. People are not afraid. In this part of the world, people live in police states, so you're afraid of criticizing the government, of sitting next to army personnel...you live in fear. But the courage of Egyptians, which we've been seeing over the last few days, has been amazing. And the solidarity from people across the region—everyone is cheering for Egypt.