On February 11, 2011, President Mubarak finally resigned, less than twenty-four hours after he refused the protesters’ demand—“Go Mubarak Go!”—that had been echoing across Egypt for the past two weeks. The euphoria that swept the crowd gathered in Tahrir Square cannot be described in words: all those tuned into Al Jazeera (Arabic or English) witnessed one of the most moving events of our lifetime as Egyptian demonstrators roared in victory over what they had achieved. The reverberations of this historic turn of events are being felt all over the region as Algerians and Yemenis take defiantly to the streets. If the Tunisians inspired the Egyptians to rise and scream “Enough!”, then the Egyptians might go down in history for giving a new meaning to Maya Angelou’s prophetic cry:
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I rise….I rise. I rise. I rise.
The questions that continue to occupy many observers of Middle Eastern politics are: How could a people chided for their political apathy achieve such an organized and revolutionary mobilization? How could a country that recently seemed on an escalating path of inter-religious and sectarian strife unite to create one of the most seismic events of our times in the Arab world?
Alexandria, where only a month ago a well-executed car bomb killed twenty-three Christians, has been host to demonstrations in which Copts and Muslims have prayed together. Churches, along with mosques, have served as centers for the congregation of protestors. As millions have poured out on the streets, not one church has been attacked, not one sectarian incident has been reported—all of this despite the fact that the Coptic Pope, Shenouda III, announced his unequivocal support for Mubarak on the first day of protest.
So what are the factors that birthed this historic expression of synergy and resistance? There is no doubt that the Tunisian uprising served as a catalyst, inspiring Egyptians to take to the streets. The Tunisian government, as everyone knew in the Arab world, was more repressive than Egypt’s: if the Tunisians could oust their brutal dictator, why not the Egyptians? Tunisia might have lit the fuse, but there are a number of longer-term critical transformations in Egypt’s social and political landscape that also account for the revolution. In recent years, Egyptians have increasingly had recourse to demonstrations and street politics to voice their demands and shake the cultivated torpor of their rulers. Since 2004, Egypt has witnessed a growing number of strikes and sit-ins staged by health and textile workers, pharmacists, doctors, lawyers, judges, transportation and postal workers and even real estate tax collectors. Their demands? Better wages and working conditions; relief from the grueling poverty that has afflicted most of the population while the rich got conspicuously richer and public institutions that once served ordinary Egyptians fell into disrepair and jobs dwindled.
Despite the escalating strikes over 2009 and 2010, there were few victories: most of them were either ignored by the government or brutally broken and suppressed. The rare and slim victories were largely due to the sheer tenacity of the protesters. They got the government to raise the minimum wage to 400 Egyptian pounds (about $70), nearly four times what it had been but hardly enough to address the rising inflation costs. They also successfully formed two independent trade unions and an independent trade federation, an unprecedented break from the suffocating hold the government has exercised over labor activism since 1957 (see Joel Beinin’s “Egypt at the tipping point?”).