Egyptian protests show no sign of abating

The overthrow of President Ben Ali in Tunisia has started an unprecedented chain reaction in the Middle East and North Africa, writes ippr's Alex Glennie.

Alex Glennie is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research (ippr)

The overthrow of President Ben Ali in Tunisia has started an unprecedented chain reaction in the Middle East and North Africa. Taking heart from the swift collapse of an autocratic ruler long thought of as being particularly well-entrenched, protesters in Egypt, Yemen, Jordan, Algeria and elsewhere have issued similar demands for changes in their own countries and an end to corrupt and unrepresentative government.

Today all eyes are on Egypt, where a fourth day of demonstrations has seen tens of thousands of citizens confronting police and security services on the streets of Cairo and other major cities. Undeterred by the total media blackout imposed by the Egyptian regime in an effort to prevent the coordination of protests through phones and social networking websites, these demonstrators have braved attacks with tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets to make their voices heard.

It remains to be seen whether their actions will force an immediate change in the way Egypt is run. Despite persistent calls for President Mubarak to step down and develop a clear succession plan that would involve free and fair elections rather than simply allowing his son Gamal to assume power, the ageing autocrat still commands the support of a vast state security apparatus which will not be easily dismantled.

But anger about Egypt’s lack of political freedoms, endemic corruption and high levels of unemployment is widespread and shows no signs of abating. If nothing else, these demonstrations have revealed just how much these unpopular regimes will need to do for their people if they are to maintain any kind of control.

This is a prime concern for UK and other western leaders, who are scrambling to keep up with the startling developments in Egypt, one of their key regional allies. Official responses so far have been cautious.

President Obama has tried to avoid giving the impression that he is making a choice between the government and people of Egypt, although he has called on Mubarak to make “absolutely critical” political reforms. Similarly, British foreign secretary William Hague urged the Egyptian government to:

“…listen to the concerns of those demonstrating and respect rights of assembly and expression.”

Meanwhile, Tony Blair weighed in on this issue on the Today programme this morning, stating that although modernisation in Egypt is necessary, this needs to happen in an “ordered and stable” way to prevent the emergence of a political vacuum that could be exploited by those seeking to foment extremism and take reform in the wrong direction. He was presumably referring to the banned Muslim Brotherhood, which remains Egypt’s most organised opposition movement despite its inability to compete fairly in parliamentary elections.

Yet the Brotherhood has not been the driving force behind the most recent wave of protests, which are remarkable for the broad cross-section of previously apolitical Egyptians they have swept up, including large numbers of young people. If the UK and other western governments genuinely want to see political, economic and social reform in a region long held back by authoritarianism and corruption, they would do better to take a stronger stance supporting all those who seek to bring about a more progressive and pluralistic politics.

This would involve putting visible pressure on Mubarak and other authoritarian governments to respond to the demands of their people, and offer practical assistance to whatever political configurations might emerge if they lose their grip on power. In the short term, this may lead to regional disorder and instability.

But the long term payoff would be well worth the risks.

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