Violent protests have rocked Egypt this week, with demonstrators demanding the ouster of the country’s longtime autocratic president, Hosni Mubarak. The tension increased today when Mohammed ElBaradei, a former top official at the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog agency and a high-profile Mubarak opponent, who had returned to Cairo in a bid to provide a leader for the mass movement, was placed under house arrest.
The unrest in the Arab world’s most populous country — a longtime U.S. ally — comes on the heels of similar protests earlier this month in Tunisia, which forced that country’s president to flee into exile. Today marks a pivotal moment in the anti-Mubarak demonstrations, with the government shutting down Internet access in the country and cracking down on social-media access among demonstrators communicating with the outside world. Mubarak has also imposed a curfew from 6 PM until 7 AM in Cairo in two other cities, which an AP report calls “the most dramatic measure so far to quell riots and protests.” You can watch al-Jazeera’s live feed on the protests here.
Michele Dunne is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace. She has served as a specialist on Middle East affairs with the White House and the State Department, and has written widely on Arab politics, and political and economic reform. We asked her to explain what’s going on in Egypt, and what it means for America.
What are the protesters angry about, and what do they want done?
M.D.: Protesters have a large number of economic, political, and human-rights grievances. Widespread youth unemployment, rigged parliamentary elections in November 2010, and the prospect of President Mubarak (in power since 1981) beginning another term–or being replaced by his son–are the sparks that set these demonstrations off. The demonstrators are asking for Mubarak to step down and make way for an interim government to prepare for free elections.
Is there a real chance that Mubarak’s government might fall?
M.D.: Yes, there is a real possibility, but that does not seem to be imminent yet. As in Tunisia, the regime would begin to be uncertain if internal security services could not handle demonstrations and the army were called in. Armies generally don’t like firing on their own civilians and sometimes will choose keeping the loyalty of the population over defending an unpopular ruler.
If so, what might replace Mubarak’s regime? What role might ElBaradei play?
M.D.: There is a shadow government and parliament, formed in December, that has positioned itself as the opposition party with which the government can negotiate if things reach that point. But things are very fluid right now. ElBaradei could possibly play a leadership role within the opposition, although up until now he has been more effective at articulating popular grievances than at organizing or leading opposition groups.
How might a shift in power affect U.S. interests?
M.D.: U.S. interests are being challenged here.Â The United States has been tepid in supporting human rights and democracy in Egypt for years and has to deal with the resentment among Egyptians because of that.Â Partly for that reason, and partly because of the close association of the United States with Israel, any alternate group that comes to power might distance itselfÂ from the United States to some extent.
What role, if any, is the Muslim Brotherhood or other Islamic groups playing?
M.D.: The Muslim Brotherhood, while still the single largest opposition group in Egypt, is not at the forefront of these protests. Rather, they are trying to get on the bandwagon at thisÂ point.
What are the similarities and differences between the situations in Egypt and Tunisia?
M.D.: Similarities include the fact that young people are leading the protests and that many of the grievances are common between the two countries: youth unemployment, corrupt government, human-rights abuses, and a leader in power for an entire generation who showed no sign of being ready to leave.
Differences include the fact that the Egyptian government has had far more experience with handling demonstrations; the Tunisian government seemed surprised and folded pretty quickly.