CAIRO // Alaa el-Aswany, Egypt’s best-selling novelist and one of President Hosni Mubarak’s severest critics, knew something was up when the text messages started rolling in on his mobile phone. Congratulations, they said, President Ben Ali has fled Tunisia.
In households across Egypt, the most populous in the Arab world with some 80 million people, people turned to each other on hearing the news on January 14 and muttered “U’balna ya rabb” (“May God bring us the same good fortune”).
It was a spontaneous outpouring of optimism, envy and admiration that the Egyptian government could neither prevent nor ignore. Leading political figures have devoted considerable energy since Tunisia’s president fled the country trying to explain why Egypt is not Tunisia and why such an event could never happen here.
Still, the echoes are there. “Bread, liberty, dignity” and “We will follow Tunisia” were among the slogans chanted by the thousands of protesters who have thronged the streets of Cairo in the past two days.
“It was very strange because I’m not Tunisian of course,” said Mr Aswany, who stopped writing his weekly political column late last year because someone in authority thought he was cutting too close to the bone. “But the significant thing is that we are almost in the same situation,” he added.
Both local and foreign investors saw the similarities – high youth unemployment, corruption, a paralysed political system led by an aging leader, an abusive and repressive security apparatus skilled in humiliating and intimidating those who challenge its authority.
The Cairo stock market fell almost eight per cent in the week after President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia. The Egyptian pound, highly responsive to perceptions of political risk, is languishing near seven-year lows at more than 5.80 pounds to the dollar. The cost of insuring exposure to Egyptian debt has risen to 18-month highs, Reuters reported.
In one week more than a dozen Egyptians have set fire to themselves in public displays of despair over a variety of grievances. They apparently were inspired by Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian vegetable vendor whose self-immolation on December 17 set in motion a chain of events that has turned the conventional wisdom about the Arab world upside down.
Few people are predicting that similar protests could sweep away Mr Mubarak, 82, who has ruled Egypt for almost 30 years and may stand for another five-year term in this year’s presidential elections.
But the Tunisian uprising does raise the stakes in the conflict between Mr Mubarak’s government and ruling party on one hand and its opponents on the other. “If the Tunisians have done it, Egyptians should get there too,” Mohamed ElBaradei, the former UN nuclear watchdog chief who raised hopes of change when he came back to Egypt early last year, said in an interview with Der Spiegel.
“It is inspiring. There is a new situation in the Arab world after Tunisia. It will embolden the opposition,” said Hassan Nafaa, a political scientist who tried to organise a campaign for democracy on behalf of Mr ElBaradei.
Mr Aswany, a founding member of the Kefaya movement, which has been campaigning against Mr Mubarak and his influential son Gamal on and off since 2005, described Mr Ben Ali’s departure as a “turning point” in the region.
“Now the Arabs can see that dictators are not as strong as they look. The Tunisian dictatorship was tougher than ours, but in the end it fell apart like a piece of cheese,” he said.
Angus Blair, head of research at the Cairo-based investment bank Beltone Financial, said the Tunisian uprising would not inevitably lead to similar changes in other countries. But he added: “People are strongly aware of what happened in Tunisia. The political risk profile of the region has increased … It will likely induce changes, but the shape and form is difficult to predict.”
The government has dismissed all comparisons as fantasies, arguing that it cushions the poor against price rises with subsidies and that the margin provides its citizens with greater freedoms. Some Egyptian newspapers attack the president and his family relentlessly and, unlike in Tunisia, access to the Internet and social networking sites has – until this week – been mostly unrestricted.
“I don’t accept the simplistic view of the domino effect,” said Ali el-Din Hilal, media secretary at the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), which has the same grip on parliament and the same close ties with the state as Ben Ali’s Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD) party had in Tunisia.
“It will have an influence on the mood of the country. It will affect the ideas of some people here and there. But the idea it will be imitated is equally wrong,” he added.
Egyptian foreign minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said suggestions that the Tunisian phenomenon might spread were nonsense.
“We criticise ourselves and say there is failure and there is a lack of opportunities. But there is also success and progress. For example, in Egypt there are 60 million people who use cellphones. I don’t think a society where 60 million out of 80 million use cell phones can be called a failed and incapable society,” Mr Gheit said.