First Wednesday: Cairo and The Middle East protests



By Will Spens

With scores of protesters killed or injured in recent clashes, February’s First Wednesday was a sold out discussion focusing on the current and dynamic wave of popular protest across parts of the Arab world. What was seen in Tunisia two weeks ago has been replicated on the streets of Egypt’s largest cities: angry and frustrated people in their hundreds of thousands demanding an end to dictatorship and for the implementation of fair and accountable democratic government.

Chaired by Paddy O’ Connell, presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Broadcasthing House, the audience and panellists focused primarily on the present and volatile crisis in Egypt, addressing both the causes and implications.

Over a Skype link from Cairo, author Tarek Osman opened up the discussion by recounting the dramatic events he witnessed. Explaining why clashes were seen between rival groups of protesters he said:

Until late last night it was very calm in Tahrir Square. After Mubarak gave his very emotional speech last night, pro Mubarak supporters started to come out onto the street.

Jane Kinninmont, a Middle East specialist at the Economist Intelligence Unit, believed that the recent popular unrest has had far reaching consequences for authoritarian governments, calling the unrest a ‘seismic event for the opposition’ and echoed what is a common feeling among many that ‘the barrier of fear’  had been broken:

Root causes had been building up for years but Tunisia showed people that demonstrations can change things. 

Discussing the role of the army in the Egyptian crisis and apparent neutrality, verging on support, of the protesters, Mohamed Yehia, BBC Arabic Online Editor, said:

The army will remain neutral; there is no tendency to seize power. People look at the army in a very romantic way and there is a long history of antagonism between the army and the police.

Mustafa Abulhimal of the Quilliam Foundation said the influence of Egypt in the Middle East is "obviously quite undeniable," adding that the majority of Egyptians did not support Mubarak or Islamist parties and were "ordinary people" now engaging with politics and taking a nationalistic stand. 

It is down to Egyptian character: What we are seeing now is and a nationalist revival where the old pictures of resistance are seen again – people are calling this resistance to the Egyptian occupation.

Egyptian people were asleep and the Tunisian effect is undeniable but the rhetoric we are seeing from this Facebook generation is incredibly nationalistic. There is a feeling that we have to free our country and the sentimental songs are back again.

The question of the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood was put to Davis Lewin of foreign policy thinktank the Henry Jackson Society:

The Muslim Brotherhood ideology is the road to totalitarianism and a grave danger.

He went on to say that the Iranians believe the Brotherhood would support Iran’s conservative Islamic doctrine and as such this would be a very negative consequence of their gaining power. The chance of this was low however, as all the panellists were adamant that their influence was not as much as some in the Western media would seem to suggest.

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