There is a scene in the brilliant Egyptian comedy film Irhab wal Kabab (Terrorism and Barbecue) where an old man on a crowded Cairo bus, who has been griping about all the unfair frustrations Egyptians must put up with, is told by a young man that he sounds like the fizzing of a Coke bottle. The man retorts that even Coke bottles explode once in awhile. That’s what the Egyptian Revolution, of which he was apart, was all about. So what, he asks the younger generation, is their excuse? When will they explode?
Egypt has engaged in a number of strikes, riots and protests, from the Bread Riots of 1981 to the pro-Democracy marches of 2005. Why did the protests of Jan. 25, 2011 succeed where so many others have failed? What made the Coke bottle, so often shaken only to fizzle out, finally explode?
2010 was a year of rising rage against the government. I would like to suggest five reasons why this protest exploded.
1. Enforcement of the Gaza Border
On Jan. 6, 2010 Egyptian security forces engaged in clashes with Palestinians at the Gaza border, The Palestinians were demonstrating against Egypt’s enforcement of the Israeli blockade against the region. Because of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, many Egyptians have called on their government to open its one border with Gaza, at Rafah. The government has refused, except to let some medical supplies pass through. To see Egyptian security forces using violence against other Arabs led to rising criticism of Mubarak as a U.S. and Israeli puppet.
2. The Murder of Khaled Said
On June 6, 2010 businessman and blogger Khaled Said was dragged from a cybercafe, beaten, and thrown into the back of a police car. A few days later his broken body was released to his parents. Khaled Said’s murder became a symbol to many Egyptians of the power of the police to brutalize citizens with impunity.
3. The Elections of 2010
The elections of 2005, although riddled with accusations of government interference and the closure of voting stations in some governorates, were the closest thing to free and fair elections Egyptians had yet experienced. In 2010 by contrast, the government rejected all monitoring, engaged in blatant ballot stuffing, running an election widely agreed to be a complete sham.
4. The Tunisian Model
Egyptian apathy has been a byword in the Middle East. As calls went out by Twitter, text message, Facebook and grapevine for a protest on Jan. 25, the response was beyond anything anyone could have expected. But Tunisia’s success in ousting its U.S.-backed strongman made it suddenly seem plausible that Egyptians could do the same.
5. Police Day
January 25th was a national holiday celebrating the martyrdom of police officers by British colonial troops. Protesters appropriated and inverted its symbolism, and took advantage of the fact that people had the day off.