The Middle East is walking into an anxious week after a busy weekend, one that saw authoritarian regimes from Algeria to Yemen experience the ripple effect of the fall of Tunisia's President, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali.
Large antigovernment demonstrations broke out in Jordan, Yemen and Algeria, while more men particularly in Egypt and Algeria have joined the ranks of self-immolators inspired by Mohammed Bouazizi, the Tunisian whose suicide sparked that country's revolution. "What is very important about what happened in Tunisia, regardless of whether it spreads, is that it certainly raised a lot of hope among Egyptians and among other Arab people in different countries," explains Hassan Nafaa, a political-science professor at Cairo University and a vocal critic of the regime of President Hosni Mubarak.
Beyond the wave of protests, that hope has found a voice in independent newspapers across the region and in new, audacious political demands made by opposition groups. In Jordan and Yemen, analysts say, verbal attacks by opposition groups show an unprecedented confidence and ferocity, including calls by Jordanian opposition members to have an elected Prime Minister and turn King Abdullah of Jordan's nominally constitutional monarchy into a real one.
On Facebook, more than 85,000 people have pledged to attend a nationwide antigovernment protest planned for Tuesday, Jan. 25, in Egypt. It's an effort that has so far been facilitated almost entirely online, and if even half that many people show up, it will be a historic day for Egyptian political activism under the Mubarak regime. The "Revolution Day" Facebook page presents a list of demands for Mubarak's nearly 30-year-old administration, ranging from raising the minimum wage to limiting presidential terms. "There are definitely interesting things that are happening. [Tunisia] has injected new energy in terms of the demands being articulated by opposition movements in the Middle East," says Kent State political scientist Joshua Stacher. But, Stacher clarifies, voicing a demand is different from seeing that demand realized.
The Egyptian regime, to its credit, seems to be aware of that distinction or at least the necessity of maintaining the status quo while allowing for a bit of steam to be blown off. Local media reported over the weekend that business owners had been told to keep their doors shut on Tuesday, and some members of the opposition Muslim Brotherhood say they received warnings from state security against participating in the protests. Meanwhile, some of the organizing activists worry that their technique has been flawed from the start. "The first thing was fixing the dates and places," says 20-year-old activist Khaled Kamel of the main Facebook site, which lists four specific Cairo locations for the protest. "Because of that, security is going to be prepared."
As for social-network mobilization, observers say that Facebook is easier than word of mouth or cell-phone use for the government to monitor. Some say the strategy also makes events actually more of a free-for-all and less tactical as an instrument of dissent. "What we've seen time and time again is that this organizing on the Internet actually leads to more fragmentation," says Stacher. The government "will mobilize a great number of security forces," predicts Nafaa. "Security forces are very concentrated in a city like Cairo. It's easy for them to intercept the demonstrators."
Other analysts say that at least the region's governments seem worried and that's a start. "The authorities were scared," says Nafaa; he adds that this has been reflected in the press and will be reflected in the streets tomorrow: "Not only did the official media emphasize [the bad side of] what's going on in Tunisia, but the government also tried to prevent any writing about similarities between the Tunisians and the Egyptian regime."
Egypt isn't the only regime that has sought to publicly distance its predicament from that of ill-fated President Ben Ali. "Yemen is not Tunisia," Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh said at an annual military-security conference, according to the Yemen Observer, after a weekend that saw sometimes violent protests. He added, "I would ask for pardon from the people if I made mistakes or I fell short of my duties. Only God is perfect."
For Egypt, so far, the impact of Tunisia has been less tangible but still troubling to officials. The Egyptian stock market fell 8% last week, owing to investor fears of instability, the Minister of Trade and Commerce said Sunday. And local independent media reported that a government-backed group had started printing pro-Mubarak posters and T-shirts to counter Tuesday's protest.
The state news wire said over the weekend that the recent spate of suicides many by self-immolation like Tunisia's Bouazizi were due to personal problems, not the perpetrators' unemployment woes. And state newspapers were flooded with stories about the upcoming celebration of Egypt's police forces, a holiday that the Tuesday protest coincides with.
In a Sunday op-ed in Al-Ahram Weekly, Abdel Moneim Said, the state-appointed president of the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, attributed the regional fallout from Tunisia to little more than "media sensationalism" and "groupthink" by Western think tanks obsessing over the "impending eruption of suppressed popular fury." But if all 85,000 Facebook attendees of tomorrow's "Revolution Day" actually show up, Said might have his theory put to the test.