10 Things You Need to Know About Egypt

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February 3rd, 2011

Many Westerners, if not most of them, greeted the news of the current Egyptian protests with a mixture of sympathy and confusion. Americans always root for foreign citizens to protest against dictators, but the news of the past decade has been preoccupied with Iraq and Afghanistan, leaving many here in the States uncertain about what’s going on in Egypt and why its citizens have taken to public forums during what are being called the Days of Rage. If you’ve found yourself in the dark, don’t worry. Here’s a rundown of what you need to know. (Photo credit: Associated Press.)

  1. Egypt has been under Emergency Law since 1967: Enacted during the Six-Day War, Egypt’s Emergency Law has been in effect almost continuously for more than 40 years. (There was an 18-month respite ending in 1980.) The law grants law enforcement officials extended powers, and it also legalizes censorship and deprives citizens of certain constitutional rights. Basically, any anti-government demonstrations or publications are verboten, a dictum that’s led to the internment of more than 17,000 political prisoners. The law also extends the power of the president, in this case Hosni Mubarak, letting him restrict citizens’ right to assemble and to arrest anyone suspected of "posing a danger." This restrictive set of rules is one of the many things Egyptian citizens are protesting.
  2. The protests were sparked by similar uprisings in Tunisia: In mid-December 2010, Tunisian citizens took to the streets to protest government corruption, poor living conditions, and laws that restricted their freedom of speech. The protests led to the eventual resignation of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in mid-January, who fled to Saudi Arabia, ending his 23-year rule. The Tunisian revolt spurred citizens in many other Arab nations to stand up for personal freedoms, including the people of Egypt.
  3. The Egyptian protests began on a national holiday: The unrest exploded on January 25, dubbed the Day of Anger, but the 25th was already a marked day: it was National Police Day, a federal holiday commemorating the Egyptian police officers killed in 1952 when they refused to hand over their weapons and station to the British Army. The 25th was chosen as the first day of protests specifically because it was already a holiday, meaning people would be more free to participate.
  4. The U.S. and Egypt have a tricky relationship: President Obama’s administration has handled Mubarak’s regime with a blend of private exhortation for change and public non-committal when asked whether the U.S. supports Egypt. It’s a balancing act that mixes diplomacy with global rule, and it’s one that’s gotten tougher since the protests began. Obama publicly spoke of Mubarak’s need to allow his people to participate in reform, but he likely sent much tougher messages via envoys and diplomats. Even in press conferences, Obama used the phrase "the Egyptian government" instead of calling Mubarak by name. The U.S. has worked with Egypt for years and provided financial and military assistance, so it’s not easy for U.S. officials to merely pick a side and stick with it.
  5. China has blocked its citizens from searching for information: Ever wary of outside influences that could lead to civil unrest, China blocked Egypt as a search term on its Twitter-style microblogging platform. Users who search for "Egypt" on the site are met with this: "According to relevant laws, regulations and policies, the search results are not shown." Chinese media have also downplayed the events in local coverage.
  6. Al Jazeera has spearheaded the media coverage: Between constant online streaming and massive chunks of airtime on DirecTV, Al Jazeera has been dominating the coverage of the Egyptian revolt. But Al Jazeera English isn’t available in many parts of the U.S., which has led many commentators to note that a majority of U.S. citizens are deprived of the option of watching the news network that has put American media to shame with its Egypt stories. It’s not that U.S. outlets have presented slanted coverage; it’s that they haven’t covered it, period, or not to the extent of Al Jazeera.
  7. Egypt is too crowded to survive the stresses placed on its people: Egypt has more than 79 million citizens, and most of them live along the banks of the Nile River. Their population has tripled since 1950. Better health care but a lack of education, especially for women, has led to a glut of children and younger people, and the resulting crowds are even more unstable when you factor in the growing unrest from living under a fickle and unfair political regime. In a way, the protests were only a matter of time.
  8. The government attempted to block all Internet and social media: In an attempt to disrupt the protests by making it harder for people to communicate their plans to organize, the government pulled the plug on the Internet and text messaging services. The move wasn’t 100% effective, but it did make it tougher for citizens and journalists to use Facebook, Twitter, and other services.
  9. Most Egyptians are very poor: One of the contributing factors to the growing unrest has been the swelling numbers of Egyptian citizens living in poverty. About 40 percent of the population can be categorized on the continuum from "near poor" to "extreme poor," living on the equivalent of $2 per day. Basically, what an average working on American spends on coffee could power an Egyptian for three days.
  10. President Hosni Mubarak has been in office since 1981: Egypt’s current president has been in office since Ronald Reagan was sworn in, and he’s continued to win elections with more than 85 percent of ballots. Unsurprisingly, there have been many strong claims that Mubarak has tampered with the election outcomes in order to ensure that his administration stays in power. Mubarak has also imprisoned citizens without the benefit of a trial, his administration has faced countless corruption charges in recent years. He is seen by the protestors as the public face of a regime that needs to change or die. On February 1, he announced he wouldn’t seek another term. Omar Suleiman was sworn in as the country’s first vice president in 30 years.

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