Egypt's Police Day marks the moment in 1952 when Egyptian police first led the country's resistance to British occupation. Under Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the Jan. 25 anniversary has become a national holiday. Today Mubarak is facing resistance to his own government in what could be the first test of whether the street-level discontent that led to the ouster of a longstanding ruler in Tunisia will spread across North Africa and the Arab world.
Nearly 86,000 people, according to the Facebook group Revolution Day, have signed on to support street protests in Cairo and throughout the country Tuesday. Like Tunisians, they said they would demonstrate against repressive laws, corruption, and unemployment.
"We are not less than Tunisia," said the organizers in an Arabic statement posted on the Facebook page. "Tens of thousands went out on the streets demanding their rights until the removal of the president and his escape from the country. We want our rights."
Protest participants were expected to range from Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency who has become an opposition figure in Egypt, to members of the outlawed, terror-sponsoring Muslim Brotherhood. ElBaradei wrote on Twitter that he supports peaceful demonstrations on Police Day, but he also warned of a "Tunisia-style explosion" as organizers began calling it a "day of anger."
Already Cairo has seen a wave of self-immolations-at least six, including three last Friday alone-as young men have sought to burn themselves to death in graphic displays of public outrage. A 25-year-old from Alexandria died in a hospital last week after setting himself on fire from the rooftop of his home.
In Tunisia the December self-immolation of vegetable trader Muhammad Bouazizi, a college graduate reduced to earning pennies a day, was the catalyst for widespread demonstrations that led its president of 23 years, Zine El Abidin Ben Ali, to flee the country Jan. 14.
After Ben Ali's ouster, an interim government led by his own party has taken control in Tunisia, saying it will hold elections in six months. "Now is the real hard part," Council on Foreign Relations analyst Steven Cook told journalists in a conference call last week. "How the military deals with the interim period will be crucial. And the opposition is not satisfied by the interim period."
Cook said the holdouts are mostly trade unionists and Islamists, and acknowledged that many want to know what role radical Islamic groups might play in Tunisia's transition.
"This uprising is broad-based," he said, but "it's certainly an opportunity for them. . . . We are at the very beginning of this. And if the situation lingers and the interim civilian government can't get it together, then the leadership from Islamists could be attractive."
That poses a threat to Christian minorities, already under siege, who could do better under more democratic governments but will likely suffer more if those governments embrace Sharia, or Islamic, law.
For now, Middle East discontent is widespread enough that it can't be dismissed as a Western plot, rising as it does against longstanding allies of the United States. That poses both a challenge and an opportunity for the Obama administration: How to support those yearning to be free at the possible expense of durable, if authoritarian, allies? Cook believes that President Obama must follow protest movements with "strong statements to the region's leaders to get ahead of massive discontent in the region." Today's events in Cairo-along with unrest unfolding in Lebanon, Algeria, Jordan, and Palestinian areas-could set the stage for Obama to address instability in the region in Tuesday's State of the Union address.
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