Historian provides perspective on recent Middle East uprisings

In the early hours of the Egyptian revolution on Jan. 25, while the streets of Cairo were exploding with demonstrations and riots, Paul Sedra was sitting at his desk, carefully monitoring the events that occurred in Tahrir Square.

In the early hours of the Egyptian revolution on Jan. 25, while the streets of Cairo were exploding with demonstrations and riots, Paul Sedra was sitting at his desk, carefully monitoring the events that occurred in Tahrir Square.

Like many social scientists, Sedra was looking for evidence that would clue him into the intensity of the situation. Upon watching a particular YouTube video, Sedra said he was convinced that the demonstrations that took place in Cairo were the beginning of a historic revolution.

At a Monday night lecture at Portland State, the Middle East historian from Simon Fraser University said that although there had been protests before in Cairo, this particular day took on a different resonance.

In the video, which depicts protestors clashing with police in Tahrir Square, Sedra points out that in the past, Egyptian police would have had no problem shutting down any uprising.

The inability of the Egyptian police to control the crowd that day is a sign that this was no ordinary protest, but the beginning of the end for the repressive Hosni Mubarak regime that held power for 30 years, according to Sedra. 

Sedra’s lecture, titled “Revolution in Egypt: Sights, Sounds, Significance,” was hosted by PSU’s Middle East Studies Center. In his lecture, he framed the Egyptian revolution within the larger context of the uprisings in the Middle East that began with the Tunisian revolution in December 2010.

Sedra’s talk revolved around the three themes: the cause and effects of Middle East revolutions, the underlying structures of political discontents in these countries and observations made from the rioters themselves.

According to Sedra, the main catalyst for the Tunisia uprising was when a food vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire on Dec. 17, 2010,

to protest police corruption. Bouazizi’s discontent came about when his food cart was confiscated because he couldn’t afford the licensing fee, and he was harassed by Tunisian officers.

“Originally [news reports] said that he was slapped in the face by a female officer and this was the motivation behind his action,” Sedra said. “Such a thing had no precedent in this area.”

According to the news report, Bouazizi became a martyr for many frustrated youths in the Middle East who took up his cause and staged protests in the streets of Tunisia. Nearly a month later, on Jan. 14, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali resigned and fled the country.

Initially, Sedra said it was thought that this was a “middle class” revolution particular only to Tunisia. In hindsight, the Sedra said it had a cascading effect on the surrounding region, and spread to Syria, Libya and Egypt.

According to Sedra, the main catalyst for the Egyptian revolution was a YouTube video posted by a 26-year-old woman named Asmaa Mahfouz, who urged viewers to join her in a protest at Tahrir Square on Jan. 25, a date for the Egyptian holiday called Police Day.

Here, Sedra pointed out that although the event in Egypt may seem to have come suddenly out of nowhere, there were already tensions brewing in the country.

First, in June 2010, a 28-year-old man named Khaled Said was attacked and beaten to death by police when he came into possession of incriminating evidence against them. The officers then fabricated a story that Said was a drug user and died of an overdose. However, pictures released from the morgue showed that he was brutally beaten. The images angered the public, according to Sedra.

Second, Sedra said the 1952 revolution seems to have inspired people to take to the street. In that revolution, Egypt’s second president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, promised the country democracy and economic development. Since then, democracy had fallen on the wayside, Sedra said.

“The 1952 revolution was seen as having failed to deliver its promise of democracy,” Sedra said. “The 2011 revolution was seen as providing hope to the people.”

According to Sedra, there were already “cracks” in Mubarak’s regime, a stark contrast to his early popularity as a war hero after the 1973 war. Since 1981, the regime was able to keep order in the country with the use of emergency law, a set of powers that are reserved for police where constitutional rights are suspended and censorship is allowed.

“This emergency law was kept in place to clamp down all possible protest,” Sedra said. “We also have the governing national democratic party, which frequently use electoral fraud against the other party.”

Like in the Tunisian example, the Egyptian revolution is characterized by the power of the people to retain control of their own environment. Sedra said that during the crisis in Egypt, when the government sent out “thugs” to Tahrir Square to enforce loyalty to the regime, the people responded by setting up their own neighborhood protection unit.

Sedra concluded his lecture by discussing the many challenges Egypt faces in the future. One of the challenges, he said, will be amending the constitution to make way for a civilian-led democracy.

In addition, Sedra said the country must establish a new socioeconomic order that will satisfy the demands of the people. ?