08 February 2011

Egypt and Tunisia: Being caught unaware

The most startling revelation about the unrest in Egypt and the Tunisian revolution were the admissions by the governments of the United States and France that they were caught unaware. Understandably, resources tend to be prioritised based on strategic importance. A country like Tunisia, comprising a comparatively small population of 10.5 million, with a stable though dictatorial government and secular society with a proven record of controlling what it considered an Islamist threat would appear to be of lower importance.

The US State Department were certainly aware of the events unfolding in Tunisia, but may have underestimated how it would turn out, such as President Ben Ali's sudden and unexpected flee out of the country. Perhaps embassy staff, whose main interlocutors tend to be host government officials, were too comfortable with a long-term understanding of the intentions of the Ben Ali government, instead of listening to public mood. They would have found the blog by The Guardian's Brian Whittaker interesting reading. His columns in The Guardian are also worth a read.

More surprising is France's admission, given there was so much reporting and analysis by the French media including access to much content on Twitter by participants (labelled with hashtag #sidibouzid) written in French. Literacy levels are high in Tunisia and many speak French in addition to, and often in preference, to Arabic.

Even during the events of Tunisia, there were already low-scale levels of unrest in a number of countries in north Africa (Maghreb) and the Middle East over similar concerns. It should not have been a surprise that Egypt would be next in terms of the scale of protest activity. Egypt already had a 'martyr' to the cause since 13 June 2010, which has provided a focus for mobilisation, particularly through the internet. The protest planned for 25 January 2011 was known in advance but it was the strength of the larger protest on Friday a few days later that seemed to take many by surprise.

Analysis by some tried to compare Egypt with Tunisia. The BBC even went so far as deeming the "contagion spreading to Egypt" unlikely due to lower literacy and lower internet penetration. Of course, early analysis of what took place in Tunisia over-emphasised the role of the internet and social media, in particular Twitter and facebook. Out of a total population of about 80 million, 17 million internet users might be be considered low penetration. However, this analysis did not consider the possibility that many of the internet users themselves may reside in greater Cairo with an estimated population of nearly 10 million people. It only takes a few million well connected people, along with word of mouth to mobilise.

Amidst skepticism and misreading of the situation, Professor Amin Saikal, Director of the Centre for Arab and Islamic studies at the Australian National University, had suggested Egypt as being the next most vulnerable following Tunisia as early as 17 January 2011 while I had picked it a day earlier.

Lastly, public mood was largely misread. Egyptians, like others around the world except those in China and other countries practicing censorship, had also witnessed what happened in Tunisia. It became a driving force for political action.

This post was also published in Crikey on 7 February 2011.

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