Considering the events that have developed in Tunisia, it is remarkable that traditional powers were unable to claim leadership of the street in demanding change. In the streets of Tunisian and Egyptian cities, the conventional power was unable to steer the wave of social momentum and lead the protestors. Therefore, the street alone has demanded change, compelled by clear frustration with the decades-old status quo.
To a certain extent, this scene resembles what occurred in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s with the overthrow of the communist regimes. The absence of organized resistance there was due to the lack of a precedent for such resistance. This condition is relived today in terms of what is happening in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, since the governing regimes in these countries leave no space for meaningful resistance. Now the opposition is demanding that these regimes be abolished for their cruelty. In the 2010 Parliamentary elections, the Egyptian regime did not leave any room for (loyalist) opponents to enter the People’s Assembly or even run as candidates for office, and so the governing National Party went into the elections at odds internally. Also, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak left no room for considering the nomination of any figure for the presidential elections this year besides himself and his son, Gamal.
The monolithic constructs of the Egyptian, Yemeni and Tunisian systems rested on one basic pillar in confronting the United States’ meek demand to introduce some of the reforms. That pillar is the guarantee of stability in these countries and the reassurance of American interests; both of these guarantees are driven by the idea that enacting any political reforms would provide an opportunity for Islamists to come to power or — in a best case scenario — for a repetition of Algeria’s ordeal in the early 1990s.
In this way the Arab regimes shut out any reforms, however limited, that were in any way opposed to their rule. This helped them to remain in power. And this lock out against reform — with dependence on American support — allowed for the suppression of the people’s right to enact change. But when economic constraints were added to the amalgam of concerns weighing the people down, the streets — after perceiving a shocking vacuum in serious political opposition — moved alone without the presence of leaders at the forefront.
The United States is greatly embarrassed today, not to mention Europe — especially France — which advised Tunisian President Zein al Abideen bin Ali, hours before his fall, to bring French trainers to prepare his police force for repressing the protestors without seriously injuring them. It is the American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who seems surprised by the fall of the Tunisian government, as evidenced by her attempts to choose her words carefully while commenting on the events unfolding in Egypt. Indeed, she is incapable of speaking sharply against the regime and simultaneously incapable of implementing the use of repression to confront the streets, which protest peacefully.
Moreover, when Egypt is concerned, the American narrative differs. In the case of Tunisia, Washington is able to persevere serenely. Yet in Egypt things are different, since the Egyptian regime is tied to the peace treaty with Israel, and any change occurring in this government will inevitably worry America over Egypt’s future relationship with the Jewish state. Therefore, American enthusiasm for change in Egypt is demarcated, from beginning to end, by the impact this change will have on Israel.
And so Washington fears this subject, for it has tried to push the Egyptian regime toward reform with the purpose of bringing about the pacification of the anger on the street without simultaneously exposing the regime to the possibility of collapse, therefore hoping to ensure that the regime continues to remain vigilant in guarding the peace agreement. But Mubarak, who has reigned happily for 30 years, remains indefinitely negligent toward the Egyptian street, even as he tries to regain its support.