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African Youth in Revolt: The Crises in Tunisia and Egypt

Updated on February 21, 2011

Though powerful and unmistakable, the images seem a bit out of place: riot police clashing with defenseless protesters in bustling metropolises in Africa demanding an end to corrupt, inept authoritarian regimes that once reigned supreme all across the African political landscape, from Cairo to Cape Town.

First, Tunisia, now Egypt. Next stop, Yemen. And the beauty of it is that it is all homegrown and quite different from the familiar; that is, to the degree that it is secular and stunningly independent of established or known opposition movements.

In the case of Tunisia, as remarkably known now, weeks of unrelenting protests by throngs of young people amidst heavy-handed resistance by the country’s security forces culminated in the spectacular deposition of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali; bringing an ignoble end to more than 23 years of his regime's repressive rule.

In Cairo, the authorities seemed mystified, even stymied, by the fact that traditional opposition authorities, the small powerless band of intellectuals and the proscribed Muslim Brotherhood, were not only side-lined but just as staggered by the events.

The authorities appear overwhelmed by both the size of the protests, fervor of the activists and the veracity of their grievances. It’s unlike anything they have dealt with before; conventional containment methods have been largely ineffectual.

The revolt this time is clearly fueled by the youth who tired of seemingly unending relegation to the margins of their country’s political process are demanding change in the most fundamental of ways.

Not the least bewildered by the protests are the authorities in Washington who for decades, relied on the bankrupt and indefensible belief in the sanctity of authoritarian regimes as a necessary bulwark either against communism or for peace around the world.

In fact, the foregoing thinking was, and regrettably still remains, the centerpiece of US foreign policy toward Third World countries.

Lest we forget, the logic was most improbably applied in defense of the United States’ long-standing practice of openly wooing, cavorting with and defending known Third World despots: from Sadam Hussein, Ferdinand Marcos, the apartheid authorities in South Africa to in the case of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak.

In a desperate effort to jump in front of the crisis, Washington is calling for calm and quietly pressuring 82-year-old Mubarak who’s been serving as president now for well over 30 years to implement a battery of reforms to quiet down the uprising.

The US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton was quoted this week as saying "We believe strongly that the Egyptian government has an important opportunity at this moment in time to implement political, economic and social reforms to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people."

What is clearly different this time, though, is that the rudderless tens of thousands of young Egyptians at the forefront of the revolt seem impatient and impervious to the Egyptian security officials panoply of tear gas, rubber bullets and torture tactics. Assuaging their feelings of nascent opposition poses an insurmountable challenge to the enervated regime.

The obtainable demographics in Egypt, which seem largely applicable to other countries in the region, are overbearingly in favor of the opposition. Two-thirds of Egypt’s 80 million plus population are under 30, a third are illiterate, and 40% live on less than $2 a day!

The renowned Egyptian Nobel Peace Prize winner, Mohamed El-Baradei, has not only reportedly declared support for the uprising by calling on Mubarak to retire but announced that he would actually participate in a major demonstration planned for this Friday.

With a presidential election looming in September, the choices for Mubarak seem rather lugubrious but obvious: either he attempts to perpetuate his regime by hanging on to power, allows his 47-year-old son, Gamal, to ascend “the throne” or opens up the electoral process to infuse new leadership and usher a new era of openness and democratization.

It is my fervent hope that Mubarak would opt for the only choice that best serves the interest of all Egyptians: the latter.

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