The last several weeks, I've been following events in Tunisia, and now in Egypt especially, alternately cheering and crying. And if you don't know what's going on across the Middle East and North Africa right now, what rock do you live under?
I did a study abroad in 1997 in Israel, Jordan and Egypt. And since then, I've desperately longed to go back. Despite not having learned the language (my semester was only 2 months, if I did the longer semester, we would have been required to take either Arabic or Hebrew), it felt very much like home. I'm sure it helped that I went during a time when it was very stable and peaceful--it was pretty soon after I went that the second Intifada broke out and there was a series of bombings at tourist sites in Egypt.
Anyway, back to current events. For those who don't know what's been happening, here's my very amateur understanding of events. It all started in Tunisia in mid-December. Tunisia is/was ranked one of the most repressive and corrupt nations, ranked something like 141 out of 167 countries, and is also very poor. It's been run by Zine El Abidine Ben Ali since 1987, who's family liked (in addition to the whole repressive and dictatorial rule thing) to buy up villas, private jets, keep pet tigers, etc while the rest of the country barely made ends meet. So in December, an unemployed college graduate was selling fruits and vegetables trying to make money, and was arrested for not having a license to sell in the market. He set himself on fire in protest and later died. That was the catalyst, and it sparked a series of mostly peaceful protests over all of Tunisia for 4 weeks which finally led to Ben Ali fleeing the country. The army has stepped in to command the country with the agreement that elections will be held in 60 days. http://www.al-bab.com/arab/countries/tunisia/tunisia_fall_of_ben_ali.htm has a good series of blog posts detailing events throughout the "Jasmine Revolution."
And from there, it has sent a shock wave throughout the whole area. Oppressed and poverty-stricken people in other countries saying wait, if they were able to rise up and get rid of their bad leaders, maybe we can to. Protests carrying on the Jasmine Revolution, sometimes calling for a "Day of Anger" or "Day or Rage," have going on in Algeria, Yemen, Jordan, but the largest have been in Egypt.
Egypt isn't far ahead of Tunisia on the corruption or repression scale and is poorer than Tunisia is. Hosni Mubarak has been president of Egypt since 1981 and is extremely autocratic and unpopular; but essentially, Egypt has been under martial law since way back to 1967. Tunisia has been cited as the Egyptians' inspiration, as well as the beating of young man to death by the police in June 2010 for refusing to pay them a bribe. http://motherjones.com/mojo/2011/01/whats-happening-egypt-explained is a really good article for current updates to the Egyptian situation all in one place throughout the week-long protests.
The president has tried to quell the protests by shutting down the internet, this also happened in Tunisia. The people have found some way around it and still managed to use Twitter or Facebook or whatever else to organize the protests. One report talked about how they had organized the protesters to come in waves every half hour or so. But what's also troubling in addition to the internet shutdowns, is that there are reports that the Egyptian police are apparently specifically targeting journalists to try to silence them; several BBC journalists and others in the area have reported being beaten and arrested.
And since coverage about women in all of these protests is often non-existent (despite the fact that women were very active in the Tunisian protests and a woman, Tawakul Karman, is one of the main leaders in the Yemen protests http://english.aljazeera.net/news/middleeast/2011/01/2011123103756528513.html), there's a great series of photographs on Egyptian women out there taking part as well: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=268523&id=586357675#!/album.php?fbid=493689677675&id=586357675&aid=268523.
There are rumors that the study abroad group I went with was in Egypt, Luxor specifically (about 450 miles from Cairo) when the protests started, and since flights have been suspended, they haven't been able to get out of the country. Since protests are going on all over Egypt, it isn't necessarily a comforting thing that they aren't in Cairo, although Cairo is certainly the epicenter. Generally, the group would take a flight from Cairo to and from Luxor, and then a flight from Cairo to/from Jerusalem, since the group was headquartered in Jerusalem. Supposedly they are hoping to be able to take a bus from Luxor out of the country someplace. Here's hoping they are successful.
There's a lot of rhetoric against the Muslim Brotherhood, a large political party in Egypt and what might happen if they gain control if Mubarak is forced out. Again, I'm not an expert, but from what I've read, although the Brotherhood has used violence in the past and although they are allies with Hamas, they have moved away from violence in the last few decades. Additionally, the Brotherhood is against al-Qaeda and has been almost since it's (al-Qaeda's) conception. So there's really no chance of the two forming any kind of alliance. But finally, this series of protests is not in any way being affiliated to one party, in fact, it's mostly secular and the Brotherhood hasn't really been involved until after it was on for three or four days, and then only offering tepid support at best. If the Brotherhood were to win control, there is no doubt that relations with Israel would not continue on the same terms, so that is definitely a concern. As I say, the Brotherhood is pro-Hamas and very much for a separate Palestine state, so that would be a big issue between the Egypt and Israel were the Brotherhood to gain control. I know Washington DC feels like a dictator committing human rights violations at home but keeping peace with other countries is better than war. I can't feel like that's the right answer, but I don't really know how we get to the right answer when both choices seem like bad ones. Anyway.
In the end, my hopes and prayers are that all protesting against autocrat and repressive regimes will succeed in forming a government of their own choosing and that this will not turn out to be aborted attempts like Burma 2007 where the government(s) succeeds in cracking down even harder; that there will not be a power vacuum in which one dictator is exchanged for another; and above all that the situation does not disintegrate into war or anarchy.