What the Protesters Want in Egypt

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

Just one week ago, the Egyptian regime’s fall seemed implausible. With this week’s protests — the largest pro-democracy mobilization in Egypt’s history — that now seems in the realm of possibility.

This will be a long, pitched battle. The Egyptian regime has grown increasingly repressive in recent years, culminating in November’s elections, which returned 209 out of 211 seats to the ruling party in the first round. Egypt’s leaders can rely on the support of a strong, powerful minority in the business community and secular intelligentsia. And, in the past, the military — funded and equipped by the United States — has come to the defense of the president.

After the Tunisian uprising, the Muslim Brotherhood, a notoriously slow and cautious organization, adopted a low profile. However, after the success of the protests on Tuesday, the Brotherhood announced it would join future efforts. What happens when the group — the country’s largest opposition force — decides to fully assert its considerable strength?

In the absence of powerful opposition groups, Tunisia’s leaderless movement proved effective. But what worked for Tunisia may not work for Egyptian protesters, whose challenges are considerably greater. They are, as they see it, fighting both the Mubarak regime and the Western powers that back it. It is one thing to start a protest movement, another thing to sustain it over not weeks, but months.

Tunisia may have given activists elsewhere the impression that all it takes is numbers, courage and determination. Sometimes, however, you need a more organized opposition that can provide a clear vision and strategic direction as well as channel the energy of protesters toward tangible outcomes.

Which leads to a critical question: what is it exactly that the protesters want? Is the January 25 movement about toppling the regime, like in Tunisia, or extracting concessions and pressuring the regime to initiate a democratic transition?

So far, the protesters want the former — a decisive break with the past. On Jan. 25, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton claimed that the Egyptian regime was “stable.” She seems to have tempted fate.