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A region in upheaval

First Tunisia. Now Bahrain? As unrest spreads, here's what you need to know.



Egyptian demonstrators protest near Egyptian police to demand the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak on Jan. 25, 2011.
(Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images)

The Leader:

Egypt's now former president, Hosni Mubarak, took office in 1981, the same year Ronald Reagan assumed the presidency in the United States. Mubarak served first as an Air Force pilot and later as vice president under Anwar Sadat. His rise to power, however, was somewhat unexpected — Mubarak assumed the post when Islamic fundamentalists assassinated Sadat.

In his three decades of rule, Mubarak is credited for leading Egypt through a period of relative peace and stability following four wars with Israel. Mubarak’s police forces crushed an Islamic insurgency in the 1990s, ending most threats to the country’s vital tourism sector. He also honored his predecessor’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel, earning the favor of successive American administrations, and the billions of dollars in U.S. economic and military aid that comes with it.

The Gripe:

In Cairo, the super wealthy live side-by-side with the desperately poor. Imported European sports cars vie for space alongside 40-year-old taxis and donkey carts. Critics argue that Mubarak’s reforms have served the rich well, while Egypt's poor get even poorer. About 20 percent of Egypt’s population still lives close to the poverty line, on $2 per day.

And for the opposition, change never came easy. Political competition in Egypt was virtually non-existent. Mubarak’s National Democratic Party had won landslide victories in every election since their inception in 1976, often amid allegations of vote-rigging and official intimidation by riot police and plainclothes security forces.

The Timing:

To say that Egyptians have been inspired by recent events in Tunisia would be an understatement. Many activists in Egypt are hoping to duplicate the Tunisia scenario that saw President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali flee his 23-year-old seat of power after weeks of popular anger and protests.

The first round of protests in Egypt were planned to coincide with Police Day, a national holiday celebrating the country’s security forces. It’s somewhat of an ironic tradition, critics say, for a country rife with human rights abuses directed at minorities, refugees and political opposition.

Also, a focal point of the Jan. 25 protests, which sparked the week-long uprising that culminated Tuesday with hundreds of thousands flooding Cairo's Tahrir Square, was Khaled Said, a young man allegedly tortured and killed last year by police in Alexandria, Egypt’s second largest city. A group on the social networking site Facebook titled “We are all Khaled Said” has attracted hundreds of thousands of followers.

The unrest that has engulfed Cairo since has been larger than the country has seen in decades. Tens of thousands have overwhelmed the country's security forces, which have now largely withdrawn. The country's military announced Monday it would not fire on protesters, dealing a perhaps fatal blow to Mubarak. But in a speech Mubarak tried to meet protester demands by announcing he would not run September's elections. Demonstrators, however, said the concession wasn't enough — they want Mubarak to step down immediately.

The Protests:

Protests in Egypt are nothing new. But security forces typically arrive on the scenes hours early in numbers three to four times that of protesters. Cordons are set around the dozens of regular activists, and protests usually fizzle from exhaustion and impatience on both sides.

But on Jan. 25, tens of thousands of Egyptians poured into the streets, leading to a week of demonstrations. Hundreds of thousands flooded Cairo's central Tahrir Square on Tuesday. Police appeared completely overwhelmed by the sheer number of people who dared to challenge them.

Initially, police tried to crush the uprising with beatings, tear gas, water cannons and rubber-coated bullets. More than 150 people have so far been killed and thousands more injured during the clashes over the past week.

Violence erupted again on Feb. 2 when supporters of Mubarak clashed with anti-government demonstrators in Tahrir Square. The two sides tossed rocks and chunks of asphalt back and forth, causing numerous injuries.

Peace returned to the square after Friday prayers on Feb. 4 as anti-government demonstrators regrouped. The protests persisted in the square until Feb. 11, when Mubarak finally resigned.

The Stakes:

Mubarak is 82 years old and his health rumored to be in decline. Speculation over the future of the nation’s leadership has become the parlor game of choice in Egypt, and even more so now that Mubarak has resigned. Many had worried that Mubarak’s son Gamal had been being groomed for the job. But he is has now fled to London.

An election for Egypt’s presidency is scheduled for September. What happens in the meantime is yet to be seen. The military has assumed power, a situation that will likely only temporarily appease the protesters, who have always demanded that Egypt move to a western-style democracy.

Whoever leads Egypt next will inherit the region’s most important diplomatic power, both geographically and historically. They will have to appease 80 million in Egypt — the largest population in the Middle East. And they will also control the Suez Canal — the gateway to international commercial shipping and naval power in the Mediterranean and beyond.

Egypt's future, meanwhile, will have major implications for the United States and regional governments.

Jon Jensen