Egyptians shout slogans outside a polling centre in Port Said, 220 kms northeast of Cairo, on November 28, 2010. Violence and protests of irregularities marred voting in Egypt's election, with the ruling party certain to boost its domination of parliament at the expense of the harried Islamist opposition, Picture: AFP
A wave of street protests across Egypt confirms long-held fears that a ticking time bomb of youthful discontent, fuelled by Internet connectivity, is set to explode, analysts say.
In an overwhelming expression of anger and frustration, tens of thousands poured onto the streets on Tuesday in scenes seldom witnessed in Egypt, ruled by emergency law since President Hosni Mubarak came to power 30 years ago.
Suez and Ismailiya were the latest cities on Thursday to witness protests after two days of unrest in Cairo. On Wednesday Egyptian pro-democracy youth groups defied an interior ministry ban on protests and urged the people to take to the streets and demand political and economic reforms.
A long process of covert dissent had emerged from the shadows, emboldened by the recent uprising in Tunisia which forced strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to flee the country after 23 years in power.
"It was a ticking time bomb, and it was bound to explode," political analyst Hisham Kassem told AFP of the situation in Egypt.
Egyptians have long shared the grievances that drove Tunisians to revolt. Unemployment, low wages and sky-rocketing food prices have all contributed to the rumbling wave of popular discontent, strikes and demonstrations.
During Mubarak's presidency the population has doubled to 80 million, with half under the age of 25 according to the United Nations, which says that 40 percent live on around two dollars a day.
"It's a question of demographics and connectivity," Kassem said. The unofficial estimate of the unemployment rate ranges from 11% to 17% from 1998 and onward, according to Global Policy Network, an independent research group.
The nationwide protests "have been years in the making," said Rabab al-Mahdi, a professor of political science at the American University in Cairo.
In 2008, violence erupted in the Delta town of Mahalla after residents and workers at a textile factory took to the streets when a general strike was aborted after intimidation by security bodies.
The Mahalla events, which took place on April 6, gave birth to the pro-democracy movement behind the recent demonstrations.
Fear of a strong security apparatus has traditionally kept many people's anger confined to private conversations or jokes.
"But what happened in Tunisia has pushed those who are not seasoned political activists onto the street," Mahdi said.
The police use of tear gas and rubber bullets and the detention of at least 1,000 protesters may explain why in the past many people declined to heed calls for street protests.
"This is the price that Egyptians had been trying to avoid in recent years," Mahdi said. "In their daily interactions with security, Egyptians know full well what the security is capable of."
But the surprise turnout on Tuesday in the capital, in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria, in Delta cities and in Sinai may have lifted the barrier of fear.
"Now the protesters feel empowered vis a vis the police. There is a jubilant mood across the social media," Kassem said.
Together with the April 6 movement, dozens of smaller youth groups including the Popular Democratic Movement for Change, Youth for Justice and Freedom, and younger members of the Ghad, Wafd and the banned Labour party have used the Internet and mobile phones to get information out quickly and effectively.
According to the government, there were 23.06 million Internet users in Egypt at the end of October 2010, more than a quarter of the population.
The number of mobile phone users had reached 65.49 million by the end of October 2010, compared with 63.93 million in September 2010. Activists have vowed to step up the protests.
"To continue what we started on January 25, we will take to the streets to demand the right to life, liberty, dignity and we call on everyone to take to the streets... and to keep going until the demands of the Egyptian people have been met," the April 6 Movement said.
Opposition groups circulated SMS messages and posted appeals on social networking site Facebook for fresh demonstrations "to demand the right to live with freedom and dignity."
Abdel Moneim Said, chairman of the board of the Al-Ahram daily and a member of the ruling National Democratic Party, believes Egypt's youth should not be underestimated.
"We need to revise our connection with the new generation which went out onto the streets in droves. They are better educated and more open to the world and their ambitions grow faster than previous generations can comprehend," he was quoted as saying in the English-language Al-Ahram weekly.
"The state must not assume positions contrary to those of young Egyptians. It should work to bridge any gaps." -Sapa-AFP