Why Are They Protesting in Egypt?

For 30 years, President Hosni Mubarak has ruled the country in a perpetual "state of emergency." Now Egyptians are taking to the streets, demanding his ouster. Here's why.

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Since the days of the pharaohs, observers of Egypt have been hard-pressed to explain why the combination of grinding poverty, explosive population growth, high-level government corruption and repression of political freedom had not reached critical mass and led to an open revolt. No one is asking that now, as mass demonstrations continue to call for an end to the 30-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak. But why now?

The current turmoil was sparked, in part, by the revolt that forced Tunisia's reviled, longtime President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to flee into exile in Saudi Arabia earlier this month. The "Jasmine Revolution," as it is being called, began as a protest against the economic policies of a corrupt government and then morphed quickly into a popular movement against the regime.

Autocratic Egypt mirrors Tunisia in many ways, only more so. President Mubarak, 82, came into office Oct. 6, 1981, when his predecessor, Anwar al-Sadat, was assassinated while reviewing a military parade. Mubarak, then vice president, was sitting next to Sadat. Wounded, Mubarak was spared by Sadat's assassin, Lt. Khalid al-Islambouli, who walked past him, saying, "Get out of my way. I only want to kill this son of a dog."

Since that day, Mubarak has placed Egypt under a 30-year "state of emergency," suspending what few civil liberties 80 million Egyptians had under its well-trampled constitution. Although Egypt has a parliament and has allowed the formation of a small number of political parties, there are severe limits on freedom of expression and civil society. Newspapers and websites have been shut down and bloggers prosecuted. Some human rights groups estimate that Egypt has 10,000 to 15,000 political prisoners.

Mubarak's National Democratic Party has dominated parliamentary elections, so much so that the country's judiciary has denounced them as not even being remotely free or fair. The most potent opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood -- which has been portrayed as the Islamist bogeyman -- is banned from contesting elections as a political party. The Brothers, running as independents, managed to win 20 percent of the vote in parliamentary elections five years ago -- but were unaccountably shut out in polls last fall.

The Egyptian economy grows at an official rate of 6 percent, but that's far too small to absorb the growing numbers of job seekers entering the work force every year. Or feed the 100,000 new Egyptians born every month. Unemployment is officially 20 percent, but underemployment is twice that rate. Food prices, although subsidized, have gradually increased. New five-star hotels, shopping malls and resorts have gone up, but they cater to a small, wealthy Egyptian elite and foreign expats.

Egypt may have continued to stumble along, but its future collided with the present. Here's what happened.

First, Mubarak, who perpetually dyes his hair black, has nonetheless grown older and visibly infirm. The president fainted while making a televised speech seven years ago -- the broadcast was immediately cut until he was revived. Last year, Mubarak had gall bladder surgery in Germany and was forced to spend two months there in the hospital.

What worried Egyptians and U.S. policymakers was Mubarak's refusal to name a vice president, someone who could step in. But a possible successor emerged -- Gamal Mubarak, the younger of the president's two sons. Within the last 10 years, the 47-year-old former banker made a meteoric rise from relative obscurity to the deputy secretary general of the ruling party.

The younger Mubarak participated in cabinet meetings, reportedly even selecting some of the ministers. Recently he began to make public addresses in his father's place. This raised fears of a father-to-son succession in the Arab world's first republic.

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