Tunisia goes viral: Massive anti-government protests erupt in Egypt

As one revolution dies in Beirut, labor pains for another begin in Cairo. Don’t start handing out cigars yet, though. Remember, Tunisia’s uprising was big news not only because it’s an unprecedented case of an Arab populace removing its own tyrant but because, at least in theory, Tunisians are well positioned to form something resembling an Arab liberal democracy. The public is well educated, women have equal rights, and Islamists don’t have a foothold (yet?) thanks to the since-departed dictator’s crackdown on opposition elements. In Egypt, by contrast, the Muslim Brotherhood has been a major opposition movement for decades, pushing democracy as a means to their end of installing an Islamist government, rescinding the country’s treaty with Israel, and unleashing whatever plans it has for the country’s huge Coptic Christian population. Needless to say, if you think Hamas’s election win in Gaza a few years ago was a big deal to Muslim fundies, imagine the encouragement they’d get from watching Mubarak replaced by the Ikhwan.

Thousands of people calling for the end of the 30-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak clashed with riot police here in the capital and in other Egyptian cities on Tuesday, on a day of some of the most serious civil unrest in recent memory…

The protesters, mobilized largely on the Internet and energized by recent events in Tunisia, occupied one of the city’s most famous squares for hours, beating back attempts to dislodge them by police officers wielding tear gas and water cannons…

Security officials said several thousand people demonstrated in Alexandria, and there were reports of large demonstrations in other cities, including Mansoura and Mahalla al-Kobra. There, a video posted on the Internet showed people tearing up a large portrait of Mr. Mubarak — an act whose boldness here is hard to overstate.

State television made no mention of the protests, and sporadically through the afternoon, cellphone networks were interrupted or unavailable.

A detail further down in the Times piece: At least six Egyptians have immolated themselves in protest over the last weeks, mimicking Mohamed Bouazizi’s galvanizing suicide in Tunisia. This is, in other words, very much inspired by what’s happening over there. Mubarak’s dilemma now is what to do if the protests drag on — follow Ben Ali’s example in Tunisia by trying to appease the protesters with promised reforms, which only seemed to encourage them, or exercise “the Tiananmen option.” I’ll bet more than one Sunni leader elsewhere would happily tolerate the latter to snuff this match before it lights another powder keg somewhere closer by.

Below you’ll find the video mentioned in the Times excerpt of protesters tearing down Mubarak’s portrait, followed by two more notable clips from an extensive YouTube round-up on the NYT’s “The Lede” blog. How the State Department plans to play this, wanting to push democracy but knowing that the alternative to Mubarak would very likely be worse, I have no idea. But if Bush was willing to use a light touch in pressing his freedom agenda with the regime there, I imagine The One won’t be any bolder. Exit question: Time notes that Egyptian police typically crack down on a large protest before it moves even one city block. Today they let the crowd move, on and on, through various neighborhoods. Why on earth would they do that so soon after the Tunisia uprising, especially given what Time says about “repression and ineffectiveness” being a deadly combination for a weak autocracy?