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Don't Confuse Egypt With Tunisia Says UT Middle East Expert

The political unrest in Egypt has parallels with the Tunisian uprising, but Western observers should avoid conflating the two, according to one UT expert.
Image courtesy Al Jazeera English
The political unrest in Egypt has parallels with the Tunisian uprising, but Western observers should avoid conflating the two, according to one UT expert.

The political unrest in Egypt has parallels to the recent uprising in Tunisia, but the two countries have their own unique set of political and economic conditions, according to University of Texas political scientist Clement Henry.

Henry is scheduled to chair the political science department at the American University in Cairo this fall. Henry still plans to visit Cairo in March.  He spoke to KUT News by phone.

KUT News: In Tunisia, the army general refused to Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali's crackdown on protesters, and a lot of people saw that as a turning point in the uprising. Could that happen in Egypt?

Clement Henry: [Former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel] Nasser's army heroically pursued the revolution [in 1952]. They were highly politicized. They have been professionalized since, but I'm afraid it's hard to see the Egyptian army following what the Tunisians did. It's a very different situation.

[Egyptian president Hosni] Mubarak is close to top commanders. He himself served as a top commander for some time.

But I guess I could imagine a situation where if the security is really kind of out of hand and security forces can't keep law and order and have to call the army in, the army might not be able to come in because it might be afraid that it would create divisions within the army.  It may be that there are some people in the army who don't think it's a very good idea to fire on civilians who are fed up with the Mubarak regime.

KUT News: What would you say to Americans watching this on TV?

Henry: I think we just have to remember that every country is different. Although the anger is widespread across the Arab world, and although many of these regimes are basically American-backed authoritarian regimes that we support for the sake of stability, in fact, they are not stable. There is a deep pent up fury, which is now not so pent up, at the grassroots.

And we may see more than one change. Let's follow the Tunisian one. In terms of its economic situation -- a broad middle-class, and sort of political maturity -- I think it's probably the best equipped of any Arab country to make a transition to democracy.  But there are other candidates.

I would like to see the United States be out in the forefront contributing quietly to Tunisia. I mean it can't be very public given the general ill will in which the US is viewed. If we are openly, fully supportive of Tunisia, it could hurt them rather than help them.

But US ambassadors in the past have respected human rights. They've really gone out of their way sometimes to express their disapproval of Ben Ali's heavy handedness, and that's a good example to follow.

For Egypt, the situation is more complex. It's a much bigger country, and there are more strategic interests of the United States there, which may hinder the Obama administration from coming out in full support of the change. I really don't know how they're going to play it. Also, we don't know at the moment really how far this goes, but it's beginning to look more and more like a Tunisian sort of scenario.

Then you've got Yemen, Jordan, all sorts of other places, and like I say, each country is different, but the region is ready undergo some political changes.

Resources for following unrest in Egypt:

BBC News is live blogging and providing a live video feed. CNN has several feeds on its live page.
The Guardian Newspaper is providing has extensive coverage. Al Jazeera English is providing live video.
Human Rights Watch has background on human rights violations in Egypt.

Nathan Bernier is the transportation reporter at KUT. He covers the big projects that are reshaping how we get around Austin, like the I-35 overhaul, the airport's rapid growth and the multibillion dollar transit expansion Project Connect. He also focuses on the daily changes that affect how we walk, bike and drive around the city. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @KUTnathan.