Defying a curfew and violent repression, the people of Egypt are refusing to back down until President Hosni Mubarak — the dictator who has ruled for 30 years — goes. They regard the concession he has made, the dismissal of his own Cabinet, as a contemptible joke. Hundreds of thousands have occupied central areas of Cairo and other major cities, and their ranks have swelled even as the tear gas has spread and the beatings have intensified. The ruling National Democratic Party's building has been burnt down; the state TV building and the Foreign Ministry have been attacked. Over 1,000 people were arrested in the first three days and a similar number have been injured in Cairo alone, with figures not yet known for Alexandria and other cities. Newspapers report over 100 deaths so far, but the protests show no diminution despite the closure of access to the Internet and mobile phone networks. The mass rage has many causes, from long-term structural unemployment through rising and apparently uncontrollable food prices to rampant corruption and the brutality of the notorious security agencies. Yet unlike the 1977 bread riots, which forced Anwar Sadat to restore a grain and fuel subsidy, the present and still largely leaderless protests are directed against the entire political structure in a country of great importance to the region and the rest of the world. Egypt's population of 80 million is far and away the biggest in North Africa and West Asia, and the country is the guardian of the Suez Canal.
Tunisia's brave people, who recently ended Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's 23-year rule, may well have inspired Egyptians. Another factor has been the influential role played by Al Jazeera — the standout voice of aggressive, independent journalism in the Arab world — in channelling popular discontent through the region. After an absurd attempt to blame the Ikhwanul Muslimeen or Muslim Brotherhood, the Mubarak regime turned to violence, with the police and semi-official thug militias using tear gas and rubber-coated steel bullets against protesters. Tanks have also been deployed. Cables released by WikiLeaks show that the United States has had no illusions about the régime. Washington and its allies now stand thoroughly exposed for using aid of over $2 billion a year and silence over internal repression to turn Cairo into a crucial agent of their regional policy, particularly in suppressing demands for justice for the Palestinians. The Egyptian people's uprising is showing the world that this highly prized western ally is utterly devoid of legitimacy. That message will echo through every other dictatorship in the region. We are almost certainly witnessing a transformative moment in the modern history of West Asia.