Stuck in Frankfurt airport, waiting for a flight tomorrow, so I’ll write down my own thoughts on why this happened now. Some of these may be rather obvious.
In order of importance, they are..
1) The demonstration effect of Tunisia. By the late 2000s, hardly anyone in Egypt liked Mubarak (see below). That didn’t matter so much — Mubarak didn’t care if he was unloved, so long as no one could seriously envision his overthrow. Demonstrations were allowed so long as they were made to look thoroughly impotent — a handful of the same activist faces, surrounded by riot police who outnumbered them. People may have regarded the demands sympathetically, but tended to dismiss the protesters as perpetually worked-up activists or resent them for clogging up traffic. Then Ben Ali fell, and the public realized that the protests could accomplish something.
2) Mubarak’s loss of legitimacy. Mubarak’s legitimacy, which once was significant, came largely from being part of the generation of ’73, the cadre of officers who redeemed the nation’s honor on the battlefield projected an air of sober competence. Mubarak steady, non-ideological leadership style was contrasted with Nasser’s disastrously unrealistic exuberance and Sadat’s volatility. But the memory of 73 is fading, and when Mubarak tries to promote his son as successor, and he’s no longer a sober professional soldier, but just another tinpot. Couple that with the impact of rising food prices, and he no longer comes across as a competent if uninspiring leader: instead, he becomes the scapegoat for everything going wrong, whether it’s his fault or not. Also, the threat from militant Islam which once had secularists thinking that he was the least of several evils, is much diminished.
Also, throughout the 1990s there was a major gap between smaller protests by committed activists calling for regime change, and larger but less persistant protests over specific issues — ie, public sector closures, syndicate politics, rigged elections, etc. In the 2000s, with the Mahalla strikes and the judges’ protests, the activists did a good job of coordinating with specific interest groups, and persuading them that they’d be better off with a complete change of regime rather than specific concessions.
3) Technology. These aren’t “Twitter revolutions.” But Twitter probably helped. A demonstration has a limited life-cycle — you show up, you get tear gassed and baton-charged, you disperse, and then you try to sort out who has been arrested and if there’s anything you can do. But with access to real-time information, you have a constant flow of new messages urging regrouping and marching from a different angle, more people come out, police atrocities get publicized, and momentum is restored.
That would be for the first day, anyway. After that, the demonstrations seemed to have needed little electronic support to maintain their momentum.
Another thing to file under “technology” — the proliferation of photos of police brutality, thanks to camera phones etc. People were beaten to death regularly in the 1990s, but were rarely caught on film. It’s hard to think of Mubarak as holding the line against barbarity and chaos when you’re looking at the battered body of Khaled Said or the torture of the minibus driver.
I expect that these factors player upon each other in the following way: the loss of legitimacy created a majority of Egyptians who weren’t just ambivalent about Mubarak, but outright enthusiastic about his ouster. The ouster of Ben Ali convinced them that protests weren’t just a steam-letting valve, and could actually bring down a government. Finally, technology sustained the protests’ momentum after the security forces’ initial show of force.