Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Egyptian Popular Revolt Unsettles Asia's Old Guard

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Egyptian Popular Revolt Unsettles Asia's Old Guard

Article excerpt

Egypt's popular revolt has had an impact far beyond the Middle East, and perhaps nowhere more than in East and Southeast Asia. While governments that owed their status to relatively free elections or popular uprisings took the news in their stride, others were disturbed at the sight of citizens taking to the streets and demanding change. Generally, it was not the fate of a friendly regime that concerned them, but the example it might set for their own citizens.

Most unsettled was the Chinese government, which in 1989 had its own experience of citizens taking over the central square of the capital city and demanding democracy. Foreign news Web sites reporting on the Egyptian events were disabled and Internet access to Egypt news was obstructed. Internet activists found ways around Beijing's censorship, however. As Oiwan Lam reported in Global Voices Advocacy on Jan. 30, "even though the term 'Egypt' is blocked from keyword search, info-activists can always create a separate user account to spread the information." She cited the example of an account created by an overseas Chinese student that provided access to a livecast to those searching under the heading of "Eygpt."

Coverage in the official press was drawn heavily from official Xinhua news agency reports and was kept on the back pages of newspapers. Popular demands for democratic changes and protests against corruption were ignored, and the Chinese public was not provided with information that could help it make reasonable sense of the issues behind the revolt or the forces involved. A running theme was the disorder and "chaos" that was occurring in Egypt. Western countries were criticized for urging democracy on states that had not laid the foundational basis for it. On Jan. 28, a spokesperson of China's Foreign Ministry said that the Chinese government would continue to support the Egyptian government in "maintaining social stability" and oppose any foreign intervention in Egypt.

A tight lid also was kept on news from Egypt in Burma (now officially Myanmar) by a regime dominated by an aging military clique. By contrast, Aung San Suu Kyi, the country's leading advocate of democracy, said during a question-and-answer session on BBC World Service radio, "I would want you to know that we're all with you-that people all over the world who want freedom somehow or other feel connected to other people who are struggling for freedom."

Malaysia has strong ties with Egypt. At the beginning of the crisis, there were 14,000 Malaysians in Egypt, 11,000 of whom were students. Of those, more than 6,000 were engaged in religious studies and nearly all the rest were studying medicine. Most were evacuated. Because of the student program, tens of thousands of Malaysians are very familiar with conditions in Egypt, thus ensuring that the public was relatively well informed about the background to the revolt. There was vigorous discussion of the events in Egypt on the Internet, with participants strongly supportive of the uprising. Among them was Marina Mahathir, daughter of former Premier Mahathir Mohamad. After news came through of Mubarak's final attempt to hold onto office, she tweeted, "Damn! Is Mubarak extra-delusional or what? Silly fool! Don't give up, Egypt!"

Malaysia's government was generally tight-lipped throughout the Egyptian protests. Prime Minister Najib Razak affirmed that it was the right of the Egyptian people to decide their own future, including choosing their own leaders. Commenting on the protests, however, he said that the government "would not allow anything similar to happen here." The opposition response was mixed, with the strongest support for the anti-Mubarak opposition coming from the Islamist party, PAS.

Indonesians were sympathetic to the revolt, but this was expressed in conversation and online discussion; solidarity rallies were small. …

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