The size and strength of the protests caught everyone by surprise, but a few proximate causes can be suggested, if only to provide some context amidst the onslaught of tweets and updates. The uprising in Tunisia is obviously a significant part of that context. It is true that Tunisia is a small country that plays a minor role on the international stage, while Egypt is a linchpin of regional governance and one of the US’s closest allies. But both regimes are reviled by much of their citizenry as corrupt and brutal gerontocracies. While it still seems unlikely that Mubarak will be toppled, Egyptian protestors can take heart from the fact that six weeks ago no one was predicting a rout of Ben Ali, either. Another remote cause, however limited and difficult to assess, is the release of WikiLeaks documents. A cache of diplomatic cables relating to the Middle East was published in early December by the independent newspaper al-Akhbar, and the leaks have been intensively discussed by Arab bloggers and political activists. Few subjects anger Egyptians more than their regime’s cooperation with Israel, and several leaked documents suggest just how closely the two countries’ diplomats and security forces work together. The cable sent in June 2009 from the US embassy in Tel Aviv, which reveals that Egyptian officials were consulted about Israeli air and land assaults on Gaza the previous winter, must have been especially galling.
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