From the day that President Ben Ali bowed to the inevitable and fled his homeland for exile in Saudi Arabia, the question was never just what would happen next in Tunisia, but whether the popular uprising there would become a catalyst for discontent elsewhere. It is less than two weeks since the Tunisian President was toppled, but already there are the beginnings of an answer – from neighbouring Algeria, from Jordan, but most eloquently and defiantly from Egypt.
The protests in central Cairo, that continued as Tuesday evening became Wednesday morning and were rejoined more sporadically yesterday, were without recent precedent in their scale and overtly political demands. Nor were they limited to the Egyptian capital; there were demonstrations, too, in other cities, including the fast-growing Delta towns and Asyut in the south. One of the four fatalities was in Suez. Like the demonstrations in Tunisia, those in Egypt brought together many interests and many strands of anger; as in Tunisia, the protesters were prominently male and young, and to the extent that their action was co-ordinated, it was by the internet and mobile phone. They did not hang around apologetically; they marched and demanded an end to President Hosni Mubarak's 30-year long rule, citing the Tunisian precedent.
The response of the authorities was no different from that of any other repressive regime under threat. They deployed riot police and special forces. A ban was announced on further protests. Emergency powers were invoked. It remains to be seen how effective these measures will be. What cannot be changed, however, is that a taboo – challenging Mr Mubarak's rule – has been broken and the message from Tunisia has been heard loud and clear from the top to the bottom of Egyptian society.
The acknowledged regional leader, Egypt has a population of 80 million, and suffers from the same demographic and economic problems that afflict the region as a whole. If this proud, but troubled, country is on the move, even tentatively, it is not just North Africa that is on the threshold of profound change, but the whole of the Middle East and beyond.