Like many Azerbaijanis, Elnura Jivazade, a resident of the Baku suburb of Khirdalan, is watching Egypt’s political upheaval closely. But unlike most Azerbaijanis, Jivazade sees Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak each morning. His statue, a symbol of Azerbaijani-Egyptian friendship, stands in a Khirdalan park that she passes each weekday on her way to work.
“I always wondered why this monument is standing here, and what will happen to it if the dictatorship falls in Egypt,” she said. “Now, Mubarak’s regime is falling, but he is still sitting here in the park with such confidence.”
The question of how Azerbaijanis will or should interpret Egyptian protestors’ ongoing struggle against President Mubarak appears to be gaining increasing currency among critics of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and many young Azerbaijanis.
Ties between the two countries largely hinge on energy -- the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijani Republic (SOCAR) is involved in oil trade and processing in Egypt -- and on good works. First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva, head of the Heydar Aliyev Foundation, serves on the board of the Alexandria Library and has a secondary school named in her honor in the Cairo suburb of Qaulubiyya, which contains a monument to the late President Heydar Aliyev.
The two countries’ First Ladies also both appeared in a pop song dedicated to peace, written by Egyptian First Lady Suzanne Mubarak and performed by the Azerbaijani singer Tunzale Agayeva.
Officials in Baku appear to be taking measures to ensure that public parallels between the Egyptian and Azerbaijani leaderships stop there. Days after protests began in Tunisia and Egypt, the Azerbaijani government’s anti-corruption commission, overseen by presidential administration Chief of Staff Ramiz Mehdiyev, met on January 27 for the first time since 2009. A number of import duties, often seen as benefiting government-friendly monopolists, have been abolished as well.
Sources in the government tell EurasiaNet.org that in recent days they have received directives advising them to avoid irritating the population and to work effectively and build public trust.
Some government critics, meanwhile, are trying to highlight similarities between Mubarak’s and Aliyev’s administrations.
A group of 100-plus non-partisan and opposition candidates, along with activists from political parties and non-governmental organizations, gathered on January 29 to urge the Azerbaijani government to either hold new parliamentary elections, or brace for popular protests similar to those seen in Egypt and Tunisia.
The leaders of the group’s main opposition parties – Musavat and Popular Front of Azerbaijan -- have not said whether or not they would be the ones organizing protests. Azerbaijan’s opposition is not known for its political muscle, but one political commentator, Shahveled Chobanoghlu, notes that events in Egypt and Tunisia have shattered myths about political change in Muslim countries.
“The first myth is that there is no opposition. If you don’t see the opposition, it does not mean there is no opposition,” said Chobanoghlu. “Election results in both of these countries show the absolute leadership of the ruling parties. So, where did all of these protesters come from?”
The second myth, he added, is that an Islamic opposition will come to power if a secular government collapses – a concept that some local critics argue prompted the Azerbaijani government’s recent arrest of an Islamic political leader and clamp-down on the hijab in schools, among other measures.
Despite Azerbaijan’s lack of a robust opposition, one political analyst, a government critic in Baku, expressed hope that the example of Tunisia and Egypt will encourage Azerbaijanis – where the median population age is similarly young, 28.5 years old – to push for “systemic changes.”
Tunisia, Egypt and Azerbaijan all suffer from “corruption, poverty . . . rigged elections, a refusal to share power, [excessive influence by families of the] First Ladies, and monopolization of the economy in favor of the ruling families,” argued Arastun Orujlu, director of Baku’s East-West Research Center.
A number of active Azerbaijani Facebook and Twitter users are drawing similar parallels. Such users are openly debating whether the Azerbaijani army would “support the nation,” if demonstrations against what they perceive as government abuses of power were held, whether the Azerbaijani police “act like in Tunisia” or whether “the Azerbaijani opposition is ready to seize the moment.”
One such user, Zohrab Ismayil (no relation to this reporter), has created a 107-member Facebook group, Support to the Revolution in Egypt, intended to offer support to those individuals critical of governments’ abuses of civil and human rights. “There is also a hope that it will have a domino effect and will echo in our country as well” Ismayil said in reference to the protests in Egypt.
Political analyst Rasim Musabekov, a non-partisan member of parliament, sees little chance that the situation in Arab countries, especially Egypt and Tunisia, can influence developments in Azerbaijan, given the countries’ dissimilar histories. “Only if the process of change will be successful and will pave the way to stable and democratic regimes, might they have an impact on the situation in Azerbaijan” Musabekov said.
Government critics like Orujlu, still maintain that events in Egypt and Tunisia have sent a powerful message. “No matter what the government and opposition in Azerbaijan are learning from what is going on in North Africa, there is something that has already changed in the world,” Orujlu said “It is an understanding that you can’t rely on dictators.”
Khadija Ismayilova is freelance journalist based in Baku. She hosts a daily program on current affairs broadcast by the Azeri Service of RFE/RL.