The mass demonstrations demanding the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak have continued to rage since Tuesday across several cities, including Cairo and Suez. Debkafile’s sources report that the situation in Cairo Wednesday was extremely tense after thousands of demonstrators poured into the streets and made for the Tel Talat Harb Square on the way to Liberation Square city centre, where 30,000 protesters demonstrated on Tuesday.
Violent clashes are continuing in different parts of the country, particularly Suez where anti-government demonstrators set fire to the local headquarters of the ruling NDP party and continue to clash with security forces. There have been some reports of workers joining in. There was a protest in front of a metro station in Helwan, south of Cairo, in which workers from Helwan factories and others participated. The Helwan workers have organised strikes in defence of health and safety in the last period, and some are now being tried by military tribunals.
All three protesters killed in demonstrations to date were in Suez, where the movement appears to have gone furthest. There are reports of other demonstrations in Ismailia and Alexandria, yesterday and today. Around 600 protesters clashed with police in demonstrations across the Egyptian eastern city of Ismailia today, witnesses said. They said the police dispersed the crowds using tear gas.
The reports from Twitter, despite their incomplete and fragmentary character, give the definite impression of a developing national uprising. The president who has not been seen in public since the movement broke out on Tuesday, has placed four armoured divisions on emergency standby and cancelled all leaves – two on operational preparedness outside Cairo and two near the towns on the banks of the Suez Canal. Officers and men on furlough were ordered back to their bases.
Mubarak is clearly desperate. After initial vacillation, he has decided to cling to power and lean on the army to crush the rebellion. The situation in the Army is contradictory. Security forces have made some 2,500 arrests of opposition activists so far. But all this has failed to quell the unrest.
The appeal to force has come too late. On the streets the demonstrators have learned their collective strength. The police have failed to stem the advancing tide. The army’s reliability is increasingly in doubt. In Suez it is reported that the soldiers are refusing to repress the people. The growing desperation of the regime is shown by the treatment of journalists, some 500 of whom are locked in the building of the press association in the capital, including many foreign correspondents. Security officers burst into the building, collected the journalists in the lower floors of the building and prevented them from covering events, reporting or taking photos.
The situation in Suez
In Suez city the situation is particularly explosive. On Wednesday night, debkafile reported:
“The level of anti-government protest and violence escalated in the streets of Egyptian cities Wednesday night, Jan. 26 even after President Hosni Mubarak ordered a million security officers to back up the police and for the first time open fire on rioters in the town of Suez, leaving scores of dead and wounded. Western sources told debkafile that security forces lost control of the situation in the main Suez Canal port after protesters managed to break through a line of police defending the suburb housing government institutions and set them on fire.”
The same report states that the demonstrators torched police headquarters and the regional premises of Mubarak’s ruling NDP. A report on Twitter adds:
“Large protests in Mahalla now. Suez is boiling. Our people say it is no longer protests, it is a typical war zone between bare-handed protesters and armed police. They will get tired soon. Protesters come and go but police can’t. I think and hope that it is happening.”
A Reuters witness said police fled the post that was burned on Thursday when the protesters hurled petrol bombs over the killing of protesters in anti-government demonstrations earlier in the week. On Wednesday they had set a government building and another police post on fire, as well as trying to burn down a local office of Egypt’s ruling party. The fires were put out before they engulfed the buildings. But dozens more protesters gathered in front of the second police post later on Thursday morning demanding the release of their relatives who were detained in protests.
Most important of all, there have been reports that some army units in Suez refused to support the police to confront the demonstrators and did not intervene until now. According to reports the police were forced to withdraws from Suez city, which was said to be “burning, but in hands of the protesters”. Again: “Protests have renewed in Ismailliyya as well (another city along the Suez Canal), to take the pressure off protesters in Suez.”
In Washington all the alarm bells are ringing. The earlier false optimism has given way to something close to panic. A top US senator called Egypt “an extremely important ally” on Wednesday but kept silent on support for President Hosni Mubarak. “All I could say this morning is that Egypt has been an extremely important ally of ours since Anwar Sadat, and we’re all watching these developments in Cairo very carefully,” said Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
“White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters aboard Air Force One that it was important for the Egyptian government of President Hosni Mubarak to demonstrate ‘responsiveness’ to its people. Asked whether the Egyptian interior ministry ban on demonstrations should be lifted, Gibbs said: ‘Again, yes. We’re supportive of the universal rights of assembly and speech. Those are universal values.’
“‘We have a close and important ally in Egypt and they will continue to be,’ Gibbs said.” (Al Arabiya)
In a further sign of desperation, Mubarak has sent his defence minister Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi to Washington with an urgent request for US backing for his embattled regime. Debkafile’s Washington sources report that in secret meetings, the Egyptian defence minister put the situation before President Barack Obama and top US political, military and intelligence officials.
According to The Independent: “He warned them that by advocating a soft hand with the demonstrators and responsiveness to their demands, American officials were doing more harm than good. Without a crackdown, he said, the regime was doomed.”
Tantawi tried to frighten the Americans by warning that the Muslim Brotherhood, which initially stood aside from the opposition protests, was merely biding its time for the right moment to step in and take over. He asked the Obama administration for an urgent airlift of advanced riot control equipment.
We do not know what the American response was. Probably he was greeted with the usual smiles and handshakes and sent away with words of encouragement. As we know, words are cheap and smiles cost nothing at all. But behind his back his hosts must have shaken their heads and wondered aloud whether it was wise to back an 82-year old man who shows every sign of falling over. Question: what do you do when you see a man falling over? Answer: Give him a push!
By dispatching his agent to Washington on the first plane Mubarak was showing everybody where the real power lies. He was also making a public confession of his own impotence. These things will not have gone unnoticed either in the White House or on the streets of Cairo and Suez. This also places Washington in a very awkward position. They do not want their faithful stooge to be overthrown. But if they are seen to openly come to his assistance, it will add fuel to the fires of disaffection burning in cities across Egypt.
The protesters are proud of their Arab and Egyptian identity. Part of the hatred felt for the Mubarak regime is precisely its slavish collaboration with imperialism. Any sign that a foreign power is propping him up will only heighten their resolve to fight the regime to the death. Slogans of “US out” and “Death to the US” have already begun to appear on anti-Mubarak placards.
A palace revolution?
The bourgeoisie is increasingly worried. Egypt’s stock exchange halted trading until 1130 am (0930 GMT) on Thursday after the benchmark index slid more than 6% for a second day following the protests. The EGX30 index was down 6.2% before the suspension, adding to a 6.1% fall on Wednesday. By 1133 GMT today the stock market was down 11% to 5648. The selling frenzy continued despite the briefly halting of trading to calm nerves.
Something must be done! But what? Rachid M. Rachid, Mubarak’s minister of trade had to withdraw from Davos and hurry back to Cairo. Rachid has been one of the engineers of the so-called “neoliberal” reforms. These have contributed to the hardship of the masses: high and rising prices, unemployment and poverty. No good whatever can be expected from his return. There are also rumours of a Cabinet reshuffle. But that only means to reshuffle the same old ministers. That will solve nothing. New faces are needed to calm the situation and soothe the nerves of the investors!
In the old days, when the author of a play needed a dramatic change in his plot, he produced a “deus ex machina”, or as we say in English, a rabbit out of a hat. In the midst of these titanic upheavals, a modest, neatly dressed gentleman suddenly makes an unannounced appearance on stage. Resembling an aging university professor, Mohamed ElBaradei, the former UN nuclear weapons chief is returning to Egypt, announcing his intention to gracefully place himself at the head of the democratic opposition.
If it were not so serious, it would be comical. The thousands who have taken to the streets in the last two days have risked their lives, while ElBaradei sat comfortably abroad, thinking beautiful thoughts about democracy. The self-appointed Saviour of the Nation offered only lukewarm support for the protests before they began. Now there is a realistic prospect of their succeeding in overthrowing Mubarak, he suddenly announces his is prepared to play a role.
Not surprisingly, some of the protestors are angry. They suspect – not without reason – that this gentleman is acting in collaboration with the US State Department. The Americans are now deeply concerned about the situation and fear that Mubarak may not last. They need a suitable replacement, and Mr. ElBaradei fits the bill perfectly. With his reputation as a dissident rival to President Mubarak, he may get some support among the respectable middle classes in Egypt, and his ideology is not at all “extreme”. It is safe, respectable, reliable, liberal. In other words, it is bourgeois.
ElBaradei has not lost time in appealing to his future electorate. This is, however, not the people of Egypt, but the important people: the ones in the White House, Wall Street and the Pentagon. He speaks to them in terms of endearment, like a would-be lover wooing a shy maiden:
“Of course, you in the West have been sold the idea that the only options in the Arab world are between authoritarian regimes and Islamic jihadists. That’s obviously bogus. If we are talking about Egypt, there is a whole rainbow variety of people who are secular, liberal, market-oriented, and if you give them a chance they will organize themselves to elect a government that is modern and moderate. They want desperately to catch up with the rest of the world.”
Al Baradei, then, is a rainbow politician: a man whose views are as variable and elusive as the colours of the rainbow. To lay hold on these views is indeed like trying to embrace a rainbow, for they are equally as insubstantial. But this is just what is required! In order to deceive the revolutionary masses, to soothe their anger, to pacify them, to lull them to sleep, what is required is not a clear programme but vague expression about human rights, freedom and democracy.
Such “democratic speeches” are effective because they are all things to all men and women. They arouse the hope of improvement in the dim and distant future without doing anything to change the existing order and solve the immediate problems of the masses in the here and now. In the legends of old people imagined there was a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. But as everyone knows, to actually arrive at the end of the rainbow is an impossible task. There is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, and there is absolutely nothing at the bottom of the empty “democratic” phrase mongering of Al Baradei.
Washington is watching the situation very closely. They will wait to see whether Mubarak can suppress the movement by force. If he succeeds, they will continue to back him. If he fails – which is the most likely outcome – they will conspire with the heads of the Egyptian army and security forces (who are infiltrated by the CIA) to organize some kind of palace coup. Mubarak will be put on the next convenient flight to Saudi Arabia, where he can spend the rest of his days reminiscing with his Tunisian counterpart about the good old days when they ruled the roost.
Even now intrigues will be taking place. Plots are being hatched. The purpose of a palace revolution will be to change the outward appearances of things so as to leave the fundamentals just as they were before. However, the situation is not decided by what is being planned in the corridors of power. The decisive element in the equation is not the intrigues at the top but what happens on the streets. It was announced that there will be mass protests after Friday prayers. This could well represent a vital turning point in the whole situation. The next few days will be decisive.