Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Headless Horsemen of Tahrir Square

By William Fisher

As hundreds of thousands of Egyptians thronged into the streets of the country’s major cities demanding an end to the 30-year rule of their aging, repressive, authoritarian President Hosni Murarak, the world’s commentariat was earning a living wrestling with questions like: “How did this thing start?” and “Who’s in charge?”

Was the world watching an Iranian plot to permanently derail the faltering peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority? Or a CIA coup? Or was it a spontaneous outpouring of voice from the voiceless? Was it a merely an important “second step” in the movement started in Tunisia? Was it engineered by such anemic political opposition as exists in Egypt? By the Muslim Brotherhood, perhaps covertly, thus explaining that group’s conspicuous absence from the early days of the demonstrations.

Or did the wall to wall coverage of the Tunisian uprising by trusted media such as Al Jazeera embolden downtrodden Egyptians – as well as Yemenites and Jordanians -- to risk life, limb and property in the streets? And how important was the role played by the so-called “social media” – Twitter, Facebook, You Tube, etc. – as an accelerant in the David and Goliath struggle?

Journalists trying to report the dynamic situation in Egypt were obliged by fast-breaking developments to add updates, virtually by the minute.

Here’s where the situation stands as of Sunday afternoon (ET) January 30:

Over the weekend, the demonstrations appeared to gather strength as thousands again took to the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, Suez, Luxor and other large cities in peaceful protests.

President Mubarak moved Egyptian troops into the center of Cairo to protect government property and historic sites from a wave of looting. The looting was widely attributed, not to the demonstrators, but to what one demonstrator called “thugs” – poor people and common criminals.

Some media outlets reported that the criminals were released from jails and police stations by the police themselves in an effort to discredit the demonstrators.

One TV outlet reported that 10,000 prisoners had broken out – or had been let out – of a large prison just North of Cairo.

In the suburbs of Cairo, residents formed “vigilante groups” of family, friends and neighbors to protect their property from vandalism and theft.

Meanwhile, in the United States – Egypt’s longtime benefactor and financier -- Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton went on the television talk shows on Sunday and called for “an orderly transition to meet the democratic and economic needs of the people” in Egypt.

She did not, however, say President Mubarak should resign. But she may have been preparing the ground. Some media in Egypt were reporting over the weekend that the president’s wife and family are already in London and that the president had arranged for the transfer there of large sums of money. These reports remain unconfirmed.

In her TV appearances, Mrs. Clinton said the Egyptian people would determine Mubarak’s future. She added that the US was prepared to help a transition that will address the political and economic freedoms sought by the demonstrators.

Secretary Clinton referred to Mubarak’s hurried appointment of a Vice President – the first in 30 years. It was Omar Suleiman, currently head of Egyptian central intelligence and before that head of intelligence for the air force. Mubarak also ordered his government to resign and appointed a new prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq.

CNN’s veteran Egypt correspondent, Ben Wederman, reported that the new vice president and prime minister “are as Mubarak as Mubarak. Egyptians are in no mood for more of the same.”

According to “The Dark Side,” a prize-winning book by New Yorker investigative journalist Jane Mayer, Suleiman has been Egypt’s coordinator of the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program. Extraordinary rendition involves the transfer or kidnapping of a “war on terror” detainee or suspect procedure in which and then transfering them illegally to a countryknown for its use torture during interrogation.

Suleiman ‘s appointment is prompting some analysts and protesters to question the sincerity of the Mubarak’s commitment to democratic change.

The Obama administration’s party line was also echoed on Sunday by the new White House Chief of Staff, William Daley. He called on Egyptian President Mubarak to "support basic human rights." But he added that this issue could be taken up by only the people of Egypt.

In other weekend developments:

A curfew is still in force but protesters are largely ignoring it. It was reported that some protesters set fires and tried to enter government buildings.

Self-styled “opposition leader” Mohamed El Baradei , former head of the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) arrived from his home in Vienna, and was reportedly initially placed under house arrest in his hotel. Later, as he attempted to join demonstrators in the street, he was doused by a water cannon.

El Baradei returned to his native Egypt several months ago and immediately began a campaign to persuade Egyptian voters that he deserved their support as leader of the opposition. Since then, he has been in and out of Egypt, was not present at the start of the current demonstrations, and is generally not seen as the person likely to be selected to lead this leaderless revolution.

In this reporter’s view, some of the best reporting of events on the ground came from Joe Stork and his team in Egypt with Human Rights Watch. Stork wrote:

“Thousands of protesters in Cairo and Alexandria defied a heavy deployment of riot police and other security forces and government warnings not to participate in demonstrations on January 28, 2011. The government shut down access to the Internet and most mobile phone networks and ordered the army onto the streets of Cairo ahead of a curfew.

“Witnesses described dozens of demonstrators being injured by the police. Reports say security forces are restricting the movements of the opposition leader Mohamed el-Baradei and have arrested several leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood. Police briefly detained several journalists covering the protests.
“The Egyptian people are on the streets demanding reform and a government whose police no longer attack them. After decades of torture and brutality, the Egyptian government is all too comfortable beating and shooting at its own citizens. But the government and its security forces should heed the message that the people have had enough.

“Protesters in Cairo tried to force their way towards Tahrir Square, the scheduled meeting point for the January 28 protest. Human Rights Watch researchers observed demonstrators as they made their way across Qasr al-Nil Bridge toward the central square, only to be turned back, at first with water cannons and teargas fired at close range, and then with rubber bullets fired by riot police. Protesters also attempted to cross the 6 October Bridge, but riot police there also fired teargas into crowd.

“At approximately 3:15 p.m., riot police at Qasr al-Nil Bridge started shooting rubber bullets into the crowd and beating them with batons, eventually leading to the retreat of demonstrators back across the bridge. Eyewitnesses said that dozens were injured. Human Rights Watch researchers near the bridge counted nine bloodied victims as other demonstrators carried them out. One appeared to be unconscious, another had what appeared to be a dozen bullet wounds, and a 67-year-old man had a bullet wound to his neck.

“An eyewitness, an elderly female demonstrator who said she was at the front lines of the demonstrators on the bridge, said that the police fired both the teargas and the rubber bullets at extremely close range. Another demonstrator, a 62-year-old retired army officer who said he was a veteran of the 1973 war with Israel, said police beat him with batons.

“Meanwhile in the northern port of Alexandria, Egypt’s second largest city, a Human Rights Watch researcher witnessed security forces shooting teargas canisters and rubber bullets at about 600 peaceful protesters after the Friday noon prayer at the Sidi Beshr mosque. The protesters left the mosque with banners and started marching, shouting, “We are peaceful, we are peaceful.” After an hour of sporadic clashes a large column of protesters came from the other direction and blocked in police, holding up their hands and repeating, “We are peaceful.” Police later withdrew from the area and thousands of protesters marched down the Alexandria seafront. Later in the day Human Rights Watch saw police cars and trucks burning on the city streets.
“Human Rights Watch urged the government to reverse its decision to shut down most communications in Egypt, saying the blackout poses a major threat to human rights. The shutdown of the internet came in apparent response to the demonstrations, which began as protests against police torture and quickly escalated into calls for an end to President Mubarak’s three decades of rule.

“Egypt’s information blackout is an extreme step designed to disrupt planned marches, to block images of police brutality, and to silence dissent once and for all,” said Stork. “Attacks on journalists are also intended to censor reporting. The government should order police to let reporters work freely.
“According to media reports, on January 28 police yesterday at least four journalists, beat a BBC reporters, and seized a camera from a CNN crew. Starting January 25, they briefly detained at least 10 other reporters.
“Human Rights Watch said that the internet and mobile communications are essential tools for rights of expression, to information, and of assembly and association. The United States, the European Union, and influential regional governments should take immediate steps to press Egypt to end the nationwide telecommunications blackout. Companies and internet service providers in and outside of Egypt should act responsibly to uphold freedom of expression and privacy by pressing Egypt to stop censoring their products and services.

“A state-directed shutdown of all internet access is deeply chilling,” said Stork. “The international community should respond swiftly to put an end to Egypt’s information blackout and human rights abuses.”
Also over the weekend, the Egyptian Air Force flew low-flying fighter jets and helicopters over thousands of protesters in Cairo’s central square. The show of force was seen as a message from Mubarak that he still controls the most important levers of state power.

But the relationship between the protesters and the Egyptian military remained enigmatic. The military was ordered into the melee to replace the universally-hated police, which fled to their headquarters at the Interior Ministry in Cairo, retreating in the face of an advancing army of citizens.

Police brutality, deaths in detention, torture at police stations, and unbridled corruption – this described the reputation of the police held by virtually all Egyptians, except those with the means to buy themselves out of trouble.

The Army commands great respect from the people of Egypt – after all, it fought three wars on their behalf (and, according to Egyptian propaganda, was victorious in all three).

So when the tanks rolled into Cairo over the weekend and parked on The Corniche, the wide-sidewalked road running long the Nile in one of the city’s upscale business districts, their crews were treated with shouts of welcome and handshakes. Indeed, some news reports said some of the soldiers were transparently in favor of the protesters.

When if ever the Army will receive orders to use force, and what form that force may take, the unanswered question is whether the troops are ready to carry out such orders.

Also over the weekend, the pan-Arab broadcaster Al-Jazeera said on Sunday that Egyptian authorities ordered its Cairo news bureau shuttered. The popular channel condemned the move as an attempt to "stifle and repress" open reporting.

The U.S. Embassy in Cairo asked Americans in Egypt to consider leaving the country as soon as possible. This suggestion was for Embassy personnel as well as tourists.

Israel’s Benyamin Netanyahu urged restraint. He told his Cabinet on Sunday that he is "anxiously following" the crisis in Egypt. In his first public comment on the situation, he said that one of the key factors was Israel's 30-year-old peace agreement with Egypt.

Unrest in Egypt begin creating gas shortages and interrupting the smuggling of gasoline to the Gaza Strip. This triggered panic buying by drivers afraid of the complete depletion of the local supply.

Egyptian protesters again defied the government-imposed curfew, as police effectively disappeared and military units made no obvious attempt to enforce it.

All of which leaves the reader or the viewer with many unanswered questions, beginning with: How did this all start?

There were many factors at work. One contribution came from the ubiquitous WikiLeaks organization, which released a number of diplomatic cables published in The Guardian/UK .

One US embassy cable predicted Mubarak, if still alive in 2011, would run
again for presidency 'and, inevitably, win'

Other Secret US embassy cables sent from Cairo in the past two years reveal that the Obama administration wanted to maintain a close political and military relationship with Mubarak.

One cable said, "The Egyptians want the visit to demonstrate that Egypt remains America's 'indispensable Arab ally', and that bilateral tensions have abated. President Mubarak is the proud leader of a proud nation ... Mubarak is 81 years old and in reasonably good health; his most notable problem is a hearing deficit in his left ear. He responds well to respect for Egypt and for his position, but is not swayed by personal flattery," the cable said.

It predicted that if Mubarak were still alive for Egypt's next presidential
election in 2011, "it is likely he will run again and, inevitably, win". The
most likely contender to succeed him was his son Gamal, the cable suggested.

Another cable, from March 2009, shows the US's astonishingly intimate military relationship with Egypt. Washington provides Cairo $1.3bn annually in foreign military finance (FMF) to purchase US weapons and defense equipment, and the cable said. "President Mubarak and military leaders view our military assistance program as the cornerstone of our mil-mil relationship and consider the $1.3bn in annual FMF as 'untouchable compensation' for making and maintaining peace with Israel.

"The tangible benefits to our mil-mil relationship are clear: Egypt remains at
peace with Israel, and the US military enjoys priority access to the Suez canal and Egyptian airspace."

Many other parts of the question about the origins of the current situation are as yet unclear. But we know this much: In no way were these demonstrations a spontaneous or first-time event. Egypt has seen demonstrations before and, in fact, many Middle East scholars believe that those earlier demonstrations provided a direct route to the current protest.

The closest to rational answers to these questions, in this reporter’s view, came from an interview with Mohammed Ezzeldin, a graduate of political science at Cairo University, who is currently completing his master's degree in history at Georgetown, and Paul Jay, Senior Editor of the Real News Network. The Public Record has done some minor editing.

“So how did this moment arrive? How did we get here?” Jay asked.

Ezzelden’s response: “We have to understand this moment in terms of accumulation. This not just--didn't come out of the blue. This moment was the manifestation, this moment unfolded after a manifestation of different opposition movement, basically three …rounds of opposition to Mubarak regime, beginning from 2004, 2005, when (the) Kefaya movement (rose) up the famous slogan, ‘Enough,’ [and called for] no for continuation for continuation for Mubarak, no to inheritance of power to his son Gamal Mubarak. And then this movement took a momentum in 2005 and people made renewed the hope for a real change. After 2005 we have witnessed a huge wave of strikes--included workers, bureaucrats, included people working in the state apparatus and business. For example, in Mahalla, industrial city in Delta, witnessed three successive and successful strikes in 2006, 2007, and 2008.”

“El-Mahalla is a City and factories. Like, it's industrial city, based on huge [inaudible] factories of textile industry. And it's--like, you can find, like, almost 30,000 workers working together. So imagine when [inaudible] 30,000 people are striking and supported by the residents in El-Mahalla. So three times they made successful [2006, 2007, and April 2008].

JAY: “And were they met with police repression?”

EZZELDIN: In 2008, April 6, 2008, they met with huge and brutal repression by the police, and it was like a street war. So this was -- this moment actually made a new hope, that first it delivered a new culture, a new experience for ordinary people about the strike. So it was followed by estimated, almost estimated 800 strikes in two years, which [is] unprecedented in Egyptian history.”

“In 2008, 2009…So we had first a political movement 2005, social movement, spread all over Egypt, in 2008 manifested by Mahalla strike and the tax [textile?] workers strike, who called for independent trade union. And both experiences [inaudible] many of Egyptian workers and people who are protesting against the regime and the -- it paid a lot of attention to what these people can do and how powerful they are. Okay?”

“It was followed later, last year, in 2010, by a youth movement. This youth movement [inaudible] after the brutal death of Khaled Saeed. Khaled Saeed was a young man, a university graduate in Alexandria, and he was tortured in the street and he was killed by the police inspectors. And after -- like, who was ordered by the police to kill this man, and he was killed.”

“And after the murder of Khaled Saeed in June 2010, there was a huge and massive opposition between the youth [inaudible] the people who are vulnerable to unemployment, people who are facing the police in daily interactions, and people who feel that this country is theirs, this country is ours, but it has been hijacked, it has been captured by this repressive regime and the political and economic figures who are supporting this regime and who are depriving them from a new future.”

“So we have three moments manifested in what happened. And, of course, this wouldn't happen, I would say, this wouldn't happen, at least unless we have kept watching the great and glorious revolution of the Tunisian people, which actually broke any barrier of fear [inaudible] just fearing to go to demonstration and continuing and insisting on the demands. So Tunisia, of course, played a huge role in what--to make what happened [inaudible].”

JAY: How important was social media? We're--you know, from the Western coverage there's kind of this sense that Egyptians were doing nothing, Tunisia happens, social media, and now you get this. So now what -- you can understand there's years of development. But that being said, did social media play an important role?

EZZELDIN: Yes, it played an important role. But we have to understand there's a sort of difference between Egypt and Tunisia. The Egyptian regime, the dictatorship in Egypt, is supported, basically, by the American aid and supported by American regime…American administration, and of course supported by Israel. The geographic and strategic status of Egypt in the region made the Egyptian regime quite different from other regimes in the region, okay, w hat made the mission and the task of the Egyptian opposition is really hard. So this is number one. Number two--.

JAY: But just to add, because there's so much at stake for Western interests, Egypt is like the pillar of this US policy for this region.

EZZELDIN: Sure. Sure. Sure. This first. And this not--by any means, this--I don't mean to reduce anything of what happened or to underestimate what happened in Tunisia, which is beyond imagination, beyond recognition, something really incredible, something great. But I would say, first, Egypt is quite different in terms of population, in terms of strategic importance to United States.

And second, regarding the media, the media played important role, because, first, the government and the state media lost its legitimacy since 2005. Al Jazeera and all independent bloggers and websites, Facebook, all this new social media played a significant role in networking and in, like, calling for strikes.

For example, in April 6, 2008, it played a magnificent role. So social media played very important role. And people now, like, we--I expected that what happened in Tunisia is going to influence people in Egypt, but I didn't expect that it's going to influence--me and many people didn't expect it will take this short an--it was with this--in this quick way, this very fast way. So media, basically, the coverage of events in Tunisia last month, played a major role in bringing the potential for change in Egypt to a moment, a momentum.

JAY: So do you get a sense now that -- both in terms of the workers movement and the unions and the student movement, that this is going to give rise to new forms or more developed forms of organization? 'Cause right now it looks very spontaneous.

EZZELDIN: Yeah. It's completely spontaneous. The opposition movement, the legitimate, legally, opposition movement can't claim anything of what's going on now in Cairo streets. And Muslim Brotherhood on Tuesday, they denounced what happened. They said, we didn't participate; we are going--. They said they are going to participate, but they didn't participate actively in what happened Tuesday. Okay? So this actually is really inspiring. First, those people are having spontaneous motivations. They were going after an--because of unemployment [inaudible] economic and political social grievance, because of dictatorship, because the suppression, the oppression of the police, okay, they are just--they are done. They are done.

They [The Muslim Brotherhood] have nothing to lose [inaudible] People are going to change. Okay? So this is number one. There's--they are not consolidated by foreign influence or foreign support. In terms of money, in terms of organization, like what happened in Ukraine and Eastern Europe, for example, it's quite different. People are not supported in Tunisia and Egypt; they are not supported from outside. And all the stereotypes in Western media about the potential threat of Islamist and all this stuff and they are going to take over the power [inaudible] only potential or only alternative to the recent regime in the region. Now it's -- it doesn't has-- it lost all of its credibility, because people are going and challenging the regime.

As Ezzeldin says, the role of social media such as Facebook and Twitter should not be underestimated. Many observers are referring to the current demonstrations are “The Twitter Revolution.” But others think that overplays its significance.

To Mohammed Ezzeldin, the real contribution of social media is to shrink the length of time required from having an idea of staging a demonstration and actual implementation of that idea. Many Egyptians were exchanging messages about the Mubarak regime and what could be done, literally for years. And demonstrations for social and economic justice took place regularly, sometimes with deadly consequences for the participants.

Because of social networks, many more people knew of these developments. This was the cadre of young, mostly college-educated Egyptians who were initially catalyzed by the “miracle of Tunisia.” The almost unbelievable ouster of the long-time president of Tunisia, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, had the effect of catalyzing the young Egyptians who began their country’s latest street demonstrations.

The social networks were also key to the media coverage. Twitter Tweets weere used by journalists to gather information as well as by demonstrators to coorindate with one another.

As this riveting Middle East Melodrama plays out – and it is impossible to forecast how it will all end – we all wonder if we will be sitting here ten years from now bemoaning what might have been – and wasn’t? Or looking proudly at what ordinary people were able to accomplish against odds so long they would drive as Las Vegas bookie into rehab.

Mubarak had an extraordinary opportunity to govern fairly and effectively. In the opinion of most observers, he has done neither. In 1979, he agreed to a peace treaty with Israel – an idea originated with Anwar Sadat, the Egyptian president who traveled to Jerusalem to speak to the Knesset and whowas later assassinated by an Islamist extremist. He has enjoyed a high degree of acceptance by the international community and, thanks to America’s largesse, he has been able to fund a first class military machine.

Since that historic treaty-signing, Mubarak has sold himself in Washington and elsewhere as critical to the success of the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Signing the treaty with the Israelis got him billions each year in military aid and economic assistance. It is known that he has a close relationship with Iasrael’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. He saw himself as the indispensable player in the Arab-Israeli arena, and he persuaded many others – inside and outside Egypt – of the credibility of that mantra.

And it is also true that, more recently, the Mubarak Government has served Israel’s interest by cutting off some of the smuggling between Egypt and the Gaza Strip.

These actions may give Mubarak a better reputation abroad than he enjoys at home, where he has been incredibly unpopular among most of his people for many years. He has kept the country under emergency law for 30 years, despite strong suggestions from the US, the EU and the UN to repeal them. These laws give the security services virtually unbridled authority to arrest and detain and, according to our own State Department’s annual report on Human Rights, Mubarak’s goons have used their authority to torture, to disappear prisoners, and to treat deaths in detention with impunity.

But the shortcomings of the Mubarak presidency are not limited to human rights. The economy is a basket case. Unemployment is virtually impossible to calculate with any degree of certainly, but the World Bank currently put it at 9.1 percent in March
2010, down from 9.2 percent a year ago.

But numbers don’t begin to tell the story. More to the point, the Constitution offers every Egyptian the opportunity to qualify for a university education. As a result, the country has a large population of men and women with degrees who have never had a job. Those who can afford to travel go overseas to seek employment. Those without resources take any job they can get. Many drive taxies. Others work as office cleaners. One suspects that their feelings of frustration would have led many of them to participate in the current demonstrations.

Those without resources include the 40 per cent of Egyptians who live below the poverty line, many in the most grinding poverty to be seen anywhere.

The Mubarak Government has made periodic noises about how much it’s done to improve Education, but today Egypt is ranked 123 in the Human Development Index (HDI), and seventh in the lowest 10 HDI countries in the Middle East and Northern Africa, in

Then there is the issue of corruption – public and private. Corruption seems to be as indigenous to the Middle East as sand. In Egypt, it is pervasive. It is known as bakshish. If you are too short to get into the Police Academy; if you want your taxi to take you to an out-of-the-way place; if your phone doesn’t work; if something you ordered is being held up in customs; if you’d rather not have the traffic ticket the cop is writing for speeding (you weren’t) – in all these situations and many on a much grander scale, a few Egyptian pounds will solve your problem. The American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt estimates that corruption in business adds at least 30 per cent to the price of Egyptian goods.

By most measures of development, modern Egypt fails. Washington is no doubt today questioning the cost-benefit implications of its massive investments in the Mubarak regime.

And wondering, with the rest of the world, who will emerge as a natural leader if Mubarak goes – and whether that leader will be able to maintain stability, while responding to the legitimate and long-delayed yearnings of the Egyptian people.

William Fisher, a regular contributor to The Public Record, has managed economic development programs for the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development in the Middle East, Latin America and elsewhere for the past 25 years. He has supervised major multi-year projects for AID in Egypt, where he lived and worked for three years. He returned later with his team to design Egypt’s agricultural strategy. Fisher served in the administration of President John F. Kennedy. He reports on a wide-range of issues for numerous domestic and international newspapers and online journals. He blogs at The World According to Bill Fisher.