Yesterday, the most extensive mass demonstrations against Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak intensified, despite the shut-down of all Internet service and mobile telecommunications in the country. Tens of thousands massed after Friday prayers, in Cairo, in Giza, in Suez, in Alexandria and in smaller cities across the country. Demonstrators openly called for Pres. Hosni Mubarak to step down, and Mubarak appeared, after four days of silence, to say he would dismiss his entire cabinet.
Mubarak spoke to US president Barack Obama for 30 minutes after his speech, and Obama later told the press he warned Mubarak he needed to “give meaning to those words”, not just say them in an effort to cling to power. Mubarak’s administration later allowed some email and Internet traffic to continue, but imposed a strict curfew for Friday night. Thousands of demonstrators defied the military curfew and confrontations with security forces turned violent. At least 13 people were reported dead overnight.
Tanks moved into the streets of Cairo and Alexandria, as Mubarak, acting as “military governor” sought to impose order. According to the Guardian newspaper:
Two weeks to the day after Tunisia saw its veteran president flee into exile, the capital of the Arab world’s largest country witnessed extraordinary scenes as tens of thousands of demonstrators braved teargas, rubber bullets and baton charges to vent their fury at repression, poverty, unemployment and corruption.
Mohamed El Baradei, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency and possible candidate for the Egyptian presidency, who returned to Egypt and joined with pro-democracy protesters after Friday prayers, has been placed under house arrest, “for his own protection”, according to official sources.
Police in Cairo are now reported to be firing live rounds at protesters. At 3:22 pm Cairo time, the Guardian was reporting that “[Jack] Shenker has confirmed with four separate sources that live ammunition is being fired.” A fellow reporter was also struck in the head by a rubber bullet. At least 25 are now reported killed in clashes with security forces, and Pres. Mubarak has named his intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, to serve as vice president, the first time anyone has occupied that post since Mubarak himself vacated it to become president, in 1981.
Clashes overnight were reportedly intense enough that military vehicles were burned, even as tanks moved in to disperse protesters. Unconfirmed reports suggest a small number of looters broke into the heavily guarded antiquities museum and destroyed two ancient Egyptian mummies. Some have speculated that the regime is seeking to use such news to justify a more aggressively violent crackdown against the pro-democracy movement.
Reuters is reporting that Fawaz Gerges, from the London School of Economics, is saying:
This is the Arab world’s Berlin moment. The authoritarian wall has fallen – and that’s regardless of whether Mubarak survives or not. It goes beyond Mubarak. The barrier of fear has been removed. It is really the beginning of the end of the status quo in the region. The introduction of the military speaks volumes about the failure of the police to suppress the protesters. The military has stepped in and will likely seal any vacuum of authority in the next few weeks. Mubarak is deeply wounded. He is bleeding terribly. We are witnessing the beginning of a new era.
A new nationwide military curfew has been imposed beginning at 4 pm Saturday afternoon, but reports from Cairo and Alexandria suggest thousands continued to defy the ban on public gatherings and to march even in the presence of tanks and military police. Photos from the scene showed thousands of protesters surrounding military security, with military personnel observing and trying to keep violence from surging.
Two days ago, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was similarly artful in her response to the protests: she called on “both sides” to refrain from violence and urged the administration of Hosni Mubarak to honor the “universal rights” of the people of Egypt, including the rights to assembly, association and expression. Mubarak has not been seen or heard from publicly since the crisis began, and observers speculate he may be considering concessions that would allow him to remain in power, at least temporarily.
Human Rights Watch is urging that the Egyptian government “end an escalating crackdown on what appear to be largely peaceful protests against police brutality, poverty, and corruption”. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has urged the Egyptian regime to respect the “legitimate” concerns of the Egyptian people and to honor the rights to free expression, free assembly, and open use of the Internet.
Today, BBC radio reported from Cairo that water cannon were used against Mr. El Baradei and his supporters, and the Los Angeles Times describes Cairo as “the scene of violent chaos”, as police assaulted demonstrators and reportedly attempted to close in on El Baradei himself. Supporters who surrounded the pro-democracy advocate were reportedly beaten by security forces attempting either to reach the former diplomat or disperse the crowd.
The LA Times article describes today’s events as “a major escalation” in what is now being considered a campaign to unseat the authoritarian Mubarak. At least six different venues across Cairo saw protesters gathering by the thousands this morning, while security forces took more extreme measures to try to prevent them from converging in the city center.
While Mohamed El Baradei, soaking wet and surrounded by supporters bloodied from the police attacks, is reported to be taking refuge inside a mosque near the protest route, security forces clashed with demonstrators across the city. According to the LA Times reporting:
At the upscale Mohandiseen district, at least 10,000 of people were marching toward the city center chanting “down, down with Mubarak.” The crowd later swelled to about 20,000 as they made their way through residential areas.
Residents looking on from apartment block windows waved and whistled in support. Others waved the red, white and black Egyptian flags. The marchers were halted as they tried to cross a bridge over the Nile, when police fired dozens of tear gas canisters.
The violent crackdown has reportedly emboldened the Muslim Brotherhood, a leading opposition party committed to Islamist government, and at times seen as either extremist or mainstream, depending on the political tensions of the moment. The Muslim Brotherhood was not initially part of the protest movement, which has been secular in nature, focused on demanding greater political freedom and economic justice. But the government’s hardline response, and reports its forces raided offices of the Muslim Brotherhood and other opposition parties, piqued the ire of the party’s followers, and may have added to the intensity of the protests.
While Iran’s government says the demonstrations are a repeat of the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, the truth is the demonstrations much more closely mirror the secular protests that preceded the Ayatollahs’ takeover. Starting in 1978, demonstrators in Iran began demanding greater political freedom and the end of the authoritarian rule of the Shah; the power vacuum that ensued cleared the way for the Islamist revolution of the Ayatollah Khomeini.
In Egypt, as in Tunisia and Yemen, the Islamist parties appear to see the usefulness of the protests, but remain a marginal force. Well organized opposition parties and an electorate determined to see democratic process replace authoritarian rule could lead to all three countries seeing new elections within the year. Tunisia is continuing its process of interim constitutional reform, with an interim government setting the stage for new elections within a period —still in dispute— of 2 to 6 months.
Observers are noting that the US needs to perform something of a tightrope walk with respect to the demonstrations: in the past, it has cultivated strong working relationships with unpopular and sometimes hardline regimes across the region, though the Obama administration’s “3D diplomacy” has consistently sought to steer attention away from those politicians and toward the needs and interests of the people of the region, calling for more democratic process and more robust civil society engagement.
Yemen is a very high-stakes test case: Pres. Ali Abdullah Saleh has been cooperating with US efforts to roll back the influence of an extremist group calling itself “Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula” (AQAP), but his period of rule —more than three decades— has been one of the causes of deep and pervasive unrest and injustice in the troubled nation.
According to the LA Times, it is the persistent economic failings of Saleh that have led to this mass revolt:
Saleh, who has ruled Yemen for 32 years, has been unable to stem unemployment and improve education, healthcare and sanitation in the region’s poorest nation. Anger toward him and his government has been steadily growing, especially among young activists and tribal leaders. He has also faces an intensifying secessionist movement in the south.
Even as US military aid to Yemen is slated to increase in 2011, US officials are well aware of the popular movement against him, and will clearly focus their efforts on fostering a security environment that disadvantages AQAP extremists, whether or not that means Saleh must step aside. Yemen does not appear to be a case where the strongman is considered indispensable, especially if a pro-democracy movement can rise to govern convincingly, and possibly be better suited to implement and more closely aligned with the socio-political interests of Obama’s pro-development, pro-democracy diplomacy.
What is happening across the Arabic-speaking world, with widespread popular support for major political reforms, and growing opposition to decades’ long hardline regimes, is unprecedented in modern times, and may mark an historic turning point, where it is no longer a credible view for any in the international community that only international intervention will lead to “regime change” in such authoritarian states in the region.
“People power” may be taking hold, and a sustained and organized effort by demonstrators could usher in a new alliance of free peoples ready to change the power dynamic and find new ways to honor and uphold the dignity of the human person. While such optimistic whispers are naturally a part of the diplomatic climate, there is also rising awareness that such an outcome, however unlikely it once may have seemed, would be the best way to reverse the spread of violent extremism.
UPDATE, 9:20 am EST: Reports emerging from Cairo include at least one BBC reporter —Assad Sawey— who was “targeted”, arrested and brutally assaulted by police using “metal bars” used to slaughter animals, according to the reporter’s testimony. Another reporter told BBC radio that the government is using extreme violence against journalists, trying to suppress evidence of its violent crackdown. The numbers of protesters appear to be increasing, on this the fourth day of nationwide protest against the Mubarak regime.
The popular view that the regime —which has ruled under “emergency” laws since 1981 and which prohibits all forms of public protest— is illegitimate, due to widespread evidence of vote rigging in last year’s election, which the government says gave 93% to Mubarak and his allies. The protests are spreading to all corners of the country, north to Alexandria, west to the Libyan border region and in the poorest districts of the Nile Delta.
UPDATE, 11:11 pm EST: This afternoon and evening, developments in Egypt seemed to be moving toward a turning point. After reports of substantial back-channel communications between US and Egyptian officials, reportedly to convey the strong view of the Obama administration that Pres. Mubarak must carry out significant political reforms, Pres. Mubarak pledged to dismiss his entire cabinet and convene a new one, ostensibly to carry out the reforms necessary to govern “in this new era”.
President Obama on Friday put Egypt’s embattled leader, Hosni Mubarak, on notice that he should not use his soldiers and the police in a bloody crackdown on the protests in Egypt, edging away from a close American ally whose cities have erupted in protest.
Addressing the nation from the White House after a day of rage across Egypt, Mr. Obama said he called Mr. Mubarak and told him “to refrain from any violence against peaceful protesters” and to turn a “moment of volatility” into a “moment of promise.” Declaring that the protesters have universal rights, he said, “The United States will continue to stand up for the rights of the Egyptian people.”
President Obama on Friday strongly defended the rights of Egyptian protesters who have taken to the streets to demand political change, cautioning the government of President Hosni Mubarak to avoid violence and adopt “concrete steps that advance the rights” of the country’s citizens.
Still, the White House has been careful not to appear to be co-opting the demonstrators or to inflame tensions, while holding the line that the “universal rights” of the people of Egypt must be honored and served.
UPDATE, 11:18 pm EST: The Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz is reporting that violence in Egypt has escalated after nightfall. The government imposed a strict curfew, but protesters have refused to follow it, reportedly pushing back police, only to be confronted by the military.
There are reports the headquarters of Mubarak’s ruling party was set on fire, while demonstrators sought to section off parts of Cairo using burning vehicles as barricades to distance themselves from security forces. Ha’aretz is reporting at least five demonstrators killed and at least 1,030 wounded in Cairo alone.
Clashes elsewhere appear to have been more deadly: six are now reported killed in Alexandria, the nation’s second city, and as many as 13 in Suez. It is not clear how the protesters were killed, but there is speculation the clashes with security forces may have included live ammunition. It is also being reported, however, that the military has not yet clashed with demonstrators, suggesting the deaths resulted from clashes with police.
In the United States, MSNBC reported Friday evening that among demonstrators, there is a view that the military is closer to their interests than to the regime of Hosni Mubarak. It is the police they fear more, it was reported, and they were said to have celebrated when they heard the military were being called in to keep the peace.
The military now appears to be establishing control of key infrastructure, including media outlets. According to Ha’aretz:
The breaking point in the relative calm was at 6:00 PM, when tens of thousands of protesters defied the curfew set by Mubarak. Egyptians unleashed their wrath on the police who retreated, replaced by soldiers who have thus far refrained from injuring civilians. Many demonstrators paraded the streets with police helmets they were able to nab from the police and streets of Cairo were ablaze with burning police cars
The military took over key posts including the television building, the parliament, the Foreign Ministry and the Interior Ministry. Egyptian protestors continued to demonstrate despite the military presence, and even set fire to army vehicles and smashed the windshields of several army jeeps.
UPDATE, 11:25 pm EST: There has been significant concern for priceless Egyptian antiquities, some of the most prized and important ancient artifacts in the world. The famed antiquities museum is perilously close to the ruling party headquarters, which was engulfed in flames Friday.
Citizens reportedly formed a human chain around the museum to prevent any harm coming to the invaluable evidence of the nation’s monumental history, and Salon.com is reporting that “The Egyptian army secured Cairo’s famed antiquities museum early Saturday, protecting treasures including the famed gold mask of King Tutankhamun from looters.”
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