Egypt Updates: Protests Now Include Spreading General Strike

Faced with the expansion of the Cairo demonstrations to a second site, outside the parliament building, and of the wider movement into Kharga Oasis, in Wadi al-Gadid (New Valley) governorate, Vice President Omar Suleiman yesterday issued a statement describing the protests as “very dangerous” and warning they were potentially leading to a “coup”. The language is widely thought to presage a renewed crackdown on dissent. But the pro-democracy movement is now expanding across the country, as a general strike spreads, and workers join in the call for Mubarak to leave office.

The news emerged today that Saudi government officials spoke in support of King Abdullah’s remarks that the protesters are “infiltrators” and that no government has a right to “interfere” in Egypt’s internal affairs. The Saudi regime has reportedly encouraged Mubarak to fight to hold onto power, which critics have pointed out is a very aggressive kind of “interference” in the internal affairs of the Egyptian state.

The revelations raise questions about whether Saudi Arabia may be trying to preempt a protest movement at home by seeking to demonize Egypt’s pro-democracy movement. Saudi Arabia also now appears to be joining in the campaign to smear the entire pro-democracy movement as a front for Iranian interests, an apparent effort to sow conflict in polarized western political systems. Egypt’s protest movement, however, continues to stand behind the demand for Mubarak’s removal and the framing of their entire effort as a nonviolent quest to reclaim their right to self-government.

Wael Ghonim has been informally adopted by many of the protesters as a spokesman for the movement, due to his personal role in sparking the online campaign, his personal story of persecution at the hands of the regime, and his eloquence in defense of the spreading democratic ideals of a disenfranchised Egyptian populace.

According to the Guardian newspaper’s live blog of events in Egypt: “Twenty-four human rights organisations have accused the minister of information Anas al-Fiqqi, of being responsible for the deaths of protesters by spreading false propaganda about them, the Egyptian paper Al-Masry Al-Youm reports.” The Al-Masry Al-Youm report reads, in part:

The organizations held al-Fiqqi responsible for the “crimes committed in Egypt on Wednesday 2 February which led to the death of 11 people and the injury of 820 others.”

In their report, the organizations said that the media campaign launched by the Egyptian Information Ministry incited hatred against peaceful protesters calling for reform, by accusing them of treason.

In a statement, the organizations said al-Fiqqi used Egyptian Television to perpetrate rumours about the peaceful protesters on Egyptian streets, particularly those in Tahrir Square.

The report included some of the news reported by state television, which it described as “false,” saying it was misused to turn public opinion against the protesters.

Reflection on Suleiman’s cryptic phrasing, involving the word “coup”, has led some to speculate he is warning the demonstrators that continued resistance to the regime may end in a coup led by himself or another military leader and the imposition of even stricter emergency laws. The pro-democracy movement has, reportedly, begun to come together in support of opposition to any negotiation with Mubarak or the leaders of his government.

Egypt’s Al Ahram newspaper, a reputed pro-government publication, has reported:

More than 2,000 textile workers and others in Suez demonstrated as well, Al Ahram reported, while in Luxor thousands hurt by the collapse of the tourist industry marched to demand government benefits. There was no immediate independent corroboration of the reports. Al Ahram’s coverage was a departure from its usual practice of avoiding reporting that might embarrass the government.

At one factory in the textile town of Mahalla, more than 1,500 workers walked out and blocked roads, continuing a long-running dispute with the owner. And more than 2,000 workers from the Sigma pharmaceutical company in the city of Quesna went on strike while some 5,000 unemployed youth stormed a government building in Aswan, demanding the dismissal of the governor.

In Cairo, sanitation workers demonstrated around their headquarters in Dokki. And more than a hundred journalists gathered in the lobby of Al Ahram itself, denouncing corruption, calling for more press freedom and demanding benefits for two colleagues killed in the Tahrir Square protests.

The outbreak of violence last night in Wadi al-Gadid (New Valley) governorate, in the Kharga Oasis, was reported to have led to at least 8 deaths. This morning, there are reports confirming two fatalities, with 8 critically wounded and over 100 more also injured. Locals have alleged a corrupt police official led a violent crackdown on anti-corruption demonstrators.

At shortly after 5:30 pm Cairo time, Wael Ghonim, the celebrated online activist who has become a spokesperson for the pro-democracy movement, posted this message on Twitter: “We are hoping that the ‘Friday of Martyrs’ will be the world largest funeral to bid farewell to 300 Egyptians #Jan25“.

A campaign to highlight the extreme violence of the government’s response to pro-democracy demonstrations and the resulting deaths of innocent Egyptians is spreading, both online and throughout Egyptian society, and there are anecdotal reports of young people now being supported and accompanied by parents and older relatives as they go to public sites like Tahrir Square or the Egyptian parliament, or central squares in Mansura, Alexandria and Suez, to protest the against the regime of Hosni Mubarak.

UPDATE, 5:20 pm EST (12:20 am Thurs., Cairo): There is new information surfacing of a widespread campaign of secret detentions, disappearances and torture, allegedly carried out by some segment of the Egyptian military, in an effort to crush the pro-democracy opposition movement. The pro-democracy demonstrators have consistently expressed their interest in maintaining good relations with the army, and have praised examples in which the military has shown restraint or even cooperated with the demonstrators.

But now, the Guardian newspaper says its reporters have gathered evidence of a campaign of intimidation, abduction and torture. According to their reporting:

The Egyptian military has secretly detained hundreds and possibly thousands of suspected government opponents since mass protests against President Hosni Mubarak began, and at least some of these detainees have been tortured, according to testimony gathered by the Guardian.

The military has claimed to be neutral, merely keeping anti-Mubarak protesters and loyalists apart. But human rights campaigners say this is clearly no longer the case, accusing the army of involvement in both disappearances and torture – abuses Egyptians have for years associated with the notorious state security intelligence (SSI) but not the army.

The Guardian has spoken to detainees who say they have suffered extensive beatings and other abuses at the hands of the military in what appears to be an organised campaign of intimidation. Human rights groups have documented the use of electric shocks on some of those held by the army.

Egyptian human rights groups say families are desperately searching for missing relatives who have disappeared into army custody. Some of the detainees have been held inside the renowned Museum of Egyptian Antiquities on the edge of Tahrir Square. Those released have given graphic accounts of physical abuse by soldiers who accused them of acting for foreign powers, including Hamas and Israel.

The nature of the detentions —in many cases secret abductions without any legal process at all— and the work of their targets, suggest they are part of a wider campaign by the regime to derail investigations into illegal abuses, corruption and violence against the people of Egypt. Those abducted and/or tortured, some of them still missing, include lawyers, human rights investigators and spokespeople, journalists and pro-democracy activists calling for an end to official abuses.

It is thought that several hundreds, maybe several thousand ordinary Egyptians had “disappeared” into the vast network of regime detention facilities, “for no more than carrying a political flyer, attending the demonstrations or even the way they look,” according to the Guardian report. It is not known how many people remain missing, but estimates suggest most of the cases are still not known; there is concern that families of those abducted may be keeping quiet for fear of provoking the regime.

One young volunteer, who was abducted by the military while carrying medical supplies to a makeshift clinic at Tahrir Square, told a horrifying story of the way his captors brutalized him, apparently in a quest to extract a false confession that could be used to smear the entire pro-democracy movement and justify a violent assault on the demonstrators. He told the Guardian:

They put me in a room. An officer came and asked me who was paying me to be against the government. When I said I wanted a better government he hit me across the head and I fell to the floor. Then soldiers started kicking me. One of them kept kicking me between my legs … They got a bayonet and threatened to rape me with it. Then they waved it between my legs. They said I could die there or I could disappear into prison and no one would ever know. The torture was painful but the idea of disappearing in a military prison was really frightening.

Unfortunately, his story is not unique. Reports of extreme torture, with literally no legal recourse, have been emerging from Egypt for many years. An Egyptian torture commission found that torture was a routine method of police interrogation across the country, and former intelligence officers have reportedly told the press that Egypt is where enemy captives were known to be sent when the desire was that they “disappear” never to be heard from again.

Human Rights Watch has reportedly logged information 119 such abductions, but its investigators say they believe there are many more like this and that the secrecy is making it hard to track down evidence. In the case of Wael Ghonim, it required top media executives, the technological and global influence of Google, international lawyers, watchdog groups and possibly foreign governments to uncover enough information to press for his release. Most of those abducted have no such visibility or assistance available.

UPDATE, 6:56 pm EST (1:56 am Thurs., Cairo): There are reports the protests in Tahrir Square again eclipsed one million today, while pro-democracy activists said they will not cede the square despite an ongoing crackdown and pressure from the military:

The groups challenging the three-decade-long rule of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and his deputy, Omar Suleiman, have built shelters from tarpaulins and made beds from blankets and clothing as they become accustomed to sleeping outdoors next to the caterpillar tracks of the military vehicles.

“We will not leave Tahrir until our demands are met,” said Amr Hassan, 21, a commerce student at Cairo’s Ain Shams University. “We will not allow anyone from the previous regime to stay, not Mubarak, Suleiman, or anyone else.”

It now appears the protest has been joined by major labor unions across the country, which say they can no longer support the regime of Hosni Mubarak or the collapsing economy his authoritarian policies are blamed for fostering. Some now openly call the regime a kleptocracy, while others say there must be fundamental fairness in the political process before the majority of Egyptians can hope to have anything like economic fairness or opportunity.

The regime is accused of plotting to smear and to persecute the pro-democracy movement and to try to “outlast” the protests, while offering no real reform. Instead, report Jack Shenker and Chris McGreal from Cairo:

… the largest anti-Mubarak demonstration so far took place in Cairo on Tuesday. This came on the same day as 25 separate big demonstrations elsewhere in Egypt and the start of a series of strikes as trade unions joined the fray. Some stoppages are mainly about wage demands, but in the present crisis there is little doubt that they are timed to support the pro-democracy movement.

Tens of thousands of workers stayed away in Alexandria to demand Mubarak’s resignation. Employees of the state-run Suez Canal company, public transport workers in Cairo and iron and steel workers in other parts of the country have also joined the strikes.

There are reports of a mood spreading throughout Egypt that the entire Mubarak regime is now lame and flailing, rudderless and unwilling to cooperate with the people of Egypt. This has led to still more intense criticism of Omar Suleiman, whom many Egyptians reportedly now feel is just another strongman waiting to seize control of a regime that has done virtually nothing to dismantle the apparatus of authoritarian control it has used to govern for the last three decades.

With Suleiman announcing vague and underwhelming “concessions”, then pledging to lift the emergency laws only when all security risks have been subdued —a sign to many they would not be lifted at all, as the entire protest movement is still being treated by the regime as a band of “infiltrators” seeking to “destroy Egypt”—, then last night threatening a “coup” if demonstrators don’t cease all protest immediately, he is now being viewed increasingly as a discredited and inappropriate choice to oversee a transition.

Transition talks with Suleiman as the regime’s lead representative now appear to have broken down, and with the vice president saying “The culture of democracy is still far away,” it appears the protest movement is still spreading, with more ordinary Egyptians from every level of society and every region of the country, joining the protesters demand for an end to the Mubarak regime.

UPDATE, 7:30 pm EST (2:30 am Thurs., Cairo): There is word this evening a lawsuit may be filed in New York requesting that all of Hosni Mubarak’s assets in the United States be frozen and/or seized, in response to the brutal violence of his regime’s crackdown against pro-democracy demonstrators. Confirmation of such a filing has not yet been made, but there is mounting pressure on democratic governments to cut off all support to figures in the regime who are responsible for ordering abductions and atrocities.

CafeSentido chronicle of events in Egypt: