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Tuesday, February 8, 2011

2011-02-08 The New Egyptian Normal: Thousands Demonstrate in Cairo, Alexandria

More Egyptians than ever turned out demand an end to the Mubarak regime today, putting to rest speculation that the protest movement was running out of steam. Thousands of new faces were to be seen among the protesters that turned out for massive Tuesday demonstrations in Cairo, Alexandria and many other Egyptian cities. Many observers said the crowds in Tahrir (Liberation) Square in Cairo were even larger than they were for last Friday's protests. And they turned out not only in Liberation Square but in other areas of Cairo and all over Egypt. Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians gathered again in Alexandria and thousands protested outside the parliament building a short distance from Tahrir.

Vice President Omar Soleiman warned ominously that his government "can't put up with continued protests" and then added emphatically that there would be no resignation of Mubarak and "no ending of the regime." For three decades the Egyptian people lived in fear of the Mubarak regime and especially the police state apparatus that [EGIS] Egyptian General Intelligence Service Chief Omar Soleiman constructed and then headed. Now the fear is gone. So the struggle between a growing number of Egyptian people and the Mubarak regime settles into a siege on this the 16th continuous day of demonstrations with protesters still holding Liberation Square.

The atmosphere in Liberation Square is again one of celebration. The center of the square has become a tent city were a core group have taken up residency. They have set up medical stations, food distribution, sanitation crews, all of the facilities of a small community. They even held a wedding earlier this week. One slogan that became popular in Liberation Square this week is "We are not Cairo. We are the New Egypt." They have been inventing the new Egypt in that square and the excitement they have generated has helped the movement to grow. Tuesday was another day for the really big crowds to return and they were bigger and more festive than ever. Many new people have joined the movement. In spite of the governments announcement of a 15% pay increase for government worker, many civil servants joined the protests for the first time today.

One of the things being celebrated is the release yesterday after 12 days of detention of Wael Ghonim, the Google executive who's Facebook page inspired the Egyptian protests. Many people saw the interview he did with Al Jazeera after he was released and a lot of the new people said they were inspired by him to come to Tahrir (Liberation) Square today. The centerpiece of the day was his speech to the people there.

Mubarak has promised a lot of reforms since the protests started.

While many see these as hard won concessions of the struggle so far, others see it has the latest Mubarak ploy to subvert the movement and avoid any real change in the status quo. History, both long term and recent, would appear to support that view.

The massive Tuesday, January 25th "Day of Rage" protests against poverty, unemployment, government corruption and the rule of Hosni Mubarak were largely peaceful. In Cairo people went into the streets in large numbers and headed for the NDP headquarters, the foreign ministry and state TV. Peaceful mass demonstrations also took place in Alexandria, Suez and through Egypt. This was unprecedented! This had never happened in Egypt before. Already the spell of fear had been broken. They had to get it back. After a few hours of relative calm, the Mubarak regime responded in it's usual manner, with massive police violence, using clubs, tear gas and water cannons against Egyptians crying "Down with Mubarak." In response to the crackdown, more protests broke out in the Nile delta cities of Mansura and Tanta and in Aswan and Assiut in the south. The movement spread.

This protest movement has been organized and led by the young people of Egypt. The April 6th Youth Movement and “We are all Khaled Said” group put up a Facebook page calling for a protest on January 25th and when that got more than 87 thousand 'likes' it was a signal that things had changed forever. Wael Ghonim, was the administrator of that page. According to this pre-demonstration announcement:
A large number of political parties and forces will participate in the protests, including the Democratic Front, the Labor Party, Al Ghad, the Revolutionary Socialists, the Socialist Renewal Movement, Prospects for Socialism, the Popular Democratic Movement for Democratic Change (Hashd), Al-Kefaya, Youth for Justice and Freedom, the Free Front for Peaceful Change, ElBaradei's campaign, and the National Association for Change.

Two weeks ago this announcement went on to say,
The 2011 demonstration is a huge event organized by the “We are all Khaled Said” group and is supported by other opposition political parties and groups. There are great hopes that this event will change Egypt forever especially after what happened in Tunisia.

The Muslim Brotherhood opposed the January 25th protests and stated very publicly that they would not be participating. That did not stop the Egyptian government from blaming the Muslim Brotherhood for fomenting the unrest a few hours after the protests started. Fear of a Islamic takeover in Egypt has been a cow that the Mubarak regime has milked for years and they weren't going to let the facts stand in the way this time either. As Cablegate memo 06CAIRO2933 noted about Mubarak.
He clearly hopes that his elder statesman value, combined with the implicit threat of the Muslim Brotherhood's rise, will temper foreign pressure for more and faster democratic reforms.

Once the police attacked, the protesters they fought back with everything they could find including rocks and fire bombs. They built barricades in the streets. The protesters were undeterred. They took these blows and adopted tactics that worn down the police, all the while, extending to them the hand of friendship as fellow Egyptians that shared many of the same grievances as the protesters. The cost was high. Thirteen people were killed, hundreds were wounded and thousands were arrested. But by the end of Friday prayer, these tactics were beginning to show signs of success. In Alexandria, the police made peace with the demonstrators and many joined the protest movement. In other cities, many police just went home and changed into civilian clothes.

By the time Mubarak saw the massive turnout for the protest rallies on Friday 28 January, he must have realized that just using the stick wasn't going to work this time and so began to growing list of promises and concessions. He announced that day that he was dismissing his cabinet. The next day, while his party headquarters was burning to the ground, he appointed his first vice president in 30 years, Omar Soleiman, the much feared head of the EGIS and considered by some the most powerful intelligence chief in the middle east. Cablegate memo 09CAIRO874 characterized the relationship between Mubarak and Soleiman this way:
EGIS Chief Omar Soliman and Interior Minister al-Adly keep the domestic beasts at bay, and Mubarak is not one to lose sleep over their tactics

Now those "domestic beasts" were awake and roaring and Soleiman had been promoted to dictator-in-waiting. The regime's other response was to withdraw the police and send in the army.

The army is one of conscripts at the bottom and it is much loved and respected by the people. Mubarak hasn't tried to use the army to directly suppress the people with violence and it is likely that neither he nor anyone else knows exactly how the chips will fall should he attempt to do so. The army has promised not to fire on the people and has played a seemingly neutral role. Using the army to directly put down the rebellion with massive violence was not a option, for a multitude of reasons, including the fact the United States was already getting bad press because some of the weapons used on the people were clearly marked 'made in the US.' Still, Egyptian air force planes and helicopters flew menacingly low over the crowds in Liberation Square for a number of days. People were not scared away. After a while and without comment from the government, the over flights stopped.

The government imposed a curfew. The curfew has been defied ever since. Troops fired shots into the air to disperse the people in Tahrir Square but the people stayed and said Mubarak would have to go. So the new VP and head of state security Soleiman promised a new dialogue on constitutional reforms.

The next tactic the Mubarak regime used to break the rebellion was to disrupt the normal life of Egyptians and blame it on the protests. The banks were closed. the ATM's didn't work. People couldn't get their money. Schools also were closed and so were many businesses. It is unclear why these steps had to be taken because of thousands of people in Tahrir Square but they were, and they were blamed on the protests.

In an effort to cut communications and stem the tide of protests, the regime cut all cell phone service and Internet access to the extent it could. These disruptions were blamed on the rebellion too. Their most formidable tactic in this period may have been allowing massive jail breaks after the police were withdrawn from patrolling cities. This was followed by a lot of looting and mayhem making by criminals and police agents. This was blamed on the protests too, even though some of criminals were revealed to be members of the state security force when they were caught.

The looting and vandalism forced many of the protesters to return to their neighborhoods to defend their homes. It was designed to do this and also create an atmosphere of chaos and a willingness to return to the old order. It didn't work. People returned to their neighborhoods and secured them. They setup road blocks and neighborhood watch committees. All over Cairo, the city was being policed by newly formed citizen's militias. The vandalism and looting came to an end and by Tuesday people felt safe enough to leave their neighborhoods and return to mass protests in Liberation Square and throughout Egypt in unprecedented numbers. The opposition had called for a "Million Man March" on Tuesday. The turnout was overwhelming with an estimated 6 million people marching nationwide. Mubarak when on state TV and announced that he wouldn't run for president again at the end of his term. The resounding response from the square was that his term needed to end now.

Then he sent in the thugs, or rather Soleiman did, because all of the levers of state security are in the hands of this Mubarak loyalist. For two days and nights the violence perpetrated by these pro-Mubarak forces was horrific as they battled to force the protesters from Liberation Square. While the army looked on and failed to intervene, this collection of NDP loyalists, police out of uniform, and paid thugs, used Molotov cocktails, guns, and automatic weapons on the protesters in the square and throughout Egypt. The pro-democracy masses waged pitched battles against these forces and suffered heavy losses, the UN estimates 300 have been killed since the protests began, but they never gave up the square.

The next Friday 4 February, was termed the "Day of Departure" and it revealed to all that Mubarak's and Soleiman's latest terror campaign had been a big failure. The crowds in Liberation Square and throughout Egypt were bigger still. The demand that the regime with so much fresh Egyptian blood on its hands must go was stronger than ever on the eleventh day of protest. The next day, more government concessions were forthcoming. The leadership of the ruling NDP resigned including Gamal Mubarak, the son of Hosni Mubarak and expected successor.

Since his thugs failed to scare people off the streets and break the back of the revolution with terror, Soleiman began talks with a carefully selected group of opposition leaders, including the banned Muslim Brotherhood. Although Soleiman's hatred for the Muslim Brotherhood is well known, he knows that giving the Muslim Brotherhood a prominent place in negotiations will be troubling to many in the west and in Egypt and make them more likely to support the regime's persistence. This angle was played to the hilt by the major media in the United States that can't stop talking about the Muslim Brotherhood but never mentions any of the groups that called the protests in the beginning.

After two weeks the disruptions of normal life caused by the struggle were really starting to wear on people. There was a real feeling that things needed to get back to normal but people didn't want the old normal. Still, they needed to get back to work and to school. Mubarak and company supported these sentiments by re-opening banks and schools. Small business got back to business but the protests continued. A new normal has been settling in. Many Egyptians were saying that the protests needed to end and the media has been giving that opinion a loud voice.

While most Egyptians have been supportive of the struggle, as it moves into its third week, many are starting to question its continuation. They have grown tired of the disruption of normal life and have suffered a loss of income as banks and other businesses have been closed. The protests have already achieved a great deal they argue. President Mubarak has named a vice-president and promised to step down at the end of his term. Vice President Soleiman is talking to some members of the opposition, even the hated Muslim Brotherhood. There have already been some economic concessions made and the regime has promised to ease restrictions on the Internet and press. Now let's give them a chance to implement these reforms and we can get back to some sort of normalcy they plead. This attitude is understandable after all the trauma and hardship people have been through. The UN estimates that over 300 Egyptians have been killed. Thousands more have been wounded, imprisoned or tortured in the past few weeks of rebellion.

History has shown that as long as a tyrant remains in power all the promises made remain an illusion. The testimony of those that have been released from the state's custody about the mistreatment and torture perpetrated on protesters that have been arrested and remain in custody put the lie to the regime's promises of reform. So does the wanton disregard for human life and the welfare of Egypt shown by the regime in the brutal methods it has used in it's attempts to suppress this rebellion. All of this can be taken as a window into the horror that will befall Egypt if these protests should die down and a regime headed by either Mubarak or Soleiman be allowed to consolidate its rule.

That is why the massive turnout and especially all the new faces were so important today. Another massive protest is planned for Friday. The protesters say they will remain in Liberation Square until Mubarak and his cronies are gone. The fear is gone!

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