Friday, February 4, 2011

Tahrir Square, Cairo ...


Egypt AP/Manoocher Deghati

Egypt protesters throng square after violence

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
Anti-government protestors rise their hands in the victory sign in Cairo's Tahrir Square, Friday, Feb. 4, 2011. The Egyptian military guarded thousand AP – Anti-government protestors rise their hands in the victory sign in Cairo's Tahrir Square, Friday, Feb. …

CAIRO – Tens of thousands packed central Cairo Friday, waving flags and singing the national anthem, emboldened in their campaign to oust President Hosni Mubarak after they repelled pro-regime attackers in two days of bloody street fights. The U.S. was pressing Egypt for an immediate start to democratic transition, including a proposal for Mubarak to step down immediately.
Thousands including families with children flowed over bridges across the Nile into Tahrir Square, a sign that they were not intimidated after fending off everything thrown at them by pro-Mubarak attackers — storms of hurled concrete, metal rebar and firebombs, fighters on horses and camels and automatic gunfire barrages.
In the wake of the violence, more detailed scenarios were beginning to emerge for a transition to democratic rule after Mubarak's nearly 30-year authoritarian reign. The Obama administration said it was discussing several possibilities with Cairo — including one for Mubarak to leave office now and hand over power to a military-backed transition.
Protesters in the square held up signs reading "Now!", massing around 100,000 in the largest gathering since the quarter-million who rallied Tuesday. They labelled Friday's rally the "day of leaving," the day they hope Mubarak will go.
Thousands prostrated themselves in the noon prayers, then immediately after uttering the prayer's concluding "God's peace and blessings be upon you," they began chanting their message to Mubarak: "Leave! Leave! Leave!" A man sitting in a wheelchair was lifted — wheelchair and all — over the heads of the crowd and he pumped his arms in the air.
Those joining in passed through a series of beefed-up checkpoints by the military and the protesters themselves guarding the square. In the afternoon, a group of Mubarak supporters gathered in a square several blocks away and tried to move on Tahrir, banging with sticks on metal fences to raise an intimidating clamor. But protesters throwing rocks pushed them back.
The Arabic news network Al-Jazeera said a "gang of thugs" stormed its offices in continuation of attacks on journalists by regime supporters that erupted Thursday. It said the attackers burned the office and damaged equipement. The editor of the Muslim Brotherhood's website, Abdel-Galil el-Sharnoubi, told the AP that policemen stormed its office Friday morning and arrested 10 to 15 of its journalists. Also clashes with sticks and fists between pro- and anti-government demonstrators erupted in two towns in southern Egypt.
Various proposals for a post-Mubarak transition floated by the Americans, the regime and the protesters share some common ground, but with one elephant-sized difference: The protesters say nothing can be done before Mubarak leaves.
The 82-year-old president insists he will serve out the remaining seven months of his term to ensure a stable process. "You don't understand the Egyptian culture and what would happen if I step down now," Mubarak said he told President Barack Obama. He warned in an interview with ABC News that chaos would ensue.
But the Obama administration was in talks with top Egyptian officials about the possibility of Mubarak immediately resigning and handing over a military-backed transitional government headed by Vice President Omar Suleiman.
Such a government would prepare the country for free and fair elections later this year, according to U.S. officials speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the continuing sensitive talks. The officials stressed that the United States isn't seeking to impose a solution on Egypt but said the administration had made a judgment that Mubarak has to go soon if there is to be a peaceful resolution.
Suleiman has offered negotiations with all political forces, including the protest leaders and regime's top foe the Muslim Brotherhood, over constitutional changes needed to ensure a free vote ahead of September presidential elections to replace Mubarak, who has promised not to run again.
Among them: provisions to ensure independent supervision of elections, a loosening of now suffocating restrictions on who can run for president and a term limit for the president.
Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, one of the leaders of the protest movement, lay out his scenario on Friday: a transitional government headed by a presidential council of two or three figures, including a military representative.
ElBaradei said he respects Suleiman as someone to negotiate with over the transition, but did not address whether he should have any presidential role.
The protesters in Tahrir have not seemed to have a unanimous view on Suleiman, a military man who was intelligence chief and Mubarak's top aide until being elevated to vice president last week. Some are willing to see him head any transitional government, others view him as too much of a regime figure and demand he go too.
ElBaradei repeated the protesters' condition that Mubarak must leave immediately before there can be negotiations with the government over the nation's future.
"He should hear the clear voice coming from the people and leave in dignity," ElBaradei told a press conference. "The quicker he leaves in dignity the better it is for everybody."
But he underlined that the protest movement is not seeking "retribution" or a complete purge. "Not everyone who worked with the regime should be eliminated," he said. "There will be no severance with the history and past of Egypt."
There were other potential difference with Suleiman's scenario. ElBaradei said the constitutional changes must include greater freedom to form political parties, which now effectively need the approval of Mubarak's ruling party. Protesters also demand the lifting of the emergency law in place for the entirety of Mubarak's rule, giving security forces near unlimited powers.
Suleiman has mentioned neither issue, though he said the regime is willing to discuss far-reaching changes.
Another issue is timeframe. Suleiman spoke of completing constitutional changes by July to hold presidential elections in September. ElBaradei said that was not enough time to uproot a system that has ruled for decades through a monopoly on politics and widespread election fraud to ensure a proper vote.
"People are not stupid not to understand that this is not really a genuine desire to go for reform," he said of the July/September schedule.
Instead, he said, the presidential council should rule for a year under a temporary constitution, during which time a permanent document would be drawn up and only afterwards elections held.
One self-professed potential candidate — Arab League chief Amr Moussa — appeared in the square Friday, his convoy greeted by chants of "we want you as president, we want you as president." Moussa, previously a former foreign minister under Mubarak, has an elder statesman appeal for some Egyptians, boosted by the tough rhetoric he takes on Israel.
Asked earlier by France's Europe 1 radio if he would consider a role in the transitional government or eventually running for president, Moussa replied, "Why say no?"
Another visitor to the square Friday: Egyptian Defense Minister Hussein Tantawi, who mingled with protesters and held friendly but heated discussions, telling them most of their demands have been met and they should go home. he was the highest level government figure to visit the square in more than 10 days of demonstrations.
At Tahrir, soldiers checked IDs to ensure those entering were not police in civilian clothes or ruling party members and performed body searches at the square's entrances, a sign that Egypt's most powerful institution was sanctioning the demonstration.
The atmosphere was peaceful after the 48 hours of violence between pro- and anti-Mubarak crowds battling with rains of rock and concrete torn from the street and shields fashioned out of sheet metal from a construction site. At least eight people were killed in the fighting and more than 800 injured. Gangs backing Mubarak attacked journalists and human rights activists across Cairo Thursday, while others were detained by soldiers.
The pro-Mubarak crowds that have attacked demonstrators and foreign journalists did not have a visible presence in Tahrir on Friday. On the other side of Cairo, dozens of regime supporters carrying machetes and sticks set up an impromptu checkpoint on the ring-road highway encircling the city of 18 million, stopping cars to inspect them and ask for IDs. The roadblock appeared to be looking for protesters heading to Tahrir. One of the armed men wore a sign around his neck reading, "We are sorry, Mr. President."
In Tahrir, protesters formed their own cordon inside the military's to perform a secondary check of IDs and bags. Many of those arriving brought fresh bread, water, fruit and other supplies, and the atmosphere was relaxed. Long lines formed at tables of people handing out tea and bread. Many waved the Egyptian flag or chatted amicably with the soldiers. Women in full face veils and enveloping robes stood close to women in blue jeans and tight tops.
Around the square were makeshift clinics, set up in the entranceways of stores, including a KFC. At one, a man received an injection in his arm. Above another was the sign of an interlocking crescent and cross.
Around 5,000 of the protesters prostrated themselves in prayer at noon. Though men and women prayed separately as is traditional, the women knelt in a block parallel to the men instead of behind them out of sight or in a separate area entirely as takes place in most Egyptian mosques. After uttering the concluding "God's peace and blessings be upon you" of the prayer, they began the chant: "Leave! Leave! Leave!"
A number of celebrities of Egyptian cinema and TV joined the march, including Sherihan, a beloved screen beauty from the 1980s and early 1990s who largely disappeared from the public eye because of health issues. "This is really a popular revolution, it's civilized and honorable," she told Al-Jazeera TV.
"We're calling on this to be the largest protest ever," said Mahmoud Salem, a youth activist and blogger. "We are hoping it will be the last one." He said that during Thursday's turmoil, his car was attacked by regime supporters as he and four friends tried to deliver supplies to the square. He said the rioters relentlessly smashed the car windows and ripping off the side mirrors until he and his colleagues fled from the car.
"It was like a zombie movie," he said.
_____
AP correspondent Maggie Michael contributed to this report.
(This version CORRECTS that ElBaradei did not address question of whether Sueleiman acceptable as temporary president).)
Tahrir: Shock and awe Mubarak style
Pro-Mubarak thugs weren't enough to deter the calls of democracy from the crowds
gathering in Tahrir square.
Last Modified: 03 Feb 2011 14:29 GMT
Pro-Mubarak activists clashed with pro-democracy supporters 
yesterday,
with many in 
the pro-Mubarak camp accused of working for government 
ministries, 
including police forces [Getty]

Between the Monday of January 31 until Hosni Mubarak's quaint speech late in the
night night
(1 February), the pro-democracy protest in Tahrir Square was the most diverse
gathering that I have ever witnessed in Egypt.
In normal times, Cairo is devoid of socially porous spaces where people of all
classes can mix comfortably. The crowds in Tahrir Square, larger each night since
the ministry of interior's security force was broken on January 28th, created a
spontaneous Bohemia.
As befits the label given to the uprising - thaurat al-shabab (revolt of the youth)
- there were plenty of mid-teens to early 30s men and women in the
pro-democracy camp. But with them were children, the elderly, the ultra-pious
and the slickest cosmopolitans, workers, farmers, professionals, intellectuals, artists,
long-time activists, complete neophytes to political protest, and representatives
of all political persuasions outside the National Democratic Party, whose
headquarters were sacked and burned last Friday, and still emitting a faint ashy
smell by Monday.

A well-adjusted mob
The behaviour of the crowd was impeccable. Volunteers manned all entry points
to the Square, checking the identity cards of everyone who entered. Egyptian
identity cards state the profession of their holders, hence anyone whose card indicated
that he worked for the ministry of interior was barred from entering the Square.
The goal was to prevent government-sponsored incitement, ensuring that the
atmosphere would remain purposeful and free of violence. That goal was entirely
fulfilled up to the moment of Mubarak's speech.
Until Mubarak offered his dubious "concessions", the crowd was euphoric,
but at the same time firmly grounded in its mission to effect deep-rooted changes
to Egyptian political practise.
There is no doubt that Egyptians were substantially united in their conviction that the
Mubarak regime must end; in the current environment, remaining support for Mubarak
is motivated more by material interests than by conviction.
As the world knows very well, immediately after Mubarak's speech his supporters
began to attack the demonstration.

Releasing the hounds
The attacks were already underway by the early hours of Wednesday morning
(February 1, 2011), and as all news sources - save Egyptian state media -
have reported, attacks on the pro-democracy protesters have increased in
intensity throughout Wednesday (2 February) and continuing on into Thursday.
The regime's shock troops have certainly used "white weapons" - knives and
other sharp objects, chains or other bits of metal that can maim - but there are
also reports that they have used propane gas tanks, Molotov cocktails, tear gas
and possibly even live ammunition.
What the army is doing is unclear, but there is no doubt that it has
not protected the pro-democracy demonstrators.
It is true, as many news sources have reported, that the pro-Mubarak forces
include an element of criminals that have long been employed by the regime
to break up demonstrations and intimidate elections.
There is also no doubt that members of the defeated Central Security Forces
were among
the shock troops used by the regime in its counterattack against the pro-democracy
movement.
But the waves of pro-Mubarak demonstrators marching through downtown Cairo
toward Tahrir Square on Wednesday were not entirely devoid of ordinary
Egyptian citizenry.
It is likely that not all of these citizens are acting out of conviction. There are
reports that
government ministries have told public-sector employees that their jobs depend
on supporting the regime.
Aside from these semi-coerced supporters of Mubarak, there are people who
have always regarded the pro-democracy movement as troublemakers on the
grounds that the order maintained by the regime's security apparatus is more
valuable than the cost paid in curtailed civil liberties.
It must be emphasised that the sum of all these elements of pro-Mubarak
sentiment is
remarkably more socially homogeneous than the pro-democracy movement.

Cunning and motives
Of course there are tacitly pro-regime supporters witnessing events from afar.
But of those who are willing to put their bodies on the line - as the
pro-democracy movement has done - the social profile is overwhelmingly male
and lower to lower-middle class.
The bottom line is that while it may be true that support for the regime has a
broader social base than the stereotype of "criminals and semi-coerced public
sector employees" suggests, there is at the same time no political philosophy
animating the pro-regime supporters.
If the rule of Mubarak and/or the National Democratic Party survives the
pro-democracy uprising, it will be purely through force.
The motivations of the pro-democracy movement, by contrast, are
undoubtedly more diverse than the euphoric atmosphere of Monday and
Tuesday suggest.
The elephant in the room though is the Muslim Brotherhood. The MB has
thus far played a skillful political game of supporting the pro-democracy
movement without trying to lay claim to it - far more skillful, for example,
than Mohamed ElBaradei's relatively amateurish interventions.
In truth the driving force of the pro-democracy movement is emphatically
not the Muslim Brotherhood. As everyone knows, the Muslim Brotherhood
is a powerful force in Egyptian politics, but there are generational and social
divisions within the movement which may in fact make a
Muslim Brotherhood power grab unfeasible, assuming that it actually
aspires to such a goal.
The pro-democracy uprising was propelled by a non-partisan coalition
of young activists,
who at long last tapped into a current of popular revulsion at the
police-state techniques that the regime used to maintain its grip on power.

Whose public interest?
The opposition parties have a role to play in creating an alternative to
Mubarak's rule. They are not necessarily well prepared to play this role
after decades of hopeless marginalisation by the ruling NDP.
In order to bring about structural change to Egyptian politics they will have
to focus not on the social context that makes regime's downfall possible
(police state suppression, unemployment and poverty), but on
Egypt's laws and constitution.
An end to torture as a primary tactic for maintaining the regime's power
will require reforms in a legal system that combines powers of criminal
prosecution with police investigation. These two functions are separate in
the legal systems of Europe and the United States, but combined in Egypt
and in many socialist countries.
The result in Egypt is that the office of public prosecutor
(al-niyaba al-‘amma) has the authority to gather evidence in the
criminal cases that it pursues. This would be considered an
obvious conflict of interest in the United States.
In Egypt it means that a prosecutor who represents "the public interest"
(aka the state) possesses powers of police investigation. This leads to
systematic torture justified on grounds of it being "in the public interest".
It is no coincidence that when the power of the state was broken on the
"day of rage" (January 28th), the pro-democracy protesters attacked
many police stations throughout the country.
Police stations, not just the ministry of interior's Central Security Forces,
were targeted because the Egyptian public has been subject to systematic
torture by a police-judiciary nexus throughout the 30 years
of Mubarak's rule.
The minimum demands of the pro-democracy movement must include
that the prosecution
function be separated from the function of police investigation. The rule of law
executed by an independent judiciary would be the best guarantor of
civil liberties in Egypt.

Assembling a new future
After that, more obvious demands follow.
The current People's Assembly (maglis al-sha'b) must be abolished on the
grounds that its election was blatantly fraudulent; it cannot under any
circumstances be allowed to direct the course of reform.
Mubarak's speech on Tuesday in fact called for the "reform" of the
constitution by the People's Assembly. This is impossible while the
People's Assembly consists entirely of representatives "elected" in the
hopelessly compromised elections held just a few weeks ago at
the end of 2010.
The only feasible exit from the current confrontation between Mubarak's
thugs and the pro-democracy movement is the appointment of a national
unity government constituted from a broad spectrum of the
opposition parties, on the condition that articles 76 and 77 of the Egyptian
constitution be reformed (specifically, the articles stipulating that
the president can run for successive terms and narrowing the conditions
under which a candidate can stand for the presidency to the point that
almost nobody can mount a campaign against the party in power).
In practical terms, the current parliament must be dismissed, and the
constitution must essentially be re-written.
The validity of the old constitution is in any case dubious in light of the
experience of thirty years of living under the "emergency law" that was in
force since the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981.
Egypt's laws must be reconstituted from scratch. If, that is, the
pro-democracy movement survives the regime's crude attempts to
snuff it out by force.
The next big demonstration by the pro-democracy forces is scheduled
for Friday.
The army could stop it if the regime orders it to and the soldiers obey
their orders -
 I doubt the regime's thugs are strong enough to do the job by themselves.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not 
necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.