Strength in numbers
In the interests of cultivating a general narrative of what it going on, here are some field notes. This NYTimes photo montage speaks louder than anything about what is happening this weekend in Egypt.
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The backdrop: Tunisia
The immediate backdrop for the current revolutionary protests in Egypt is the successful peaceful revolution in Tunisia. The Tunisians had long unsatisfied with Ben Ali, a corrupt leader handing out the spoils to his family and friends while letting the people go hungry, and engineering elections while cracking down on any political opposition. They protested in huge numbers, and for days on end resisted the police crackdown. Finally, unable to restore his authority, the dictator-president panicked and fled. The Tunisians had won the right to try to move past dictatorship into something better. We have yet to see how deep the changes will be. They do not appear to be merely cosmetic, but the extent of democratic pluralism allowed, and the extent to which the new rulers of Tunisia will be truly new faces, instead of a reshuffling of old ones, also remains to be seen. But Tunisians are incredibly optimistic, and have accomplished something very significant.
The backdrop: Egypt and social media
All this was incredibly inspiring to repressed people all over the world, and especially in Arab states, which had followed the events closely. In an age where news travels fast and broad, where mobile phones pick up daily images of courage and bravado, the image of Arab Tunisians resisting their government successfully must have been incredibly suggestive to Egyptians who felt themselves in a similar situation. There is a lot of talk about the “social media revolution.” Of course, twitter and facebook did not cause any revolution. People caused the revolution. But they are an incredibly useful tool for organization at the grass-roots level, since they enable a fast-spreading web of information exchange linked through social associations that are infinitely expandable. So a video, and idea, or a plan can get passed around in a matter of hours to hordes of people, because of the facilitating nature of how social media sites function. You don’t call your friends about every idea, every link, every image you like, but you do put these things into facebook, which allows your friends to quickly scan for the good stuff and pass it on to their friends.
Juan Cole offers a useful summary of the reasons the Mubarak regime has become so detested to the Egyptian people. A lot of it has to with the the United States, who has backed his torture regime. Under Nasser, Egypt has drawn much esteem across the Arab world when it stood up to Israel and the West in a series of major confrontations. But under Mubarak, Egypt has been seen as a lap dog for the US, who supports his regime as a puppet for US interests.
The Egyptian state has run a torture regime for decades, and the US has consistently shipped them the folks it wants tortured under the “extraordinary rendition” program. While most Egyptians sympathize with the Palestinian’s call for an immediate end to Israel’s illegal and repressive occupation, the Egyptian regime, under US pressure (and aid), has consistently taken a policy position in favor of Israeli interests, such as the closing the Rafah crossing from Palestine to Egypt. The country has also been pushed by the US to liberalize economically, which makes the poor very susceptible to the volatility of world markets. Since the crash in 2008-2009, the price of food there has skyrocketed, making many Egyptian frustrated with what they see as a regime more interested in helping out the West and in holding on to power than in helping its own people.
Some cobbled together notes on the weekend’s events
Mubarak, in a desperate attempt to get people to stop protesting, has fired his cabinet and promised to reshuffle the government. All the top officials are out, he promises to install new ones, who supposedly will address the complaints of the protesters.
In the height of irony, however, his response to crowds protesting his military regime has been to roll tanks into Cairo on Sunday. His ability to command respect in the army is crucial. If the army can be counted upon to shoot into the crowds, he has a chance of staying in power. If, however, as is being increasingly reported, the army sees itself as part of the people more than part of the Mubarak regime, then his hold on power is surely lost.
We should remember that the army is not a thing, but a ton of individual people who each have to individually agree and consent for any order to get carried out.
Mubarak’s gamble is that he can make some cosmetic changes and appease enough protesters, or give the impression of doing so, while simultaneously repressing the demonstrations as much as he thinks he can get away with, that they’ll all go home and leave him in power.
Juan Cole points out that, whatever effective power Mubarak may still have, he has definitely lost much of his authority. He explains the Weberian notion of power as the actual ability to use violence to impose control on people, while authority is the ability to achieve consent without using violence. To the extent that Mubarak’s regime is currently maintaining control through the use of tanks and by shooting people (over 100 dead so far, plus 1,000 wounded), his authority has been totally lost and his control exposed for what it truly is, essentially a thing of violence (as all states our, including our own in the US).
Mubarak’s use of violence, police, and military to get everyone to shut up and go home (thus far, unsuccessfully) has been typical of his regime from the start. While there is a constitution under which civil liberties are supposed to be protected by a judicial system, there is an “Emergency Powers” clause that has been evoked for 29 of his 30-year reign. This allows him to suspend civil liberties and the protections of law, to lock people up for no reason, to suppress dissent, to use the police to intimidate people into obeying.
On Sunday, looters and street thugs broke into the museum and destroyed two ancient mummies.
The army, on Sunday afternoon, deployed in wealthy neighborhoods to protect them from looters.
Thousands of people tried to storm the Ministry of the Interior building on Saturday. Police opened fire on them, killing several.
The army imposes curfews, from 4pm to 8am on Saturday night. No one respects them.
The US and Western powers have slowly changed their rhetoric to reflect developments. They obviously are interested in as little change as possible in Egypt, whose been cooperating nicely with their interests. But they can’t be seen as supporting police crackdowns over peaceful demonstrations for democracy. It has been amusing to watch their word games try to match to events as they seem to become inevitable. First it was: we like M’s regime, it is stable (Clinton), nothing really wrong, he’s actually not really a dictator (Biden). Then, as opposition groups have gained power and the revolt is increasingly successful, the rhetoric has shifted toward a late-comer’s agreement with what everyone has already decided: “Oh ya, democracy is good, we think so too!”
ElBaradei, who has become the defacto leader of the opposition, reacted to the early US rhetoric of “Egypt is a stable country” with sardonic dismay:
“I was stunned to hear secretary Clinton saying the Egyptian government is stable. And I ask myself: at what price is stability? Is it on the basis of 29 years of martial law? Is it on the basis of 30 years of [an] ossified regime? Is it on the basis of rigged elections? That’s not stability, that’s living on borrowed time.”
The administration appears to be trailing in the wake of things, approving the shots that have already been made, trying to keep an air of legitimacy for whichever side wins. It will only come out against Mubarak and start uttering the word democracy if it thinks the peaceful revolution is inevitable.Vodpod videos no longer available.
AlJazeera got taken off-air on Sunday. Mubarak and company don’t want the people to hear all that poison about democracy and Egyptian protestors calling for Mubarak to step down. Keep them in the dark.
Political prisoners are being sprung from jails in the hundreds on Sun.
Egyptian tanks, donated to the regime by the US compliments of US taxpayers, are being deployed Cairo, the capital.
ElBaradei gets the official support of the all of the opposition groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, which is certainly the most powerful. This makes him the de facto opposition leader. He immediately calls for Mubarak to step down. Leave, Mubarak!
It seems there is now a scramble over how the power vacuum would be filled if Mubarak does get pushed out. So there are Muslim fundamentalists, who would like to see and Islamic state set up; there are secularists of various colors. This is a major concern for Western powers, who don’t want to see a regime come to power that would be sympathetic to the US’s official enemies, from the Palestinian Hamas leadership to Hizballah in Lebanon to Iran to certain Iraqi factions.
Tomorrow promises to be a stand-off, a sort of game of chicken, between the army and the protestors, who are still coming out in large numbers. A larger curfew has been declared, this time from 3pm to 8am, even though over the weekend it has been totally ignored. In the meantime, everyone everywhere is scrambling to get their hands on the reigns of power: Mubarak, the army, the people (in the form of mass protests), and opposition groups, including ElBaradei himself and the Muslim Brotherhood.
In the moving words of one online commenter at the British Guardian:
I am an American who lived in Egypt for 3 years. I want those people in the streets to succeed so badly I can barely think. Egypt is a police state and the Mubarak regime a brutal dictatorship. Everyone is under surveillance and the police beat and torture people with impunity. My tax money has paid for it. I’m disgusted by Hillary Clinton and deeply ashamed of the $50 billion that has gone to buying peace with Israel at the expense of the health, prosperity and freedom of the Egyptian people. I’m also utterly terrified about what is going to happen today, because having seen the Egyptian security service at work before, I can’t possibly imagine that there is even the remotest chance for success. In any case, I am praying that the the people in the street can succeed in bringing their government down, because they deserve way better than what they have. Pasted from <http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/blog/2011/jan/28/egypt-protests-live-updates>
WikiLeaks has released a timely new cable on police brutality in Egypt.
Written by the US ambassador to Egypt
Torture and police brutality in Egypt are endemic and widespread. The police use brutal methods mostly against common criminals to extract confessions, but also against demonstrators, certain political prisoners and unfortunate bystanders. […] NGO contacts estimate there are literally hundreds of torture incidents every day in Cairo police stations alone. Pasted from <http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/blog/2011/jan/28/wikileaks-latest-developments>
From a wikileaks cable transmitting the (confidential) State Descriptions of Mubarak:
Mubarak is a classic Egyptian secularist who hates religious extremism and interference in politics. The Muslim Brothers represent the worst, as they challenge not only Mubarak’s power, but his view of Egyptian interests. As with regional issues, Mubarak, seeks to avoid conflict and spare his people from the violence he predicts would emerge from unleashed personal and civil liberties. Pasted from <http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/blog/2011/jan/28/wikileaks-latest-developments>
And in another cable, this one on Egyptian police brutality, and from February 2010:
According to XXXXXXXXXXXX, the worst police torture takes place during murder investigations. He said that his brother-in-law who is a police officer in the Delta Governorate of Kafr El-Sheikh described “unrelenting pressure” from superiors to solve murder cases by any means necessary. XXXXXXXXXXX said human rights lawyers and XXXXXXXXXXXX have told him that to conduct murder investigations, police will round up 40 to 50 suspects from a neighborhood and hang them by their arms from the ceiling for weeks until someone confesses. Pasted from <http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/blog/2011/jan/28/wikileaks-latest-developments>
From the columns of the Guardian’s liveblog on the events:
2.19pm: The protesters are in control of the central square in Suez says al-Jazeera. There is no police presence. Jamal Elshayyal, their reporter in Suez, says:
The police has been quite comprehensively defeated by the power of the people.
2.08pm: Al-Jazeera is showing extraordinary live footage of a police firing teargas canisters at protesters and protesters throwing them back. Police have cleared one of the main motorway bridges over the Nile. http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/blog/2011/jan/28/egypt-protests-live-updates#block-60
And more from the same column:
Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director of Human Rights Watch, gives this detailed account of how protesters overwhelmed police in Alexandria today.
After prayers, the protesters came out of a mosque and started shouting slogans. They were saying “peaceful, peaceful” and raising their hands. They were immediately attacked by police in an armoured car firing teargas. Fierce clashes started then, with exchanges of rock throwing. About 200 police faced about 1,000 protesters. The clashes lasted for nearly two hours. Then a much larger crowd of protesters came from another direction. They were packed in four blocks deep. Police tried to hold them back with teargas and rubber bullets, but they were finally overwhelmed. Then the police just gave up, at about the time of afternoon prayers. Protesters gave water to police and talked to them. It was was all peaceful. Hundreds of protesters were praying in the street. Pasted from <http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/blog/2011/jan/28/egypt-protests-live-updates#block-60>
An Associated Press reporter saw the protesters cheering the police who joined them and hoisting them on their shoulders in one of the many dramatic and chaotic scenes across Egypt on Friday. After chasing the police, thousands of protesters were able to flood into the huge Tahrir Square downtown after being kept out most of the day by a very heavy police presence. Few police could be seen around the square after the confrontation.
In contrast to many of the rest of us, the Israeli regime is none to happy about all these developments toward democracy. This democracy probably wouldn’t work in favor of their interest in keeping an Egyptian regime that obeys their commands. Said one Israeli minister:
“I’m not sure the time is right for the Arab region to go through the democratic process.”Pasted from <http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/blog/2011/jan/28/egypt-protests-live-updates#block-60>
Teenager showed me teargas canister “made in USA”. Saw the same thing in Tunisia. Time to reconsider US exports? Pasted from <http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/blog/2011/jan/28/egypt-protests-live-updates#block-60>
Excellent summary from this Friday by Juan Cole: