Defiant till the end: Egypt’s deaf dictator

Mubarak remains and we are still in shock. For nearly six hours last night, we watched, we waited and we dared to hope. Twitter was exploding, and for good reason. Every source out there, from the CIA to CNN (including the NDP’s own secretary general, Hossam Badrawi) told us Mubarak was finally standing down.

The rumour mill went into overdrive: Mubarak was resigning and handing over his powers to Omar Suleiman. The Army had taken over and ordered Mubarak to leave. He’d been spotted at the airport heading for Dubai or he’d already fled to Sharm El Sheikh, having pre-recorded his speech.  Meanwhile, the Brotherhood was claiming there’d been a military coup while the BBC cut to Obama, live from Michigan, who told us history was taking place. Whichever way you looked at it, it seemed like a done deal.

We had our own dilemma – did we go and listen to Mubarak’s resignation speech in Tahrir or stay at home and watch it on TV? We compromised – we’d rush there as soon as the speech was over and join the crowds to celebrate. Tahrir was packed within an inch of its life – it was like a thousand wedding ceremonies happening at once, according to one tweeter. Even hardened news correspondents seemed overcome by the emotion. We were this close to history being made – it was like the Berlin Wall falling, someone said. And then we watched the speech and everything crumbled.

At around 10.45pm – almost an hour behind schedule – Mubarak appeared on State TV, looking more and more like his fellow beleaguered politico, Silvio Berlusconi (they share the same plastic surgeon, as one joker said). He looked neither cowed nor emotional; instead, he was forceful, upbeat, determinedly presidential. There were the same old lines: I speak as a father to his children, I will live and die in Egypt, etc. There were a few new ones: an acknowledgment of the deaths of innocent victims and vague talk of political ‘mistakes’. And then the crucial line, almost rushed through: I have decided to delegate some powers to Vice President Suleiman.

By the end, we were stunned, speechless – and confused. What exactly had just happened? I called a friend of mine who’d been in Tahrir – M, a lawyer, who was already heading home. People were angry but calm, he said. Ninety per cent of the people there hadn’t been able to hear the speech properly and were also confused. His own understanding was that Mubarak had handed over all his powers to Suleiman and would remain in an honorary capacity – no bad thing. “It would have been too insulting for him to spell it out any more than that,” he told me. “This was his way of saying that he was resigning.”

That may well be the case but it’s become abundantly clear since that no one knows exactly what Mubarak meant – which would be farcical if it weren’t so serious (check out William Hague’s reaction last night for some classic political blustering). The only thing that matters is that he is still around (it must surely go down as one of the worst, and most incompetent, speeches in history: never have so many people been so disappointed by so little). Meanwhile, that sense that Mubarak, and also now Suleiman, inhabit a different universe to the rest of us was stronger than ever – they seemed like two grandfathers who’d stumbled into a hip hop concert by mistake.  

What’s becoming clear is that this revolution is no longer just about a clamour for democracy. It’s now a power struggle between young and old – between the old guard clinging on to tradition and power, and a new generation fighting for respect and the right to be heard, politically and beyond.  Even as they praised Egypt’s youth, Mubarak and Suleiman were sticking desperately to the old language of paternalism – appealing to the protesters once again to behave themselves and go home. Where the rest of the world sees a generation coming of age, Mubarak and his cronies see troubled children who can, and should, be put back in their place.

Mubarak’s last speech may have won him new support – and sparked the bloody clashes of last week – but it’s unlikely that this one will do the same.  The tide has been turning against him in the last few days – rumours of his estimated $70 billion fortune have been leaking out and there is less and less trust that the regime will keep its promises. Tahrir has virtually become a republic in its own right, drawing thousands of ordinary Egyptians from all over the country who are savouring their first taste of political freedom there – that sort of momentum is difficult to derail.  There is more and more public dissent – yesterday doctors and lawyers joined the protests and there were strikes and demonstrations all over Cairo.  

But yet again last night, this revolution confounded us. Today, on Farewell Friday, thousands upon thousands of people are once again massing in Tahrir and throughout Egypt. The violence that some of us expected after last night’s speech has not materialised – yet.  The army remains neutral, for the moment. There are rumours that Mubarak and his family have left Cairo – surely he must have got the message by now?  The drama continues to unfold before us: a play where everyone seems to know their lines except the lead actor.

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The day of no departure

The ‘day of departure’ may not have gone to plan but the ‘revolution’ seems to be back on track. Unbelievably, despite the bloodshed and bitterness of the last two days, thousands and thousands of people made their way once more to Tahrir yesterday (which must surely be re-named Jan 25 Square soon, to accompany 6 October Bridge and 26 July St and 15 May Bridge and all the other dates that mark this city.)

For the first time in 48 hours, we ventured out too, late in the afternoon when it seemed conclusive that the pro-democracy group had taken back the streets. In the morning, there were still reports of attacks on foreigners coming in – one friend sent out a group mail telling us that her friend, an American girl, had been dragged out of a car with a group of Egyptian male friends and they had been beaten and spat upon.  So we abandoned an early plan to go and stayed in – the situation seemed too volatile.

But later in the afternoon, an Egyptian friend called us from Tahrir and said that it seemed safe – he had seen foreigners and press, he said, and the atmosphere was tremendous.  We were watching the images ourselves on TV, in amazement at the numbers who were turning out. So we decided to go – a motley group of us: an Egyptian man, his Dutch wife, who has Egyptian citizenship, a German-Palestinian woman and me, a British Indian. Ironically, out of the three women, I look the most Egyptian but speak the least Arabic. My Swedish friends, who have accompanied me on all of these trips so far, stayed at home reluctantly – both tall, thin and blonde, they simply look too ‘foreign’.

So I left my British ID at home and my camera and anything that might mark me as a foreign journalist. This time the checkpoints started at the entrance to Kasr-El-Nil Bridge, rather than Tahrir itself, and we were searched numerous times along the way (my lighter was confiscated but not, ironically, my Dictaphone which I had forgotten to remove). Hundreds of people seemed to be leaving Tahrir but there were still big crowds heading in. The atmosphere was calm and surprisingly organised, though it was impossible not to feel a little jumpy after the last few days.  Piles of stones and rocks lined the roads, a grim reminder of the violence that erupted here.

Inside, Tahrir looked a little bit like a battlezone, on temporary relief from the war. On the wide road leading up to the Square, exhausted men slept on the pavements. Others simply leaned against walls, too tired even to hold up their signs. Occasionally I saw men with bandaged heads or plasters.  But in the heart of the Square, there was still something of the festive atmosphere of Tuesday, with spontaneous chants breaking out amongst the huge crowds, speeches and singing.  At one point, there was wild cheering and clapping – a rumour had gone round that Mubarak had stepped down which soon turned out to be untrue.

It is impossible not to be moved by the mass of humanity at Tahrir, this great exhausted group of people who started a revolution that is now reverberating around the Middle East.  They have come out day after day – or never left – and battled every attempt to shift them: the riot police, water cannons, tear gas, rocks, hired thugs, the Mukhabarat, even horses and camels in the Square.  What happened yesterday was a reminder to Mubarak that there are still many who are prepared to fight for change. Perhaps the brutality of the last couple of days has also backfired against him – one Tweeter said she had been on his side after his speech but watching the violence on Wednesday had made her shift back.

But painting this ‘revolution’ in broad brush strokes – the people v brutal dictator – as tempting as it may be internationally, is wrong. Although the pro-democracy movement has re-gained some ground after yesterday, this long stalemate is not helping either side. Both sides are now fighting for their lives since both fear serious – perhaps fatal – recriminations if they lose. I have secular friends who fear the Muslim Brotherhood  will take over the protest and are caught between them and Mubarak.  And there is a vast middle ground that simply wants it all to end, with Mubarak serving out his term if necessary.  As one friend said to me yesterday: “We have waited thirty years for him to go; surely we can wait another five months.”

The most popular solution currently is that Mubarak retain his position as president but in an honorary capacity, while his real powers are shifted to Suleiman for an interim period, until elections can take place.  That may be unpalatable to some but it seems the best chance for unity and stability for this fractured country, surely the priority at this time. (As another friend said: There will be time for revenge later.) There are rumours that Suleiman will be speaking to the ‘council of wise men’ that are now representing the opposition soon and that things are shifiting, albeit too slowly for many. The curfew has been lifted today, until 7pm, allowing a degree of normality to return to the streets. But where we go from here is still anybody’s guess. This protest has defied all attempts thus far to predict an outcome. The one constant remains the uncertainty.

Egypt’s day of shame

Another terrible day of fear and uncertainty. The festive atmosphere of Tuesday, when history seemed to be within the country’s grasp, feels like a lifetime ago now. If the first day of this protest was Egypt’s day of rage, yesterday should be remembered as Egypt’s day of shame.

We didn’t make it to Tahrir today. I was hoping to go early, to get a feel for what had happened overnight, but the reports that were streaming in, through friends, by email, twitter and phone, got steadily worse and worse.  Overnight, there had been more fighting and shooting in the Square. Somehow there are still pro-democracy activists encamped there, determined not to leave.  But gangs of pro-Mubarak supporters are reportedly controlling the entrances into the Square, making it difficult to get in.

Journalists are being attacked all over the city, especially in Tahrir (CNN’s Anderson Cooper was beaten up yesterday). Cameras are either being smashed or confiscated. Several journalists are missing. One, a friend of friends from Brazil, told me he was beaten and robbed of his money and camera today, by the 6th of October Bridge. I have just heard from another that the police are visiting hotels and looking for people who may be journalists.  Another told me he and a photographer had been detained by police today for 45 minutes in Kasr El Aini, near Tahrir. They managed to talk their way out of it by pretending to be tourists but they were ordered to head straight for the airport.

Al Jazeera – our main source for live coverage of Tahrir – has had its cameras confiscated so we can no longer see live footage.  The main opposition newspapers are living in fear. I heard that one paper’s office had been attacked and another is terrified – they have covered their signboard to try and deter attackers. And foreigners are now being targeted – the pro-Mubarak crowd has been told that foreigners are spies and deliberately stirring up trouble. Vice-president Omar Suleiman made a speech this evening and also blamed foreigners and ‘outside forces’ for the current problems, a message that many seem to be believing.

I know this firsthand from my cleaning lady, who managed to turn up today from Imbaba, ready to clean. We talked instead: Om Abdallah, 50, is a widowed mother of two and one of the toughest women I know. She told me she believed Mubarak after his speech (as did everyone in her neighbourhood) and she wanted the protests to stop. She saw on state TV that two foreigners had been arrested because they had been speaking against Mubarak and ‘wanted to destroy the country’. ‘The people who are doing this are not Egyptian,’ she said. ‘Some are saying it’s ElBaradei, or Ayman Nour.  Some are saying it’s planned by Americans, or maybe Hezbollah’.  What did she think? ‘I think they are Shia,’ she said.

Unsurprisingly, there are now several reports of anti-foreigner aggression – something I never thought I would see in this country.  We heard that a foreign man was beaten to death in Tahrir.  I know of a German girl, a colleague of a friend of mine, who was ‘escorted’ to the military academy in Dokki by soldiers yesterday.  On the way, a crowd gathered around and asked what had happened – when a soldier called her a traitor, she was slapped by a woman in the group.  She was eventually let go with a warning to stay inside and ‘concentrate on her studies’. She is planning to leave the country tomorrow.

So we have stayed in all day today, glued to our computers and TV, and we will continue to do so until the situation improves.  This neighbourhood is still a safe one, as far as I know, and I am reluctant to leave this amazing country until I am left with absolutely no choice. Tomorrow is another pivotal day, although I am almost tired of saying that now. There is talk of another huge pro-democracy demonstration – they are calling it the ‘day of departure’ – and this time they plan to march to the Presidential Palace (apparently, they aborted the attempt on Tuesday because they feared losing Tahrir). Last Friday, the government tried to crack down on the demonstrations by cutting off the internet and phone service, and failed. Now they have restored both but this new crackdown on any opposition – real or imagined – is much, much worse.  

Once again, we watch, we wait and we hope.

Carnage in Cairo

Cairo is on fire once again.  I am at home now and watching the footage live on Al Jazeera and it is horrifying, infinitely depressing. There is carnage in Tahrir today, and it is worse than Friday. There is gunfire, reports of petrol bombs, knives and sticks, 500 wounded, buildings on fire again – including, reportedly, the Egyptian Museum. The riot police were a common, easily identifiable enemy – now it is Egyptian against Egyptian and it is impossible to know who is friend or foe.  Until today, we worried about the army turning on its people but not this. This level of in-fighting has come out of the blue.  

We went to Tahrir earlier today and the change in atmosphere from yesterday was dramatic.  Today is the first day that I felt some fear.  We knew, from last night’s footage of the clashes in Alex immediately after Mubarak’s speech, that the pro-government demonstrators would be out, and they were. At the entrance to Tahrir from Kasr-El-Nil Bridge, small groups of pro- Mubarak supporters held signs saying “We love Mubarak” (unlike the demonstrators’ signs, which are a motley jumble of hand-written English and Arabic signs, all the  pro-Mubarak signs I saw were in Arabic, on photo-copied A4 pieces of paper). We have heard from reliable sources of money changing hands to buy pro-government support – 200LE (around £20) per person.

We made our way through the different groups and headed into the Square – again through the nominal army checkpoint.  Where yesterday was festive, today was tense, volatile.  The army had warned people this morning to stay at home. There were still a few thousand people there but nowhere near the huge numbers of yesterday.  Unlike yesterday, when everyone seemed to share a common goal, today you no longer knew whether you were looking at pro- or anti- government protesters. Everywhere, there were scuffles breaking out.  At one point, three young men – no more than teenagers –  grabbed a huge sign laid out on the Square saying ‘Game Over’ and rolled it up, stamping on it. Others rushed to them and took the poster back, rolling it out again.  There was no violence at that point but the tension was palpable.

I made my way to some protesters to ask them what they had thought of Mubarak’s speech, and what they were going to do next. They told me that it was a ‘joke’; they had been there since the beginning and would not leave until Mubarak left.  At that point, we saw people running towards us, away from something, so we ran too. Looking back, I saw rocks and stones flying through the air, not far from the Egyptian Museum. A friend called us from Mohandissen and told us that 20,000 pro-Mubarak supporters had gathered and were probably heading towards Tahrir.  We started moving towards the exit – already there was a mini-stampede  – and walked slowly back to Zamalek.  On the streets, we passed more people holding pro-Mubarak signs  and photos and cars honked as they passed us, signalling support for the government.  For the first time, I avoided eye contact with the people I passed.

I have no doubt that there is a level of legitimate support for Mubarak. There are many who feel that enough is enough – that it is time for the protest to end and that many of the opposition’s demands have now been met. They want him to be allowed to serve out his term, even though not all belive he will keep his word. The country is in chaos and there is real fear that the economy will not recover from this for a long time.   Mubarak’s speech last night was emotional  and emotive – at times, it reminded me of Evita: “Don’t cry for me, Egypt”.  I have always served my country, he said, and everything I did, I did for the Egyptian people.  I want to die on Egyptian soil.  

But there is little doubt too that some of the pro-Mubarak people out on the streets have been bought – the evidence for that is overwhelming.   The fact that state TV shows a completely different version of events has also deepened the divide between the factions, and intensified the pro-government fervour.  The pro-Mubarak people say they want to ‘liberate’ Tahrir, with their blood if necessary.  The official opposition, such as it is, has virtually disappeared and for the first time, the anti-government protests seem to be losing momentum. If they ‘lose’ Tahrir tonight, few will have the courage to return – for good reason.  So far, the army has not intervened, and I think, on balance, that is a good thing. Whose side would they be on?

It is going to be a long night.

Notes on a revolt – part 2

The eyes of the world are on Egypt, but few of us can communicate with the outside world.  Today is day four of the internet blackout so I have asked a friend in England to post this for me.  Our mobile phone service was resumed on Saturday but we can’t send or receive text messages.  Normal life in many ways ceased on Friday, after the battle of Kasr-El-Nil Bridge.  Since then, those who can have been raiding their supermarket shelves, stocking up on supplies. Public bakeries have already introduced rationing – no more than 10 slices of bread (Balady bread  – a little like pitta bread – part of the staple diet here) per person.  The banks are closed and few ATMs are working.  There are road blocks all over Cairo at night, manned by the men of each neighbourhood, to deter looters, after the police all but disappeared after Friday.  Few shops and no businesses are open. There is a curfew every day, roughly from 4pm to 8am (today, it began at 3pm).

And yet somehow, we have simply resumed a new kind of reality. My neighbourhood, Zamalek, home to many of the foreign embassies here, is a privileged one – because we are an island, we have not been hit with the looting and chaos that has engulfed much of Cairo for the last two nights. Instead it is eerily quiet, especially during the curfew hours, although yesterday that was punctuated by the sound of two military fighter jets flying low over the city. We go out during the day to re-stock, get some fresh air, meet friends and neighbours and get a feel for what’s happening. Otherwise, we are glued to our TV sets – for me Al Jazeera English and the BBC mainly. The government has shut down Al Jazeera’s Egypt office, so many Egyptians are restricted to the state news service which is broadcasting a completely different version of events. But somehow, despite the attempted blackout, we are all absorbing information, almost through osmosis.

This morning, I went to Tahrir again with some friends (Downtown is just across the bridge from us – about a ten minute cab ride). The demonstrations over the last two days have been peaceful, mainly because the riot police have disappeared – unlike on Friday, when this heart of Cairo became a war zone.  I went on Friday with a group of friends to witness the demonstration and we ended up taking shelter in one of the big hotels, overlooking the Nile and Kasr-El-Nil Bridge on one side and Tahrir on the other. Riot police swarmed the streets and thousands of demonstrators battled them on the bridge for nearly three hours, despite the water cannons and rubber bullets and what seemed like an endless supply of tear gas. Plumes of smoke and gas almost obliterated the Cairo skyline from where we stood. When the demonstrators finally pushed through just before sunset, the police seemed to scatter.  That night, there were fires all over Downtown, from the ruling party headquarters, just down the road from us, to over-turned cars and police vans, and even the Mugamma – the ugly but iconic monolithic government building that looms over Tahrir.

Today, a few police have reappeared but it is the presence of the army and its tanks that dominate Tahrir. By the time we arrived, at around 11am, there were already thousands of demonstrators encamped in the Square. We made our way through an army checkpoint with no problems – from what I could see, they were doing nominal checks only. The atmosphere in Tahrir was electric, almost festive. The army is not feared here, unlike in many other countries, and they have already said that they will not fire on the people. There were people from all walks of life, young, old, well-dressed, poor, many carrying hand-written signs – one in English simply said “game over”. Tahrir was bathed in sunlight once again – it has been beautiful weather for a revolution. Every now and then, spontaneous chants would break out in Arabic – “The people want the president to fall”, “Go away, Mubarak aren’t you ashamed?”

At one point, we spotted a young doctor and asked him about the makeshift hospital in a former mosque we had heard about behind the Square, and whether he would take us there. The soldiers manning the checkpoint near it were reluctant to allow us through at first but relented. The ‘hospital’ is tiny, manned by volunteer doctors and stocked with a limited supply of mostly donated medicines. They told us they had performed emergency procedures for those overcome with tear gas or hit by rubber bullets or tiny lead pellets, before sending them to the local hospitals.  One doctor told us that they had seen at least 13 dead in there since Friday. Today, the room was mainly quiet, apart from the sound of the Azan nearby, marking the midday prayers, that floated through the air.

Outside, we spoke to a number of the demonstrators who gathered around us. Many are worried that their message is not getting through to the outside world and they are eager to speak to foreigners. Some had been there since January 25, last Tuesday, when the protests began, which seems like a lifetime ago now. They are all, to a man, upbeat and determined to keep going until Mubarak stands down. They sense that the momentum is with them now. But they disagree as to what should happen next – if they think about it at all. Perhaps that is a reality that can’t quite be comprehended yet. There was no particular love of ElBaradei, the closest thing to a leader the opposition can claim. Nor is there any love for Omar Suleiman, the new vice-president Mubarak hastily announced a couple of days ago. One man mentioned Ahmed Zewail, Egypt’s Noble Prize winner for Chemistry, to me as his choice of leader.

There is much more to write but I’m running out of time. These are uncertain times for Egypt but there is also tremendous excitement in the air – a sense that history is being made and that an awakening has taken place. More than anything, there is a sense of pride amongst my Egyptian friends and all those I speak to – perhaps the one thing they feel was lost most under the current regime – and I am happy to be here to share that. I don’t know what the future holds – tomorrow marks the one week anniversary of this revolt and a million people have been called to join the march from Tahrir towards the Presidential Palace. At the moment, they are united with one common aim – to remove Mubarak. If, or when, that happens – it is difficult to believe that he can last much longer – the real struggle will begin. In the meantime, we watch, we wait and we hope.