4 févr. 2011

If Egyptians want change, then they should have it | Martin Kettle

It is a risk, and could destabilise the country and the region, but who are Mubarak or the west to deny it to them?

I blame the fall of the Berlin Wall. I'm not one of those weirdos who mourns the collapse of communism. It's just that, in retrospect, the problem with the events of 1989 is that they happened so easily. The wall fell in a weekend, then Hungary followed, then Romania, and eventually even the Soviet Union itself. And all, amazingly, without almost anyone, the odious Ceausescus notable exceptions, getting hurt.

In reality it was rather more messy, of course. Yet the speed and totality with which the communist system crumpled in Europe were spectacular. The 1989 collapse has framed a lot of expectations whenever any subsequent despot or military regime is challenged in the streets. We have come to expect revolutions to be quick, successful and peaceful. We seem to have forgotten what most revolutionaries of earlier eras took for granted – that their fate is as likely to be defeat, and even death, as victory.

Most of the time, despots don't fold – they fight back. Sometimes very effectively. See Burma. See Belarus. See Zimbabwe. And, for the past couple of days in Cairo, see Egypt. It's a mistake to assume all dictators are isolated tinpot tyrants who will obligingly decamp to the French Riviera with their ill-gotten gains at the first stirrings of trouble or as soon as John Simpson has positioned himself outside the presidential palace to see history made. As often as not, threatened despots summon the army and the secret police, and manoeuvre and terrorise their challengers into submission.

That is plainly part of what Hosni Mubarak and some of those around him are trying to achieve in Egypt. Mubarak may be a wounded beast, but he is still a big beast, and still – in some diminishing ways – a strong one. For 30 years he has sat atop a pyramid of Egyptian power whose interests are almost as much opposed to radical change as his own are. Whether his allies and battalions have the common purpose to maintain their own power when he finally steps down is difficult to predict. They certainly have an interest in such an outcome. And they are still trying today, making further strategic concessions while attacking protesters in the cities. Anything is possible. But that's the point. This is not a done deal.

Nevertheless, it is clear what ought to happen. Mubarak should go, or should make visible preparations to go as soon as possible – perhaps even, another tense Friday, tomorrow. Then there ought to be a transitional government based not just on the ruling National Democratic party and the army, but on opposition parties too. After that, free elections, independently verified, later this year. Restrictions on freedom of speech and the media should be eased immediately.

Easy to say. Much harder to do. But not impossible. Washington is manifestly now attempting to steer events that way – belatedly doing the right thing in Egypt, though inevitably berated by its usual enemies for it. More important, powerful Egyptians are getting there too. Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq's apology for Wednesday's violence did not go far enough, but it was a strikingly pragmatic intervention. The new vice-president, Omar Suleiman, struck the same tone. Above all, though, these are the demands of the thousands of protesters who have camped out in Tahrir Square for most of the last week. "We need democracy in Egypt. We just want what you have," as a headscarf-wearing woman told the New York Times's Nicholas Kristof this week. Sounds right to me.

Would democracy solve Egypt's problems? On its own, probably not. Most Egyptians are very poor. Forty percent subsist on less than $2 a day. Corruption and waste are massive problems. The size of the army is disproportionate. But true democracy would be a hugely important building-block for the future. Call it false consciousness and a phoney transition if you must. Call it a potentially destabilising change for Egypt and the region too – as both Israel and China do (the latter even bans its people from knowing what is happening in Egypt). But if it's what Egyptians want – and they continue to say very loudly that it is – then who are Mubarak or the outside world to deny it to them?

Is it a risk? Of course. The risk of a civil conflict with immense repercussions elsewhere has to be taken very seriously. But it is always tempting to say that everything is too dangerous to be put at risk. I am currently reading the final volume of Edmund Morris's masterly biography of Theodore Roosevelt, which starts with TR visiting Cairo in 1910 and endorsing British rule in Egypt as the least worst alternative to what he dismissed as hopelessly ineffective Egyptian nationalists and unchanged, bigoted Muslims. Not much change there then. A century on, plenty of foreign nations and some Egyptians still prefer the devil they know than the one that they don't.

That is not a stupid position. But there is both a principled counter-argument to it and a pragmatic one. The principled one is that the right to elect the government of your choice is a human right, whether for British prisoners or for Egyptian adults. If Egyptians want it they should have it.

The pragmatic one is that Egypt can take it. Yes, Egypt is a divided society. What society is not? But it is also a resilient one and in myriad ways, though always under pressure, broadly based and multicultural. This is rooted in its history. Egypt has been open to the outside world not just in the time of Mubarak but since the reign of Muhammad Ali, and even of Cleopatra. It has also long been historically in the van of modernising trends in Islamic thought which, while emphatically anti-imperialist, also find a place for everything from science to parliaments.

There are threats to this stability. And of course the outcome is uncertain. Yet the rising in Cairo has mostly been marked even now by restraint. There has been little hysteria. Anti-western and anti-Israeli paranoia has been conspicuously absent. The much touted threat from the Muslim Brotherhood has yet to emerge. These are all positive signs.

Only a fool would dismiss the possibility that this week's events may unravel in dangerous ways. Revolutions are volatile, not neat and biddable. If a revolutionary mood gathers speed, or even if a prospective revolution is crushed by the regime, the impact will be felt way beyond Egypt itself. The drama on the streets of Cairo is Egypt's to resolve, not ours. After Iraq, there is little that the west can do. But we are affected by what is happening in Egypt. We have a stake in the outcome, whether we acknowledge it or not.

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Egypt's fate is in the hands of its secretive army | Oliver Miles

The 1952 'revolution' was really a military takeover – and the well-respected army remains key to the country's future

The resolution of the conflict in Egypt between a popular uprising and an entrenched president currently depends on decisions and actions to be taken by the army. What does that mean? It is not a question to which British history and political tradition provide much of an answer, even if the Duke of Wellington was not a bad prime minister.

The political role of the army in the Middle East has deep historical roots. When the Ottoman Sultan Mahmud II set about reforming and rebuilding his empire's power and prestige nearly 200 years ago, one of the main planks of his programme was to build a modern conscript army on the European model, even though he had to slaughter the old model army, the janissaries, before he could begin.

His viceroy in Egypt, Muhammad Ali Pasha, putting together the pieces after the withdrawal of Napoleon who had largely destroyed the old order, followed the same course. He sent military students to Europe, and invited training missions to Egypt. The rest of his modernisation programme, also based on learning from Europe, was largely subordinate to his goal of building a modern army.

Muhammad Ali became the founder of the modern Egyptian state, and his dynasty remained at least nominally in power in Egypt until King Farouk, by then scarcely more than a puppet of the British, was expelled by the "revolution" of 1952. But that revolution, though popular in the sense that it had the support of the people, was not a true revolution. It was a military takeover. The monarchy had been marginalised and was overthrown. The army had not.

On the contrary, it remained the backbone of the state under the three men who have ruled Egypt for the past 57 years, President Nasser, President Sadat and President Mubarak. All were military men, steeped in military culture and pride. President Nasser's prestige outshone all rivals, not only in Egypt but throughout the Arab world. President Sadat, though lacking Nasser's charisma, restored Egypt's self-respect by his partial victory over the Israeli occupying forces in 1973. President Mubarak, as air force commander, shared in that partial victory, even if he had still less charisma; his nickname when I met him in 1980 was the name of a well-known brand of cheese "La vache qui rit".

In other successor states of the Ottoman empire the army also played an important role. In Turkey one of the few generals who emerged from defeat with his military reputation burnished became the father of the new nation, taking the name Ataturk. The Turkish army remained for half a century the guardian of the new nation and in particular of its secular and democratic character. Only in the last decade or two has that role been challenged. In Jordan the army had a different role, as the guardian of the monarchy and its protector, in particular, against internal challenge from the Palestinians.

Against this background, I doubt if most Egyptians find it strange that their fate should be in the hands of the army. The army is respected, even reverenced, in sharp contrast to politicians or – worst of all – the police. This may mean, of course, that the popular revolution will be hijacked by a military takeover. But not necessarily.

The Egyptian army, like other armies particularly in the Middle East, is secretive. Their dependence on the US army for much-prized modern equipment (US military aid in 2009 was $1.3bn compared with civil aid of $250m) must mean that the Americans are something of an exception. But I doubt whether the Americans know much about the political attitudes and ambitions of the officer class.

Leaked reports from the US embassy in Cairo show that the embassy were well aware of the widespread bitterness about rising prices, government corruption and even "disdain for the Mubarak government's perceived pro-US and Israel posture". But a mention by an unnamed Egyptian member of parliament in April 2007 of a post-Mubarak military coup as "the best of all the bad options available" is described as the only occasion on which the embassy heard speculation about a possible coup.

In 2009 the embassy reported that the minister of defence Field Marshal Tantawi consistently resists change "but he retains President Mubarak's support, and so he and the top brass will most likely stay in position until Mubarak leaves the scene", and in another report that he "keeps the armed forces appearing reasonably sharp and the officers satisfied with their perks and privileges." No doubt these reports were sound as far as they went, but they do not tell us what we want to know today.

If the army is something of a closed society, that does not necessarily mean that it does not know what the people want, or is against giving it to them. If tomorrow an unknown general or colonel or flight lieutenant (remember Jerry Rawlings of Ghana?) tells us that he has stepped in to restore order following the overthrow of the tyrant Mubarak and that he will restore freedom and democracy, after an essential cooling-off period of course, we must not be surprised, and must prepare to judge him by his actions. That will be the moment when external players, including not only America but ourselves, may have a part in keeping him to his word. It won't be easy.

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Vodafone says Egyptian authorities forced it to send pro-Mubarak texts

Messages urged 'honest and loyal men to confront the traitors and criminals'

Vodafone has claimed the Egyptian authorities forced it to send pro-government text messages during this week's protests.

Twitter has been buzzing with screen grabs from Vodafone's Egyptian customers showing text messages sent over the course of the demonstrations against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's 30-year-old regime.

A text message received on Sunday by an Associated Press reporter in Egypt appealed to the country's "honest and loyal men to confront the traitors and criminals and protect our people and honour". Another urged Egyptians to attend a pro-Mubarak rally in Cairo on Wednesday. The first was marked as coming from "Vodafone". The other was signed: "Egypt Lovers."

Vodafone said the messages had been drafted by Egyptian authorities and that it had no power to change them. "Vodafone Group has protested to the authorities that the current situation regarding these messages is unacceptable. We have made clear that all messages should be transparent and clearly attributable to the originator."

The company said its competitors – including Egypt's Mobinil and the United Arab Emirates' Etisalat – were doing the same. Vodafone said the texts had been sent "since the start of the protests" but declined to reveal how many such messages it had sent or whether it was still putting them out.

Vodafone is already under fire for its role in the internet blackout that cut Egyptian users off for several days. It said the order could not be ignored as it was binding under local law.

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Tahrir Square battleground: 'These people tried to slaughter us last night'

Anti-Mubarak protesters in Cairo fight to hold square littered with bricks and burnt-out vehicles after night of bloodshed

They were barely visible at first, a glimmer of tan clothing among the ranks of pro-Mubarak fighters lined on a low overpass above the entrance to Tahrir Square. It was from here that rocks, petrol bombs and bullets had been raining down on the anti-regime opposition defending their barricades below.

At 9am first one, then a second, and then dozens of Egyptian soldiers – the same military forces who had stood back and watched as last night's bloodshed unfolded – finally appeared at this key strategic flashpoint and began driving back those on the bridge. Before them lay a no-man's land littered with broken bricks and burnt-out vehicles that spoke of the extraordinary violence that had played out in the darkness.

It was the beginning of a day of to-and-fro street clashes in the densely populated neighbourhoods surrounding the square, as anti-Mubarak protesters fought close-quarter battles to hold Tahrir and, in a hail of warning shots and automatic gunfire, the army sporadically attempted to establish buffer zones.

A night of fighting that left more than 1,000 injured and several dead from gunshot wounds. Despite the denials of Egypt's government and interior ministry, both of which claimed these events were not state-orchestrated, the evidence strongly suggested otherwise.

Anti-Mubarak protesters dragged a supporter of the regime through their barricades just after 8am. In his pocket was an identity card showing him to be Ahmed Mahmoud Abdel Razik, a member of the police.

His was not the only identity card taken. Others were on display, taken as their owners were led away for interrogation in the buildings on the back streets before being handed over to the army. Despite the tensions in the crowd most captured fighters were protected from retribution by responsible protesters.

"These people tried to slaughter us last night – five of my fellow revolutionaries were killed by sniper fire at this location, and I saw one man collapse right in front of me at 4am with his brains falling out on to the road," said Mahmoud Mustafa, a 25-year-old anti-Mubarak demonstrator. "But look around you – we remain peaceful, we remain united and we remain determined to bring down this regime. I was never involved in politics before, but now I will stay here until Mubarak leaves or I die, whatever comes first."

The north side of the square was a scene of devastation – both physical and human. At the makeshift aid stations, which have been manned by 70 volunteer doctors in the open air, casualties were still coming in.

A man with a broken back was carried through the crowd on a piece of corrugated metal. Others came through with head injuries, broken arms and cuts.

One of those treating the injured was Dr Ibrahim Fakhr, a surgical professor. "We had shooting at 11pm last night and then again at around four in the morning from a sniper on the roof of the Egyptian Museum. We saw the laser light coming from the weapon. The latest that we have is that seven have been killed by gunfire."

Like the doctors, those trying to defend the square have been forced to improvise. Crude helmets were constructed out of cardboard boxes; others strapped water bottles to their heads. They built makeshift shields and used plastic crates to catch the incoming stones at their barricades.

"I'm an agricultural teacher by trade and I've never built weapons before, but I am good with my hands," explained Said el-Zoughly, who was directing a group of protesters as they broke down a burnt-out vehicle to salvage defence materials and put together catapults and slingshots. "We're not just running around wildly, we're trying to be organised and efficient. Anyone who wants a shield can get one. We'll stay for however long it takes – God is with us."

At the mouth of the square, buildings once held by the pro-Mubarak demonstrators had changed hands by morning. On the roof of one, a group of young men, equipped with stones and firebombs, were briefed by their leader, while others hauled sacks of rocks up the derelict stairs.

"Today's still early, but they're scared of us," he told those around him. "Don't get burnt out. If you are tired get into the building. If you want to sleep stay away from the edges of the roof and its corners.

"Then when they come into no-man's land we can surprise them."

As more people arrived at the square bearing food and supplies for those inside, the clashes – smaller in intensity than those the night before – broke out again. The lines of soldiers between were hit by missiles, and tanks moved in.

Mohamed Saleh, a 25-year-old senior accountant, surveyed the scene. "You must tell the world about this terrorism, government terrorism," he said. "We've been sitting here for eight days with no trouble, no fires, no violence – just a peaceful desire for revolution. Now civilians are being indiscriminately massacred by thugs. If the west cares so much about terrorism then why doesn't it act?

"Mubarak says he wants eight more months in power to manage a peaceful transition. Just see what the first day of that peaceful transition looks like, then you'll understand why we can't stop protesting until he leaves immediately. He is a thug and a criminal and he wants to kill us. Can you imagine what would happen to us tonight if we stood down and stopped defending ourselves? We would be slaughtered. We're fighting now for our lives."

On Twitter and by other means, anti-Mubarak protesters sent out appeals for medical supplies, blood donations and blankets, and exchanged information on which entrances and exits to the square were safe. On the fringes of Tahrir many people were assaulted and harassed by pro-Mubarak thugs, including dozens of local and international journalists who have been portrayed by state television as sympathisers of the revolution and accused of spreading misinformation and circulating drugs.

Elsewhere reports filtered in of other institutions perceived to be anti-Mubarak coming under attack, including the Hisham Mubarak law centre, which has previously provided legal services for arrested democracy activists, and the El Nadeem Centre for Rehabiliation of Victims of Violence, which has campaigned against police torture.

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