A bid to derail the revolution

February 7, 2011

Ahmed Shawki provides the view from Cairo as the Mubarak regime switches strategy from the hard hand of repression to stalling for time with negotiations.

EGYPT'S NEW Vice President Omar Suleiman presided over talks with opposition groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, over the weekend. But Suleiman insisted that the man who appointed him in January, dictator Hosni Mubarak, would remain in power until elections in September--in defiance of the mass uprising that has put millions in the streets and reached into every corner of the country.

Officials from the U.S. government and its European allies likewise defied the wishes of the overwhelming majority of Egyptians, signaling that they supported Suleiman's attempt to meet with opposition figures while defending Mubarak's ongoing reign--further proof, if any was needed, that "stability" means far more to the U.S. government than democracy.

Meanwhile, as the meetings with Suleiman were taking place, crowds continued to pour into Tahrir Square on both Saturday and Sunday. Indeed, as this article was being written on Sunday night in Egypt, larger and larger numbers of people appeared to be showing up.

Newly appointed Vice President Omar Suleiman meets with select opposition figures
Newly appointed Vice President Omar Suleiman meets with select opposition figures

Earlier in the day, despite rain falling in downtown Cairo--quite an unusual event--there were lines of thousands upon thousands of people waiting to get into the square. This has become a familiar scene of the last few days--to be funneled into the square through an army checkpoint, and then to be searched by organizers of the demonstrations in Tahrir.

But all the waiting and hassles of going through these searches dissipate when you get through--as you're greeted by hundreds of people chanting and clapping for you, welcoming you into the square.

Priority at the checkpoints was given to people bringing food, water, blankets, medical supplies and other forms of support to those who are occupying Tahrir Square. In the square itself, the organization and distribution of these supplies took place seamlessly. The square has been reorganized, with a kind of tent city emerging--semi-permanent structures that dot the square for people who plan to stay for the duration.

These are the expressions in substance of the continuing sentiment of the demonstrators--that they will stay until Hosni Mubarak goes.

Among the most interesting things at the square now are the impromptu demonstrations that take place each day, and that continued today. These are demonstrations by groups of people representing particular forces or political views. They hold their marches and speakouts to the applause of others in the square.

But what was most striking today is the enormous and vibrant political debate taking place among activists themselves--how to respond to a situation where Mubarak has been shaken, but still refuses to leave office. What underlies that debate is a bigger question: what to do next.

CLEARLY, THE regime has a new strategy--an attempt to try to overcome and bypass the protests.

The regime tried the hard hand of repression on two occasions. One occasion was in the first week, with an attempt to stop the demonstrators with the police--the method used successfully against previous unrest. But the police were driven back, to the point where the government had to withdraw them from the streets.

Last Tuesday, the demonstrations reached a new high point, with an estimated 6 million to 8 million people taking to the streets around the country. Mubarak went on television to vow that he would remain in office, though he wouldn't run for re-election--and the next day, the security forces and supporters of the regime were unleashed in brutal attacks to try to move the demonstrators out of the square.

The violence was terrible, with the number of injured running into the thousands, but the anti-Mubarak demonstrators responded with a heroic defense of their protest in Tahrir.

After having been defeated with their attempts at repression, the regime has clearly moved on to a new tactic. Today, they tried to reopen Cairo under some form of normalcy. The banks reopened, people were encouraged to go to work, and the regime pushed back the curfew hours so people can be out from 8 a.m. until 10 p.m.

This is an attempt, I think, to try to normalize life again--and in a sense isolate the demonstrators in Tahrir by making their presence an everyday feature of life that doesn't paralyze Cairo or the rest of the country.

The problem with the strategy, though, is that the demands of the protesters have not been met--and the impact of this huge uprising goes much deeper than what the government imagines, even now after nearly two weeks of demonstrations.

Tahrir Square continues to be the center and the symbol of the movement--and that's why it's been important to maintain a presence there and defend it from attack. But at the same time, the rest of the country has been turned upside down.

This is a mass upheaval of a population emerging from 30 years of military dictatorship--not to mention the years before that, which weren't exactly free and open. So not just in Tahrir Square, but in every town and city across Egypt, the movement to bring down Mubarak is flourishing and flowering.

From the reports I've gathered, there have been very, very sharp battles in other places--in particular, in the port cities of Suez, Alexandria and Port Said. These mobilizations haven't had the same attention as the iconic ones in Tahrir Square, but they're taking place in towns that are poorer, with higher levels of unemployment and with a history of police violence. So these demonstrations have been explosive, and they've contributed to the sense that this is a movement of the whole country against Mubarak.

That's the problem with trying to isolate the demonstrators in Tahrir Square or the attempt go back to business as usual--the revolt has spread to every corner of the country, and no one thinks it's over.

Beyond that, it's not really clear to anyone here what negotiations would actually accomplish in terms of the basic demands of the protesters--certainly not so long as Mubarak remains in office, and also not if the person in charge of the "peaceful transition" is Omar Suleiman, who ran the regime's national intelligence agency for almost 20 years, and who says he agreed to become vice president to support Mubarack in "these critical times."

Over the weekend, you had two things happening simultaneously. First, the government announced it was freezing the bank accounts and opening investigations of more former and current ministers--in other words, an attempt to pin the blame on individual ministers for the corruption of the entire system, and the violent response of the whole regime to the demonstrations.

Second, Suleiman organized the negotiations with opposition organizations--including the Muslim Brotherhood, which the Mubarak regime has repressed for decades. The Brotherhood was very slow to participate in the demonstrations, even when they reached a critical mass--something that's not lost on people here, wherever they stand on the left or the right. But now Suleiman is attempting to bring them into an arrangement that keeps the regime intact.

Many reports in the media treated the talks themselves as a concession on the part of the anti-Mubarak opposition. But if you read the stories all the way through, the Muslim Brotherhood spokespeople, for example, said they came to hear what the government had to say, but remained firm that Mubarak had to go immediately.

It would be difficult for any of the opposition figures, no matter how moderate, to go along with everything the regime wants right now. Anybody involved in these negotiations has to be looking over their shoulders. Now that the movement has reached such a size and level of commitment, they can't just say any old thing to please the media. They have to be careful that what they say isn't rejected by the masses of people who remain determined to get rid of Mubarak.

THE REGIME is obviously trying to buy some time in the hope that the numbers of demonstrators dwindle--so they can exhaust the movement and eventually try to deal with a more contained force.

From the point of view of the movement, I think there's a sense of trepidation and uncertainty among many people, including at Tahrir Square. Everybody understands that the standoff can't continue indefinitely.

So there's a discussion taking place now about to how to step up the pressure on the regime and how the movement can continue to push for its demands. One discussion, for example, is the possibility of a march from Tahrir Square to the Information Ministry--or, as was proposed previously, a march toward the presidential palace.

One thing that definitely is not happening, however, is a weakening of resolve about getting rid of Mubarak.

As we enter this new stage, one thing should be remembered, and remembered very clearly--the mass movement has already won an enormously significant victory in becoming conscious of its own strength, and in having resisted the regime's attempts at repression. That is a huge accomplishment under a military dictatorship. People understand that they are players in this battle.

The next step, which people are discussing and discussing widely, is how to deepen the roots of the mass movement, in different localities and communities, and in the workplaces around Egypt.

Tahrir Square is now the symbol of the struggle, but the future of the movement is in its ability to sink roots and in the neighborhoods and towns and cities where the hundreds of thousands of people who risked their lives in Tahrir Square came from.

Transcription by Karen Domínguez Burke

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