By Yousef K.B.
As I write this, an uneasy and tense calm is being felt in Tahrir square and across Egypt.
At 1 pm across Egypt, the question that people will answer––whether they are in their mosques, churches, or neighborhoods––is do we march or not?
In Cairo, some plans (since there is not one organized entity leading the organization, plans seem to be contingent and dynamic) are calling for people from across the city to march towards the Presidential Palace in Heliopolis roughly at 1 pm after the end of Friday prayers. Otherwise, people will again gather at Tahrir square. What has been dubbed the “Friday of Departure” is the deadline that the protesters gave to President Hosni Mubarak to step down.
Let’s backup and recap what has happened in the past two days.
Unleashing of State Violence
The protests up to this point had been rather peaceful, with the exception of police crackdown on January 28th. Following the Million Masry March on Tuesday, President Mubarak came on television and announced that he will not be seeking another term, yet he refused to step down until the end of his current term which runs out in September. In his speech he referred to the protesters as some who have been
“exploited … by those who wanted to manipulate the situation to create chaos and destroy the constitution. These demonstrations moved from a civilized expression of practicing freedom of speech to sad confrontations which were organized by political groups who wanted to throw fire on the oil and to threaten the stability, and provoke, and create looting and destruction and fires, and to block roads, and to attack national possessions and public and private possessions, and attacks on some diplomatic missions on Egypt.”
He attempted in his speech to stoke up fear and anxiety by speaking about chaos, looting, and destruction, all of which were perpetrated by his police and other personnel connected to his interior ministry. He appealed to people to go home for the sake of stability and security (words that are always deployed by power), and given that he will no longer seek the presidency. Mubarak’s strategy was (and continues to be) to break the lines of the Egyptian people by increasing and then appealing to people’s sense of fear and anxiety about the current tumultuous situation and what could happen in the future. He was, however not just going to scare people using his rhetoric devices in his speech.
There had been reports of small and sporadic “pro-Mubarak” protests in parts of Cairo. Following the speech, however there were reports, and Al Jazeera showed pictures of these “pro-Mubarak” forces attacking protesters in Alexandria. Internet seemed to function normally. Mobile phone networks began functioning and users of Vodafone services began receiving texts saying “honest and loyal men to confront the traitors and criminals and protect our people and honor.” It was becoming eerily clear that not only was Mubarak not prepared to leave but also ready to shed blood even in the last chapter of his dictatorship.
During the next day it became clear that the government had prepared to use violence against the protesters. The government bussed interior ministry personnel; it also made calls to large plants, government contractors, and any government related businesses telling managers and owners to take their workers to pro-Mubarak rallies. These forces began gathering near the state television. However as the day went on they began to march towards Tahrir square. The plain clothed interior ministry personnel and the street gangs they’ve used in recent years were armed with clubs, machetes, knives, and other weapons, and they began to attack the protesters.
Initially media outlets labeled these clashes between “pro and anti Mubarak protesters,” working into the hands of the overall Mubarak strategy. Mubarak’s strategy was to create a more chaotic and confusing situation, where it seemed that the people were divided, that he still had a large popular base, and that the opposing groups were turning violent towards each other. This, he schemed, would work in his favor internationally by confusing an already confused international (especially American) media, dissuade people from wanting to join protests for fear of violence against them, and making it seem more reasonable to allow him to stay in power for eight more months rather than to go through more chaos and unpredictability.
Unfortunate for him, his goons are not that calculating. Along with attacking protesters, they also went after all journalists. Quickly what would have been covered as clashes between two camps of protesters began to be covered as government backed throngs attacking anti-government protesters. Two days of violence, however has left many people in Egypt wavering and more anxious then they were at the beginning of the week. It remains to be seen if they will come out in the same numbers as they did on February 1st.
The Inactivity of the Military
Throughout the violence inflicted upon the protesters by state sponsored goons, the Egyptian Armed Forces have stayed silent, letting protesters be hit, dragged, and shot in front of them without taking any action. The military had so far enjoyed the support of people in the streets who did not view them with the hostility they viewed the police and interior ministry agents. The inactivity of the military could cost them legitimacy, the longer they remain “neutral.”
The American Position
If the people turn against the military (still not the case), this will be very damaging to American interests of an “orderly transition.” The American government has begun to understand that Mubarak’s days are numbered, and prominent politicians who are influential in US foreign policy such as McCain and Kerry have called for Mubarak to step down. However it does seem that they have been able to convince Mubarak to step down. This partially speaks to the loyalty that Mubarak still enjoys from the fractions of the Armed Forces. In other words fractions of the Armed Forces such as the Presidential Guard and Air Force, loyal to Mubarak are still dominant and have successfully sidelined the broader military that might be more favorable to his removal.
This is becoming more dangerous for the United States. As the situation escalates they will find it more difficult to control the post-Mubarak Egypt. This explains recent reports that Washington is in conversation with Egyptian officials for Mubarak to resign. They are trying to replace Mubarak with his Vice President, Suleiman who they have a very close relationship with. They can entrust Suleiman to use the transitional period to build a new elite constellation that can retain the current establishment and re-construct the hegemony in Egypt.
Egyptians have taken over the power to be the ultimate decision makers. They will show in their decision to come out in large numbers tomorrow, that Mubarak’s state violence and fear has lost its power once and for all. The next big question after that is will they accept an “orderly transition,” or will they insist on fundamental change to the social relations of domination, an effective change in the very exploitative social structure that is present day Egypt.