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Egypt Parties Down, Amid Possible Clouds on the Horizon

February 11, 2011, 6:35 p.m. Most of the protesters and the vast outpouring of supporters who filled adjacent squares and side streets to Tahrir and the main streets of large middle class neighborhoods in northern Cairo like Masr Gadida stayed up for much of the night Friday to celebrate. Today, they say, is for more celebration. Tomorrow they will think of what comes next.

But that is not the case with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which met this morning and issued a new communiqué. Nor is it the case with the six youth movements – the April 6th Movement, Hashd and four smaller, lesser known groups that provided the amazing organizing behind the scenes for a Revolt that lacked any one highly visible leader figure .

That capacity for mass discipline in the absence of a charismatic leader is in itself one of the fascinating, indeed, transformative aspects to this Revolt. On a cultural level, it is truly revolutionary. I have lived in the Arab world for 43 years, much of that time as a working journalist. At a risk of being denounced as an Orientalist (whose ranks I do not even qualify for, denigrated as that category of scholars may be) I see this as something unprecedented for this political culture. An every-man-a-leader complex has plagued nearly all of the opposition parties in Egypt during their tolerated moments over the past 30 or so years. Now, they are all united, as I understand it, in calling for a civilian transitional government to be established immediately.

But I digress. The Supreme Council announced today that the cabinet in office at the time of Mubarak’s resignation would remain in place as a caretaker government until a new, presumably transitional government is formed. To be sure the council also affirmed the Armed Forces’ commitment to a peaceful transition to a freely elected democratic government. But there was no timetable issued, which is particularly troubling to the protesters as word has circulated in the last hour or two. Nor was there any clarification of whether Omar Suleiman would be part of this caretaker government, either as Vice President or as Chief of Intelligence.

As minister of defense in the cabinet of ousted President Hosni Mubarak and as chairman of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi would appear to be exercising an extraordinary amount of power in the current configuration of decision makers. But appearances can be deceiving. That is true everywhere but particularly so in a land in which the veil and the beautiful perforated wood mushravbiyas ( Yeah, yeah I KNOW, more Orientalism.) have been metaphors for the exercise of power.

Initial word from the youth movement steering committee (so-to-speak) indicates the council’s lack of clarity is not satisfactory. Already, the most activist among the protesters who are still down in Tahrir Square say that they are staying on until a truly civilian transitional cabinet is named, presumably through negotiations between the youth movement and the opposition parties on one side (I would lump the Muslim Brotherhood with the latter) and the military Supreme Council on the other.

This most recent communique (number 4) also affirmed that “Egypt will respect past agreements,” and I know for many of my readers I should have led this blog with that piece of news. They called upon state security officials “to respect their oath to work for the safety and stability of the citizens,” which really means “start behaving like decent people.” The Army, at least among the younger and middle grade officers, is known to have been scandalized by police behavior for a number of years. One of the most obvious divisions within the ruling authority over the past two-and-a-half weeks has been between the Army and State Security commanded by the Minister of Interior, not Defense.

Of Military Coups and Etiquette

February 11, 2011, 10:52 p.m.

With the pent up burst of celebration that erupted on Tahrir Square after the announcement that Mubarak was leaving, no one gave close attention to Military Communique Number 3, the accompanying statement issued by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces now running the country. Its careful use of Arabic offers subtle clues to the military’s feelings about the resignation.

To be sure, the communique hails the martyrs of this uprising – the unarmed, or at most rock throwing, protesters who lost their lives to gunfire from the police and to pro-Mubarak gangs who attacked them with everything from stones, whips, crowbars, knives and guns during the first week of this struggle.

But the communique also offers high praise for the deposed President Husni Mubarak – deposed by the very men whose communique speaks of him with words of respect. It notes his military career serving in Egypt’s wars and describes his decision to step down as typical of his concern for the nation.

I thought of this when my editor at the Forward gently chided me for quoting Omar Suleiman as having announced that Mubarak had decided “to resign” – whereas the text of the official simultaneous translation into English said it was Mubarak’s decision “to waive” the office of the President of the Republic.

I suggested that this sounded like a politeness, but I didn’t know on whose part. So I called my old friend and colleague Hussein Elaimey, who I first met in the mid-70’s at a press conference held by the then-head of the Egyptian armed forces. Hussein – at the time, Major Elaimey – was the military chief’s translator. I stole Hussein away from the Army soon after to work for NBC News, and he went on to a distinguished career as a translator with the United Nations.

Hussein said the Arabic word Suleiman used had, like so many words do in Arabic, several simultaneous meanings that generate an overall mood as much as a specific meaning. The word Suleiman used could mean at best “gave up” or” resigned,” but also “abandoned” his post. So it was the otherwise quite precise official translator who rendered a nearly obtuse Arabic variation on the word “resign” as “waive” out of the same politeness that motivated the Supreme Council in its treatment of the very man they had pushed out of power.

In the midst of this crisis, indeed in public life at its best in these socially frayed modern times, this politeness epitomizes one of the charms of Egyptian life.

Farewell to the Pharaoh

February 11, 2011, 7:49 p.m.

What an extraordinary moment!

The hundreds of thousands of protesters swamping Tahrir Square and the nearby Egypt TV building – sullen and bitter about Mubarak’s speech last night, confused and suspicious about the ambiguous Communique Number 2 from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces – instantaneously transformed. It’s the most ecstatic state of uninhibited happiness I have ever witnessed, all set off by a 20-second appearance on state television of a grim faced Omar Suleiman announcing Mubarak’s resignation.

It appears Suleiman himself is also history. In his appearance, Suleiman, whom Mubarak appointed as his vice president just last week in response to the crisis, said that all presidential authority was being transferred to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. That makes Vice President Suleiman Egypt’s former Vice President. The protesters and spokesmen for the opposition parties are hailing this as a people’s peaceful revolution. Indeed, it was peaceful in intent, and mostly peaceful in practice, despite the more than 300 dead in more than two weeks of struggle.

The Army’s neutrality was crucial to keeping that figure from being worse. And the importance of its role now will be only increase. What the Army intends will become clear soon enough: Will its leaders appoint a broad national coalition of all civilian forces opposed to Mubarak to share power with the Army and, in rapid time, constitute a provisional government? Will it facilitate the end of Draconian rule under the detested Emergency Law? Will it ensure constitutional reform and free and fair elections for a new parliament and a new President?

Except for a handful of generals, the Army – contrary to pundits who said otherwise – did not have a vested interest in this regime. Over the last decade, power and prestige had shifted away from the officer class that was both the prop and beneficiary of the 1952 military coup that ended the monarchy. Their coup quickly evolved into a social revolution. But more recently power shifted to a circle of billionaire businessmen – the “corrupt businessmen” in the extraordinary words of an Army commander addressing the Tahrir crowds in the first week of this revolution. For this group, “conflict of interest” was not a problem but was the very basis for their taking over ministries, unlike in societies governed by the rule of law.

In essence for the past ten years the Egyptian Republic has been evolving from a military-based autocracy to a plutocracy that was financially and socially marginalizing the officer class.

This sense of marginalization no doubt was combined with sincere and patriotic disgust at the despoiling of the country. The patriotic component in the Army’s stance should not be cynically dismissed. Certainly, the Army shared with the people disgust at the brutal, almost indiscriminate behavior of the civil security forces – the various police forces that reported to the Interior Ministry, and no doubt to Mubarak himself. The interior minster is already under investigation and banned from travel. He along with his deputies will no doubt be put on public trial and severely sentenced.

But if there is a broad national coalition, will it represent the workers whose sudden wave of strikes in the last 48 hours and decision to join the demonstrations today, shook the establishment? Will they and the young professionals and students be represented in the months that come?

Right now, as it was before, only God and the Army know.

The Pressure Builds

February 11, 2011, 5:30 p.m.

It is still all up in the air. Where does the army stand? Is it divided? And the protesters in increasing numbers are still in Tahrir (Liberation) Square and spreading out to completely surround the nearby Egypt Radio & TV Building and, and to a lesser degree, outside the Presidential Palace.

Just before prayer time, which was roughly at noon in Cairo (5a.m. EST) the Supreme Military Council issued Communique Number 2 which guaranteed, item by item, all the promises made by President Mubarak over the past two weeks, and particularly in his speech last night. But the senior military command made no direct reference to President Mubarak.

The new communique reiterated that the “noble ones” protesting against the regime will be protected from any harm or harassment. But it also called upon the protesters to return to normal life, and not to interfere with the return to normal life. The statement warned the military would not tolerate anybody jeopardizing the country’s security.

The protesters are pretty much convinced the Army will not fire upon them, and they continue to try and fraternize with the troops protecting the TV building and the Presidential Palace. But they want the Army to do more than that – they want the army to throw in with revolt and force out President Mubarak, and for many protesters, his now greatly empowered Vice President Omar Suleiman.

What I call “informed public opinion” meaning my middle class professional friends, who in principle have supported the protesters demands but whose feelings have fluctuated on whether the protesters should wrap it up and go home, are far less demanding. For them, the fear of chaos and bloodshed are a much stronger force, and for these Egyptians the most positive development today is that the Army has maintained its unity, which is a guarantee against chaos. For now, that is sufficient and beyond that – Mubarak chould go now or be allowed to stay since the Army will guarantee implementing all reforms.

Now that prayers have ended, the protests have not only filled up Liberation Square. They have moved most significantly to the nearby Egypt Radio and TV building. This is a critical public building – it houses the Ministry of Information as well as state radio and television. I know it well for it is here that I would go year after year to the renew my accreditation as bureau chief of NBC News, or to listen patiently to an official reprimand me for a TV news report deemed “unfriendly.”

The Army, with its tanks and troops, is protecting Egypt TV from any attempt to storm the building. And until now the protesters have made no attempt to do so. But as their numbers increase, the temptation of the most militant among the protesters to do so increases. The April 6 youth movement organizers continue to remind the protesters to stay peaceful, chanting “peaceful, peaceful” whenever tensions seems to rise.

The demonstration outside of the Presidential Palace, some 7 miles away from Liberation Square only numbered in the few hundreds before prayer. But those numbers are also increasing. Aside from exceptional reports, the Army does not appear to be preventing protesters making their way to the Presidential Palace.

The Supreme Army Council has promised a third communiqué at any moment. It just might provide more clarity on where the Army stands. But right now the most dangerous flash point is the Egypt TV Building. It is there that the drama of where the army stands is most likely to play out today if it is to play out at all here, in once again a tense and very confused Cairo.

Cairo Sleeps on It

February 11, 2011, 3:35 a.m.

When President Mubarak spoke nearly a week ago on a late Friday night Cairo time, hours after all of the police were pulled off the streets and looting had begun, he acknowledged the “legitimate demands” of the protesters, declared he wouldn’t run for another term of office, promised political and economic reforms and declared he had sacked the cabinet and would name a new one. He also invoked his long years of service and said he would be buried in Egypt.

I mention all this old news now because at the time the reaction was extraordinary: By the next morning I discovered that informed public opinion – in other words my friends among the Egyptian middle class who had sympathized with the protesters when they were attacked by the police and shared their call for reform – were deeply affected by that speech. I was truly surprised by how much Mubarak had stirred their feelings; the sort of sentimentality and a sense of hierarchy that I always found touching in ordinary circumstances.

This was true not just of the professional people and graduates of the American University but also the young men who had taken to the street – my street in the suburb of Maadi – with their sticks and knives to protect the neighborhood from roaming looters. After all, they said, he will not run again, he has agreed to reforms, he deserves respect as our President, so why should the protestors carry on? Watching satellite coverage in the Tahrir Square that same morning, I could see that the protesters did not grasp that many of their sympathizers were drifting away.

This sort of “alienation of the revolutionary elite from the masses,” to quote from the yellowing pages of the Marxist texts I use to read five decades ago, didn’t last long. As armed pro-Mubarak groups (or gangs of thugs, recruited by security forces, as described by observers as well as protestors) attacked the protesters, my Egyptian friends and acquaintances began to shift again, and the protestors regained momentum.

Now nearly a week later the President has spoken in the same vein, expressing empathy for the youth even more strongly, presenting himself as a supporter of reform. Again, he reminded Egyptians of his service to the country.

Will it work again? Probably not with much of informed public opinion. If people hesitate, they do so not out of affection for the president but rather out of fear for the chaos that now clearly lies ahead.

As for some of the very poor day workers, they are not a regularly salaried working class. They are desperate to get back to work and are as likely to blame the protesters as they are to blame the president. They are quite capable of street fighting, and their reaction to the even more massive protests scheduled for tomorrow, like that of the army, is absolutely unpredictable.

No Resignation from Mubarak, The Army and Protesters React

February 11, 2011, 1:30 a.m.

Now comes the aftermath of catharsis denied.

It was not just the vast crowd at Tahrir Square waiting for hours after sunset for the President to speak that was convinced, whether reasonably or passionately, that Mubarak would resign; many millions in Cairo and the rest of the country, were also waiting, nearly all convinced.

This was not just wishful thinking. There were signs — the newly appointed secretary general of the ruling NDP had told BBC earlier that he had advised Mubarak to resign and that he expected that resignation soon. The observation was echoed in Washington by the head of the CIA. An important general had come down to Tahrir Square many hours before the speech to assure those parts of the vast crowd within hearing distance that the Army accepted all their demands.

Most significanty, the Supreme Military Command met some hours before the speech without the presence of the president, who as commander-in-chief of the armed forces should have been there. The vague public statement issued afterward by this Supreme Command, which has rarely met, not only seemed to indicate they were now exercising authority but was labelled “Communiqué Number One,” which is the standard form when there is a coup . Large TV monitors have been set up in the Square, and when Mubarak began to speak the crowd quieted down and listened in an intense and hushed manner. But not for long. The president began with praise for the protesters’ sincerity and said he mourned their martyrs and pledged that the government would track down and punish whoever was responsible for the violence against them –presumably first by the police during the first week of demonstrations and then by the strangely composed pro-Mubarak gangs that attacked the protestors last weekend. He pledged various reforms.

But it quickly became clear that the President was not resigning. So tens of thousands of voices from the Square could be heard chanting “Go! Go! Go! And the festive atmosphere that was clear to all of us watching on satellite television in the hours leading up to the speech abruptly disappeared — the mood was now sullen and angry. Angry or not, nearly everyone, at least in Cairo, was shocked.

That there are divisions within the government and its ruling party, which appears to be melting away, is clear; and also, within the army. The army’s divisions were evident in the first week of the revolt, when two Egyptian air force jets buzzed the Tahrir demonstrators in an intimidating manner at the same time that officers and enlisted men in army tanks that had taken up positions around the square were openly fraternizing with the protestors. This sense of division was reflected by the firm denial issued by the minister of information that President Mubarak would not resign, issued just a few hours before the speech — effectively contradicting the remarks of the ruling party’s new secretary general.

Given all this, it is too soon to predict how the army will react if, as expected, hundreds of thousands if not millions of Egyptians take to the streets on Friday. And if they do it will not be just at Tahrir Square and the nearby TV Building/Ministry of Information but at various other points around the city as indicated in a bulletin issued by the youth movement organizers on Wednesday.

Mubarak was followed on state TV by his new Vice President Omar Suleiman, to whom Mubarak said he had delegated authority — though how much of his authority was not terribly clear. And Omar Suleiman’s remarks were far harsher than those of the President – he implied the protesters were being manipulated, he urged them to go home and urged them to watch state television and not the satellite channels, which he accused of inflaming the situation.

So what will Mubarak and Suleiman order the army to do if millions turn out to demonstrate tomorrow? And if they order the Army to break up the protestors, what will the army do?

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