Egypt’s internal stability is on a razor’s edge 10 days after hundreds of thousands of demonstrators began to take to the streets to speak out against rising food prices, unemployment and political unrest.
Major city squares in the Egyptian capital of 18 million people as well as in the nation’s other cities have turned into encampments for Egyptian armed forces and tanks, while the regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has taken measures to ensure that the demonstrators cannot reach each other, including blocking social networking websites, such as Twitter and Facebook.
“Our protests will continue, regardless of what they do,” said Asmaa Abdel Aleem, one of the demonstrators. “The people had already started unleashing their anger and there is no stopping it,” she added in an interview.
Abdel Aleem and her friends, a group of cyberspace activists who first invited Egyptians to the protests on Jan. 25, which marks Police Day in Egypt, may not have anticipated the reaction to their invitation.
This reaction was nothing but huge. Around 90,000 people signed up to signal their readiness to participate, and on Police Day they were true to their promises, as most of them streamed onto the streets and the squares of this major U.S. ally, demanding reform. As time went by, the numbers of demonstrators grew larger, their demands more sophisticated in intensity.
Only then did the octogenarian Egyptian President, who has ruled this country for 30 years, start to send in his anti-riot troops and armored vehicles by the thousands to crush the demonstrators and silence them.
They killed five unarmed protestors and injured thousands, but the protestors show no signs of repentance. Their choice of Police Day as a starting point for their demonstrations was meant to express the people’s frustration with their country’s police, which has not prevented crime, but rather protected a burgeoning class of extra-rich traders and steel barons who have mixed with corrupt government officials and ruling party leaders in a symbiotic relationship that has only harmed the poor, indeed showed nothing but brutality to the poor and the disconnected.
The intensity of the protests seem to have taken Mubarak and the officials in his ruling party by surprise. The first day of rioting passed without any official reaction, but on the third day, the Secretary General of the Party Safwat al-Sherif, who is also the Chairman of the upper house of the Egyptian Parliament, sounded a conciliatory note by expressing respect for the protests.
“The people have demands and we respect these demands,” al-Sherif told media at the central Cairo premises of the party that holds uncontested majority in both houses of the Egyptian Parliament. “We had instructed the government to alleviate the suffering of the people even before the protests broke out,” he added.
Few on the streets, however, seemed to believe him. Egypt’s political parties and the Muslim Brotherhood, by far the most vibrant opposition group in this country, announced that they would organize protests across the nation, defying Interior Ministry advice to the contrary.
In the port town of Suez, the protests assumed a bloody nature, as protestors hurled police officers with stones, set armored vehicles on fire, and smashed the doors and the windows of government offices.
In Cairo, the talk is no longer of food, jobs or even bread—things the protestors were demanding on the early days of the demonstrations. It is now about the need to topple the Egyptian President, the former army commander who has for three decades suppressed the people and rendered the masses incapable of putting food on their tables, despite claims to the contrary by Mubarak’s son, Gamal, who heads the influential Policies Committee in the ruling party and his coterie of western-educated economists.
The people who voicing calls to bring Mubarak’s rule to an end are the same ones who scoffed at his claims a month ago that the economic reforms masterminded by his son were on their way to helping the poor.
“Tell them that the fruits of reform are on their way to them,” Mubarak said in an address to hundreds of his party members during the annual congress of the National Democratic Party in November.
But the fruits of these reforms seem to have stumbled along the way, giving enough reasons for hundreds of thousands of Egyptians to go out on the streets to say “enough”—and a loudly, at that. Having witnessed a fellow Arab people, the Tunisians, force to flee their president, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who had ruled with iron and fire for 23 years, Egyptians are asking themselves about whether they can do the same.
Following the public uprising in Tunisia, which was sparked by the self-immolation of a vegetable seller who was offended by a police officer, several Egyptians set themselves in fire to signal their desperation with their poverty and joblessness. Despite this, at first no one in Egypt moved to emulate the Tunisians, making the regime and its guardians believe they were safe. Now, their sense of security has been shattered by the millions of Egyptians who have shown they are ready to die to help their country get rid of what they call “Mubarak’s legacy of fear and indignity”.
Although the protestors are a mere fraction of Egypt’s 80-million people, they have the sympathy of their compatriots, whose fear of Mubarak’s secret services and state security has prevented them from joining in the protests.
“These protestors are real heroes,” said a cabbie who was moving past Tahrir (Liberation) Square, which has become an epicenter for the demonstrators in Cairo. “I hope they can force the dictator out of the country, as the brave Tunisians did,” he added.
Searching for a scapegoat, Mubarak dismissed his cabinet and—under pressure from the revolutionaries—appointed a vice-president and announced that he would not run for a sixth six-year term in office next September.
Few on the streets believe him. A few months ago, sardonic ruling party leaders had been saying that the elderly president was their candidate for the next presidential elections.
In the face of this and despite Mubarak’s claims, the demonstrators continue to insist that Mubarak must leave, not only the presidency, but also Egypt. He appealed to the demonstrators that he wants to die in his country. They, however, have such hatred for him and his legacy that they do not want him to die here.
On Wednesday, Mubarak sent thousands of thugs and former convicts to disperse the demonstrators’ gathering. The thugs killed five anti-Mubarak protestors and injured hundreds more, using all sorts of weapons—from stones, clubs, sticks and guns, to knives. They also destroyed whatever remaining sympathy the old president had when he – totally broken and defeated – had made his announcement that he would not seek more time in office just before.
Now, Mubarak is depending on the thousands of army officers and soldiers deployed on the streets of the capital and other cities to keep the order and protect him against the anger of the demonstrators after his police force failed him by leaving their positions and turning tail on 28 January.
But many in this country still ask about how long the military will be loyal to the president, while their own people are suffering in pain. as the man craves nothing but staying in office “until the last breath” as he once declared in Parliament.
Al-Qotb (“The Writer”) is a pseudonym for The Jewish Journal’s Egyptian correspondent.