Like many of you, I’ve been watching closely as the events in Egypt unfolded this week. When the protests first began on Tuesday of last week it seemed like it might be a brief flare up, quickly repressed like so many others. But momentum grew through the week and the brutality of the police proved ineffective in preventing mass protests after prayers on Friday.
Then on Saturday, the olice left the streets and the media stories began to talk about “looting” and “lawlessness”. It’s clear now that the regime’s hope was that things would get so chaotic that people would beg the police to come back. To encourage this, undercover police joined in the looting and thousands of criminals were released from jail according to Human Rights Watch (HRW). “Mubarak’s mantra to his own people was that he was the guarantor of the nation’s stability. It would make sense that he would want to send the message that without him, there is no safety,”said Peter Bouckaert, the emergency director at HRW.
But this tactic failed. In some cases, the demonstrators joined security forces in protecting museums from looters linked to Mubarak. What was remarkable on Monday and Tuesday was the stories of people coming together to support one another and keep one another safe. The “neighborhood watch” groups sometimes sounded ominous with their golf clubs and makeshift weapons, but this description yesterday from Democracy Now correspondent, Sharif Abdel Kouddous,> who is on the ground there:
But, you know, the regime continues to try and quell this uprising. And every movement it takes only creates more solidarity amongst the people and more–more solidarity amongst them that this regime must go, that it doesn’t care about the country, that it would like to let the country go to ruins before it will release its grip on power. [The protestors] have seen that in the looting. They’ve said, “How can he let just all security go away and let people loot?” They’ve formed their own committees, these neighborhood committees, which are very organized now all across Egypt, and there’s been very little crime. Egypt is reborn in this way. Egyptians have come together to claim this country, and they’re going to continue to do so until Mubarak leaves. (from Millions Against Mubarak: Democracy Now!’s Sharif Abdel Kouddous Reports Live from Tahrir Amid Massive Protest)
Of course, the army has been a presence since the weekend, but they have remained remarkably neutral or even sympathetic to the protestors in some cases. The army was cheered when the arrived in contrast to the police who are widely reviled for their use of torture and repression. One video even seems to show the military protecting protesters from the police.
Mubarak mobs systematically take back Liberation Square
All this brings us today, when Mubarak supporters, including men on camel and horseback arrived to throw systematically clear Tahrir square. The eye witness description of their strategy from the Atlantic sounds chillingly well planned:
The pro-Mubarak group flooded the square, and its strategy became clear: All the entrances to the plaza were being probed and, if found lightly defended, overrun. I was now on the outside among the forward surge; no one was permitted to leave, but a trickle of captured protesters came out, each surrounded by at least a hundred screaming Mubarak supporters, and being beaten so intensely that I couldn’t see their faces, only a circle of waving sticks and fists, raining down on whatever unfortunate was at the center. One female protester was brought out, thrashed, and delivered to a military unit inside the Egyptian Museum grounds.
This is not political expression, these are the actions of thugs coordinating with plain clothes police officers. They are playing the same role that the paramilitaries do in Colombia. When the military and the police can’t get it done, send in death squads. Here’s a quote from a harrowing phone interview from a woman in the square just a few hours ago describing the attack:
They are coming in government cars… all of them are undercover police. We don’t have a single ambulance. There are hundreds and hundreds of wounded. Mubarak didn’t send protestors, he sent mercenaries… It’s a massacre of unarmed women and children and people who are demonstrating for their rights.
At this point, the questions turn to the international community. Will they back up their words and withdrawal military aid from Egypt? Or will they sit idly by while Mubarak unleashes the chaos that he claims is the only alternative to his dictatorship.
Here’s a quote from Noam Chomsky on today’s broadcast of Democracy Now:
The United States, so far, is essentially following the usual playbook. I mean, there have been many times when some favored dictator has lost control or is in danger of losing control. There’s a kind of a standard routine–Marcos, Duvalier, Ceausescu, strongly supported by the United States and Britain, Suharto: keep supporting them as long as possible; then, when it becomes unsustainable–typically, say, if the army shifts sides–switch 180 degrees, claim to have been on the side of the people all along, erase the past, and then make whatever moves are possible to restore the old system under new names. That succeeds or fails depending on the circumstances.
And I presume that’s what’s happening now. They’re waiting to see whether Mubarak can hang on, as it appears he’s intending to do, and as long as he can, say, “Well, we have to support law and order, regular constitutional change,” and so on. If he cannot hang on, if the army, say, turns against him, then we’ll see the usual routine played out. Actually, the only leader who has been really forthright and is becoming the most–maybe already is–the most popular figure in the region is the Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdogan, who’s been very straight and outspoken.
This is a reminder that Obama’s support for Mubararek and lack of concrete action is consistent with decades of U.S. foreign policy. Chomksy points out that Obama’s speech last night was empty platitudes and puts the responsibility for propping up Mubarak squarely in the lap of the United States:
The U.S. has an overwhelmingly powerful role there. Egypt is the second-largest recipient over a long period of U.S. military and economic aid. Israel is first. Obama himself has been highly supportive of Mubarak. It’s worth remembering that on his way to that famous speech in Cairo, which was supposed to be a conciliatory speech towards the Arab world, he was asked by the press–I think it was the BBC–whether he was going to say anything about what they called Mubarak’s authoritarian government. And Obama said, no, he wouldn’t. He said, “I don’t like to use labels for folks. Mubarak is a good man. He has done good things. He has maintained stability. We will continue to support him. He is a friend.” And so on. This is one of the most brutal dictators of the region, and how anyone could have taken Obama’s comments about human rights seriously after that is a bit of a mystery. But the support has been very powerful in diplomatic dimensions. Military–the planes flying over Tahrir Square are, of course, U.S. planes. The U.S. is the–has been the strongest, most solid, most important supporter of the regime. It’s not like Tunisia, where the main supporter was France. They’re the primary guilty party there. But in Egypt, it’s clearly the United States..
Just go watch or read the whole thing on Democracy now: Noam Chomsky: “This is the Most Remarkable Regional Uprising that I Can Remember”
Cross-posted from As of Yet Untitled