On the eve of Egypt’s day of reckoning

“No internet, no SMS, what is next? Mobile phones and land lines? So much for stability. #Jan25 #Egypt” tweets CNN’s Ben Wedeman.

The shutdown came shortly after the release of this AP video showing a protester being gunned down.

With major protests just hours away, scheduled to follow Friday morning prayers, Issandr El Amrani reports:

I have received eyewitness reports from three people that Central Security Forces (the riot control police) are pulling out of multiple locations in Cairo. Plainclothes security has been seen at various locations pouring gasoline on vehicles and setting them on fire, also trying to burn storefronts in the following Downtown Cairo locations:

  • Falaki Square
  • Omraneya
  • Near the American University in Cairo

Earlier in the day, I received an eyewitness report from a friend in Downtown Cairo (near Champollion Street) that policemen were loading vans with clubs, nails, metal bars and other objects that could be used as weapons by Baltaguiya, the hired thugs sometimes used by police to attack protestors.

The Guardian reports:

Anonymous leaflets circulating in Cairo also provide practical and tactical advice for mass demonstrations, confronting riot police, and besieging and taking control of government offices.

Signed “long live Egypt”, the slickly produced 26-page document calls on demonstrators to begin with peaceful protests, carrying roses but no banners, and march on official buildings while persuading policemen and soldiers to join their ranks.

The leaflet ask recipients to redistribute it by email and photocopy, but not to use social media such as Facebook and Twitter, which are being monitored by the security forces.

Alaa Al Aswany, the Arab world’s bestselling novelist, describes his experience of participating in the demonstrations.

It was an unforgettable day for me. I joined the demonstrators in Cairo, along with the hundreds of thousands across Egypt who went on to the streets on Tuesday demanding freedom and bravely facing off the fearsome violence of the police. The regime has a million and a half soldiers in its security apparatus, upon which its spends millions in order to train them for one task: to keep the Egyptian people down.

I found myself in the midst of thousands of young Egyptians, whose only point of similarity was their dazzling bravery and their determination to do one thing – change the regime. Most of them are university students who find themselves with no hope for the future. They are unable to find work, and hence unable to marry. And they are motivated by an untameable anger and a profound sense of injustice.

I will always be in awe of these revolutionaries. Everything they have said shows a sharp political awareness and a death-defying desire for freedom. They asked me to say a few words. Even though I’ve spoken hundreds of times in public, this time it was different: I was speaking to 30,000 demonstrators who were in no mood to hear of compromise and who kept interrupting with shouts of “Down with Hosni Mubarak”, and “The people say, out with the regime”.

I said I was proud of what they had achieved, and that they had brought about the end of the period of repression, adding that even if we get beaten up or arrested we have proved we are not afraid and are stronger than they are. They have the fiercest tools of repression in the world at their disposal, but we have something stronger: our courage and our belief in freedom. The crowd responded by shouting en masse: “We’ll finish what we’ve begun!”

Mohamed ElBaradei, who many in Egypt are calling a latecomer to the revolution, returned to Cairo from Vienna on Thursday.

“This is a critical time in the life of Egypt and I have come to participate with the Egyptian people,” he said. “The regime has not been listening.

“If people, in particular young people, if they want me to lead the transition, I will not let them down. My priority right now … is to see a new regime and to see a new Egypt through peaceful transition.

“I advise the government to listen to the people and not to use violence. There’s no going back.”

In reference to reports from commentators who point to the apparently small role that the Muslim Brotherhood has played in the Egyptian intifada so far, Jonathan Wright says:

From my own experience on the streets (see my earlier reports passim), I believe people are understimating the level of participation by members of the Brotherhood, though I will readily concede that they have not taken part at full strength and at a level which reflects their demographic weight. There are several possible and obvious reasons for this. Let me offer a few of them:

The Brotherhood, from long experience of confrontation with the Egyptian authorities, is always wary of commitment to street protests. It will calibrate its level of participation to its assessment of the chances of success. If it overreaches, it runs the risk of a massive crackdown. For the moment, probably rightly, it is not convinced that the protests will overthrow the regime.

The Brotherhood knows that the world (especially the United States and Europe) are watching events in Egypt closely. If the protests appear to be Brotherhood-led, the government will feel free to use much more brutal methods to disperse protesters. For the moment it suits the Brotherhood’s interests to give the impression that there is a broad coalition united against Hosni Mubarak, including liberals and leftists. This explains why Brotherhood members who have taken part in the protests have refrained from chanting slogans with religious connotations. The impression of a broad coalition also helps domestically — if the Brotherhood take the lead, it would frighten off some of the other groups.

At Wired, David Kravets puts the significance of social media and the internet in perspective.

Don’t call it a Twitter Revolution just yet. Sure, protesters in the Middle East are using the short-messaging service — and other social media tools — to organize. And yes, there are sporadic reports coming out of Egypt that the Mubarak regime has shut off Internet access — despite Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s call “not to prevent peaceful protests or block communications, including social media.”

But don’t confuse tools with root causes, or means with ends. The protests in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen are against dictators who’ve held power — and clamped down on their people — for decades. That’s the fuel for the engine of dissent. The dozen or more protesters that self-immolated in Egypt didn’t do it for the tweets.

“It’s about years of repression and dictatorship. Revolutions existed before Twitter and Facebook,” Issandr el-Amrani, a Cairo-based writer and activist, says in a telephone interview from Tunisia. “It’s really not much more complicated than this.”

Only about a quarter of the Egyptian populace is online, el-Amrani estimates. So street protests have grown the old fashioned way: via leaflets and spontaneous amalgamation.

“I’ve seen a lot of small groups of people wandering the streets and people spontaneously joining them. At every house, they would yell, ‘Come Down,’” says an expert on Middle Eastern censorship in an interview from Cairo.

The source, who requested anonymity out of fear of retribution, added: “This is much, much bigger than Twitter and Facebook.”

Meanwhile, Simon Tisdall writes:

Rising food prices, corruption, endemic poverty, high levels of youth unemployment and authoritarian governance are common factors linking street protests currently raging through the Arab world from Algeria to Egypt.

But as seasoned Middle East analysts such as the Financial Times‘s Roula Khalaf have noted, grassroots opposition to the increasingly prevalent practice of dynastic succession or tawrith – inherited rule – among non-monarchical, secular regimes is also fuelling the unrest. Across the region, Arab rulers are seeking to perpetuate their rule by passing on power to favoured sons or other male family members. But such cosy succession schemes are anathema to demonstrators pushing for expanded democratic rights. They also underscore the low status afforded to women.

After this month’s successful intifada in Tunisia, which overthrew the self-perpetuating ruling family, would-be dauphins, pretenders and heirs-apparent throughout the Middle East are wondering whether their dynastic great expectations may yet be thwarted.

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  1. Go Egypt GO!!!!! Kick another US puppet out!!!