Tag Archives: Aljazeera

Downtown Cairo in lockdown

The area around Tahrir Square is in lockdown today. The violence has shifted from the square itself to the streets leading to it. Most entrances to the downtown area are sealed off by groups of pro-Mubarak supporters, and the one entrance allowing vehicles in that my nervous taxi driver (though not as nervous as me) could find was manned by the president’s men. They were immediately hostile when they saw a foreigner in the car, and demanded my passport and bag. They found the cameras immediately. “Sahafi, sahafi,” (journalist, journalist), they shouted. Fortunately I’d already fed the taxi driver, pro-Mubarak himself, my cover story. “No, no, he’s a teacher. And he’s African. Look at his passport.” It was the African argument that really swayed them, and they returned my passport and cameras with smiles and apologies. I breathed a sigh of relief and held a brief moment of thanks for the African Union and its spineless inaction on the Egypt issue. If I’d been American, I don’t think I would have got the cameras back. Or Qatari – Qataris are enormously unpopular at the moment because of the role that Al-Jazeera has played in televising the revolution. The line being peddled by the government’s supporters – and there are a lot more of them than I expected – is that the protests are a plot conceived by the US, Qatar and Israel. Despite the smiles, I am still denied entry to downtown Cairo, and I decide it’s not worth pushing it; things are still too unpredictable, tensions too high. Not everyone will buy the African argument.

The situation is very fluid at the moment. The TV coverage is providing perhaps a distorted picture of events. All the major networks have corralled themselves in apartments in Tahrir Square, and aren’t showing anything else. The attention that Egypt has received has been remarkable, but Egypt is bigger than Tahrir Square; and what I don’t know, and what Egyptians don’t know either, is how extensive the anti-Mubarak protests are across the rest of the country. I think that may be because support for the protestors is beginning to dry up; many people are happy to accept the President’s promise to retire in September, and just want their daily lives to return to normal. It seems to me that outside Tahrir Square, you’re more likely to see large crowds outside of functioning ATMS than in protest against the government. And without genuine popular support, the protestors in Tahrir are unlikely to get what they ask for. I hope that’s not true, but I’ve seen and heard nothing today that persuades me otherwise.

For a more extensive account of my day in the square yesterday:

http://www.thedailymaverick.co.za/article/2011-02-03-wednesday-in-cairo-sweat-blood-tears
or http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Middle_East/MB04Ak03.html

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Why Mubarak isn’t warming Idi Amin’s spare bed – yet

It’s tempting to see what’s happening in Egypt as a repeat of what happened in Tunisia. In both countries, a simple and powerful narrative has emerged  – the oppressed masses, living in the shadow of a venal, cruel and autocratic regime, finally throw off their shackles through waves of popular protest which are broadcast live on Al-Jazeera. The revolution will be televised. Egypt, being bigger, and Mubarak being more cynical, is taking a little longer and provoking more violence; but in essense, Egypt is mirroring Tunisia’s experience.

In the subtleties, the situations are a little more complicated. Perhaps the most interesting question of all is why, in the face of seemingly overwhelming pressure, has Hosni Mubarak clung onto power so vociferously, whereas Tunisia’s Zine el Abidine Ben Ali took flight at the first sign of trouble and now apparently finds himself living in the very same Saudi villa where Idi Amin passed the years of his exile. Perhaps one day it will be a museum.

Mubarak has shown no signs of flight.Here’s why. Tunisia, for all the hyperbole, is a significantly richer and significantly less oppressed society than Egypt. There is scope for the country to adopt some kind of unity government – which it has done already – and muddle through the reforms it desperately needs. Crucially, while proximity to Ben Ali has tainted his key ministers and advisors, it has not proved fatal to their lives or their livelihoods; the government remains largely intact and many of the anicien regime appear to be part of the foundation of the new one. So when the demonstrations got out of hand, and they saw the writing on the wall, they knew they still had a future – or at least a possibility of one –as long as Ben Ali was out of the way. So he got out of the way. Did he jump or was he pushed? I suspect the latter. He left power suspiciously quickly, with a suspicious lack of fight; I’d expect autocratic dictators in his mold to try a bit harder.

Egypt is different. Mubarak personalised his rule to such an extent that an entire class of society came to depend almost entirely on his grace and favour. He came to define patriarchy. And in a much larger and poorer society, the difference between the people who benefitted from having Mubarak in power, and those who didn’t, was much greater than in Tunisia.

The people closest to him stand almost no chance of continuing in his absence, for they are too closely associated with the figurehead. And so whereas the Tunisian elite were happy to see Ben Ali go – well not happy, perhaps, but in a bad situation for them it was the best option – the Egyptian elite cannot afford to be without Mubarak, for then they too will lose everything. They have no option but to stand and fight, and I imagine they aren’t going to allow Mubarak to escape to a desert holiday home while they take all his flak.So, I have no idea if Mubarak would like to join Ben Ali in exile – perhaps Ben Ali could let him have the guest bedroom? – but even if he did want to go, I’m not sure he would be allowed to. This is, I think, why Mubarak has no choice but to cling to power with everything he has.

VERDICT: Hosni Mubarak goes fourth; Idi Amin’s villa goes forth.

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