Egyptians Hold Farewell Friday in Cairo
Massive crowds have gathered across Egypt, including hundreds of thousands of protesters in and around Cairo’s Tahrir [Liberation] Square, calling for Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, to stand down.
Pro-democracy activists in the Egyptian capital marched on the presidential palace and state television buildings, while many also gathered at Liberation Square, on Friday, the 18th consecutive day of protests.
At the state television building, thousands have blocked people from entering or leaving, accusing the broadcaster of supporting the current government and of not truthfully reporting on protests.
“The military has stood aside and people are flooding through [a gap where barbed wire has been moved aside],” Al Jazeera’s correspondent at the state television building reported.
He said it was not clear if they planned to storm the building, but said that “a lot of anger [was] generated” after Mubarak’s speech last night, where he repeated his vow to complete his term as president.
“The activity isn’t calm, but there are a lot of people here who are tired of not having their demands met,” he said.
Outside one presidential palace where protesters had gathered in Cairo, our correspondent reported that there was a strong military presence, but that there was “no indication that the military wants to crack down on protesters … in Cairo”.
She said that army officers had engaged in dialogue with protesters, and that remarks had been largely “friendly”.
Tanks and military personnel had been deployed to bolster barricades around the palace.
Reports indicate, however, that Mubarak himself has left Cairo, bound for an as yet unknown domestic destination.
In Tahrir Square, meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of protesters gathered, chanting slogans against Mubarak and calling for the military to join them in their demands.
In a statement read out on state television at midday, the military announced that it would lift a 30-year-old emergency law but only “as soon as the current circumstances end”.
The military said it would also guarantee changes to the constitution as well as a free and fair election, and it called for normal business activity to resume.
Many protesters, hoping for Mubarak’s resignation, had anticipated a much stronger statement.
Al Jazeera’s correspondent in Tahrir Square said people there were hugely disappointed and vowed to take the protests to “a last and final stage”.
“They’re frustrated, they’re angry, and they say protests need to go beyond Liberation [Tahrir] Square, to the doorstep of political institutions,” she said.
Protest organisers have called for 20 million people to come out on “Farewell Friday” in a final attempt to force Mubarak to step down.
‘Anything can happen’
Hossam El Hamalawy, a pro-democracy organiser and member of the Socialist Studies Centre, said protesters were heading towards the presidential palace from multiple directions, calling on the army to side with them and remove Mubarak.
“People are extremely angry after yesterday’s speech,” he told Al Jazeera. “Anything can happen at the moment. There is self-restrain all over but at the same time I honestly can’t tell you what the next step will be … At this time, we don’t trust them [the army commanders] at all.”
An Al Jazeera reporter overlooking Tahrir said the side streets leading into the square were filling up with crowds.
The problem for the regime is that they are making a lot of promises but many of them are promises that they have been making for decades. Security is always an excuse to crack down and repress opposition and their refusal to lift the emergency laws speaks volumes about their ultimate intent.
~On a related note, this article from Josh Rogin at The Cable from a few days ago talks about a possible rift between the White House and State Dept. regarding how to deal with what is taking place in Egypt and that this may have resulted in some mixed messaging. Unfortunately, according to Rogin, the State Dept. seems to fully support Sulieman’s efforts to entrench the regime and dictate who has a place at the bargaining table as the transition progresses. If this is in fact true, and I don’t really know if it is, I’m really bummed out about it because I really want Secretary Clinton to be 100% on the side of the protesters and to stand unconditionally on the side of democracy, just as we demand here in the U.S.
From The Cable:
…Inside the State Department, Clinton is being advised on Egypt by several officials who have deep experience with Egypt, including Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Bill Burns, who had suggested Wisner be sent to Cairo to deal with Mubarak, and Jeffrey Feltman, the assistant secretary of state for Near East Affairs, among others.
“The people whispering in her ears are people like Bill Burns, who is preoccupied with most often trying to save us from ourselves,” Carpenter told The Cable. “Burns is legitimately concerned with how this all unfolds, but his interest is in preserving as much of the status quo with the current government of Egypt as possible. Meanwhile, the White House is saying that it’s in our interest to build a new relationship because if we don’t it’s going to lead to something worse when the next government comes. So that leads them to conclude that they have to save State from themselves.”
Feltman, a former ambassador to Lebanon, is increasingly seen as someone who understands the wider risks to U.S. foreign policy of being tougher on Suleiman and President Hosni Mubarak but is nevertheless looking for creative ways to square that circle.
“Some people on the inside say ‘Thank God for Feltman,'” because he’s trying to prepare State for a changed relationship with Egypt after Mubarak leaves and trying to look over the horizon, Carpenter said.
On the specific policy toward Egypt, the difference between the current thinking at the White House as opposed to at the State Department surrounds exactly how much leeway Suleiman should have in setting up the committees that will negotiate and then oversee the political reform process leading up the elections.
On his blog the Washington Note, Clemons wrote that a senior White House official told him they want to see the emerging transitional process look like a “potluck dinner,” where everyone brings their own ideas and has real power off the bat, rather than a hosted “dinner party” where Suleiman decides the guest list, the agenda, and thereby the results.
“The State Department is advocating a hosted dinner, where the power still resides with the incumbents,” Clemons told The Cable. “That’s not good enough for the White House.”
I don’t really understand how anyone can think at this stage that trying to dictate the outcome of any future government by allowing continued leeway and power for Sulieman to close some unfavored groups out of the process, is somehow going to be beneficial to Egypt, the U.S. or even Israel’s long-term interests. All it will likely do is turn the Egyptian people against us as they watch our government try to maintain the status quo under the guise of change in order to protect the U.S. and Israel’s perceived interests. Yesterday I wrote about the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Egypt, which really ended up being about the Muslim Brotherhood, where it became clear that the U.S. thinks it can dictate some sort of conditional democracy behind the scenes. This is short-sighted and morally questionable and worse, it could backfire.
~ Daniel Levy, a former Israeli adviser to Ehud Barak and former Israeli peace negotiator in the 1990’s, has a must-read commentary in Haaretz about why the turmoil in Egypt isn’t the end of the world for Israel and the U.S. and that in fact, it could help jolt us all out of our collective complacency and love affair with the status quo in the region. Here is an excerpt:
Despite the fluidity and uncertainty surrounding the political situation in Egypt, one thing seems clear: Egypt and indeed the Middle East will not be the same after January 2011. This will apply even if those in Israel and elsewhere who are pushing for continued military, as opposed to civilian control, and for “democracy with exceptions” – i.e., Islamists not allowed – manage to carry the day. (One hopes they will not .) Those governing Egypt will henceforth have to be more responsive to the public will.
The package of regional policies pursued by the Mubarak regime lacked popular legitimacy. This included the closure imposed on Gaza, support for the Iraq war and for heightened bellicosity toward Iran, and playing ceremonial chaperone to a peace process that became farcical and discredited. Part of the democracy deficit is also a dignity deficit, as these policies appeared undignified to the Egyptian public.
Insisting on Egyptian adherence to the peace treaty with Israel is a legitimate position, has international support, and also accords with both Israeli and Egyptian interests. The treaty has saved lives on both sides, neither of which relishes the prospect of renewed military conflagration. The Israeli-Egyptian peace has neutralized any serious Arab military option vis-a-vis Israel, although the same cannot be said in reverse. Since signing the accord with Egypt, Israel has conducted several large-scale military campaigns against Lebanon and against the Palestinians, launched bombing raids against Syria and Iraq, and conducted high-profile assassinations in Jordan and the UAE – and that is only a partial list.
To the 1978 Camp David Accords was attached an annex entitled “A Framework for Peace in the Middle East,” which included a commitment to withdrawal from the Palestinian territories and to negotiating final status within five years. That of course never happened. What did happen is that the 10,000 Israeli settlers living in the West Bank when that accord was signed have become over 300,000 today.
Indeed, whether by design or not, the peace treaty with Egypt ushered in the era of the Israeli “free hand” in the region. Even though it has not delivered real security and has encouraged an Israeli hubris that can be both dangerous and self-destructive, that era of hegemony is something that Israelis are instinctively uncomfortable about losing. It is equally understandable why such a regional disequilibrium, one that became more deeply rooted under Mubarak’s Egypt, would be both unpopular and unacceptable to a majority of Arab public opinion.
Maintaining the peace treaty has morphed over time into maintaining a peace process that has ultimately entrenched occupation and settlements and made a mockery of its Arab participants. Post-transition Egypt is unlikely to continue playing this game. And without Mubarak’s enthusiastic endorsement, the process itself is likely to further unravel. It is hard to imagine other Arab states leaping into this breach, or the Palestinians accepting 20 more years of peace-process humiliation, or indeed Syria adopting the Egyptian model and signing a stand-alone peace agreement with Israel. Israel’s strategic environment – notably the capacity it provides to avoid making choices and to disguise the status quo as progress – is about to change.
So how should Israel respond to the changed environment? Thus far we have been offered two broad approaches by Israeli establishment voices. One has been to dig in, to convince the West that we are its outpost of stability in a sea of hostility, and to attempt to make our favorite adage of being the only democracy in the Middle East an aspiration rather than a lamentation. In the words of Prime Minister Netanyahu, “might” is the answer. The second approach advocates an urgent return to the peace process. Neither will work. The first will exacerbate Israel’s predicament, and the second is too little too late.
Israel has a third option, albeit one that is dramatic and out of synch with today’s zeitgeist. It would be perhaps our best and last chance for a two-state solution, one that would guarantee our future in this region. While it would involve cutting our losses, it would also have the potential of unleashing huge benefits – economic, security and more, for an Israel accepted as part of the tapestry of a democratic Middle East.
Broadly speaking, this option has three components. First, an Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 armistice lines almost without preconditions or exceptions (minor, equitable and agreed-upon land swaps and international security guarantees could fall into the latter category ). Second, Israel should undertake an act of genuine acknowledgement of the dispossession and displacement visited on the Palestinian people, including compensating refugees where appropriate, and thus set in motion the possibility of reconciliation. Third, there needs to be a clear Israeli commitment to full equality for all of its citizens, notably including removal of the structural barriers to full civil rights for the Palestinian Arab minority.
UPDATE: Pharaoh has left Cairo? In Sharm el Sheik, perhaps? He has so many palaces and homes, he could be anywhere!