Millions Against Mubarak

Ahmed Shawki Feb 2, 2011

Cairo's Tahrir Square is packed with protesters demanding the downfall of a dictator.Massive demonstrations across Egypt Tuesday were followed by a televised speech by President Hosni Mubarak, but his declaration that he wouldn’t run for reelection later this year after 30 years in power–apparently at the urging of U.S. government officials–won’t satisfy anyone.

Essentially, Mubarak has agreed not to run in an election where no one would have voted for him anyway. The only effect this can have on the uprising will be to sharpen people’s sense of determination still further.

The demonstrations today, on the eighth day of Egypt’s popular uprising, were a confirmation of the unanimity that Mubarak must go. As one sign in Tahrir Square in Cairo said, “Game over, next player.” That sentiment was dominant in all the crowds. But Mubarak continues to hang on, ignoring the volcano that’s now erupted beneath him.

According to the media, the sizes of the protests were bigger than any of the previous days. The estimate is that some 2 million Egyptians took to the streets in Tahrir Square and the surrounding areas in Cairo. The square was just a sea of people. In the port city of Alexandria, an estimated 1.5 million marched. In another port city, Port Said, 100,000 to 120,000 people marched. In the city of Suez, by the Suez Canal, an estimated 40,000 marched–and that list doesn’t include dozens and dozens of other protests all over the country.

As this article was being written, around 9 p.m. in Egypt, some 1 million people are still in Tahrir Square, or Liberation Square–several hours after the curfew, which no one is really abiding by anyway.

This is an outpouring of the pent-up frustration that millions of Egyptians feel at the rule of Hosni Mubarak. But the demonstrations have a festive feeling–an almost carnival-like atmosphere, with whole families of several generations showing up at the square during the day today.

It was a gathering of people from all walks of life–as broad a cross-section of Egyptian society as you could imagine, in terms of class, in terms of race, in terms of gender. One of the most important features was the fact that Muslims and Copts–who are Egyptian Christians–were raising the need for unity across religious lines. That’s especially important after a series of anti-Coptic attacks, including a deadly attack on a Coptic church in Alexandria on January 1.

Another thing I thought was interesting at the demonstration was the association people made between Mubarak and the U.S. government. That was more muted in the first days of the protests, from reports I saw, but not today–people, for example, chanted the slogan: “Mubarak, you coward, you’re a slave of the U.S.”

There was also a real sense of people having taken charge of things for themselves. For example, everyone who came to Tahrir Square today was searched going in–by agreement between the organizers of the demonstration and the army, to make sure that no provocateurs with weapons were let in. So people were asked to show their national identity card, and were frisked and searched if they had any bags.

If you can imagine this taking place with so many hundreds of thousands of people who got to the square, you get an idea of the atmosphere of calm order prevailing in spite of the incredible numbers of people.

The longer the uprising goes on, the more people begin to feel a sense of their own power–of their capacity to change and control their destiny. That, of course, is an intoxicating feeling, and you see it everywhere in the streets.

A lot hangs in the balance now. Egypt will never be the same–nor will the rest of the Middle East, nor the rest of the world.

Yesterday, Mubarak swore in a new cabinet after firing the whole government last week. It was the absurd act of a ruler whose time is done.

Everybody agrees that there’s no future for the regime. All the players–those at the top of Egyptian society, the United States and its European allies–are now concerned with how to get Mubarak out. But of course, each of the different forces has different solutions and different interests in mind.

Sections of the Egyptian ruling class, as well as the army, indicated more clearly today that they think Mubarak should step down. For example, a well-known and extremely wealthy Egyptian capitalist named Naguib Sawiris, the owner of the mobile phone company Mobinil, today hinted that Mubarak should go.

Yesterday, the army chiefs came on television and announced that the army wouldn’t fire on protesters, or block the demonstrators today from exercising their right to peacefully assemble.

And today, state-controlled television showed scenes from Tahrir Square–to the cheers of people in the offices of left-wing activists who I was visiting at the time. It’s an unheard-of event that a protest in Egypt is actually reported about in Egypt. And there were reports tonight that at Tahrir Square, state television actually showed up to interview people on the street for the first time since the events began to unfold.

All of which shows that even the country’s elite understand what everyone on the street already knows–that the Mubarak regime is finished.

But what comes between being finished and Mubarak actually leaving office is the big question, and that’s where the speech tonight comes in.

Mubarak promised that he wouldn’t run for reelection in the vote scheduled for September–still more than half a year away. The people in Tahrir Square booed and jeered Mubarak’s words as they were broadcast. They listened to him say, in effect, “I know how you feel, but you’ve been infiltrated, and you’re being manipulated.” That will satisfy no one.

So the question is: Why was this proposed? Before the speech, word leaked out that Barack Obama had called on Mubarak not to run for reelection, but nothing more. Why did the U.S. go along with something that so clearly wouldn’t be accepted by the demonstrators? To save face for Mubarak? Is he really worth it to them?

Of course, one thing that’s gained is that Mubarak and the U.S. show they won’t give in to popular demand–they won’t allow the example of the U.S. and its allies being dictated to by mass protest.

Another possibility is that this is an attempt to separate moderates–to create a cleavage among opponents of Mubarak. If they were able to get an agreement from a moderate leader like Mohamed ElBaradai to say that Mubarak’s speech wasn’t everything we wanted, but now it’s time for orderly constitutional change, and we should wait until September, that might begin the process of isolating more radical elements.

That’s a possibility. But so far, all the commentators responding to the speech have said it’s not enough. If Mubarak offered this five days ago, it might have worked. But now the situation has gone beyond that.

From the point of view of those who supported Mubarak for 30 years and who now understand this support can no longer be maintained–most obviously, the U.S. government–the chief concern is how to ensure a “stable transition.”

They need a transition that satisfies the mass demonstrations and demobilizes them, but that ensures a status quo without Mubarak, where the broader questions of democratization and inequality–of how Egypt is run, and who by–are avoided, while somebody is brought in as a transitional figure. Even a couple days ago, that was obviously Hillary Clinton’s view already, and the push to get Mubarak out of the way has continued to grow.

So why hasn’t Mubarak stepped down?

There are many possible explanations. One is his basic mental sanity. Another is that he’s been the ruler of Egypt for 30 years, and like Louis XIV in France, he thinks “L’état, c’est moi”–that Egypt is him, and without him, the country itself wouldn’t hold together.

But there are other questions. He may also be worrying about what happened to his cohort from Tunisia, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who fled last month after 23 years in power, went to Saudi Arabia, and discovered he was going to be pursued for the crimes he committed while ruling Tunisia–which is why Ben Ali has reportedly left Saudi Arabia and taken up a new home in Libya.

The situation is contradictory. Everybody knows that Mubarak and his immediate allies are finished. Yet they continue to exert some influence, and even seem to be digging in. For example, one of the few places where the Internet was still functioning in Egypt was a luxury hotel downtown called the Semiramis–but that was turned off today. The offices of Al Jazeera were shut down. These are all signs of Mubarak’s attempt to maintain a foothold.

There are also rumors that members of the hated police are reappearing and attempting to act as provocateurs in certain areas, after being driven off the streets in the opening days of the demonstrations. The strategy is to let the country descend into chaos. That’s helped along by a number of gangs that have marauded around neighborhoods–it’s meant to create a sense of crisis, to which the government and presumably the army can step in and justify both a crackdown and a cleanup.

The problem for the regime is that the attempts at creating chaos appear, in the main, to have been thwarted so far by popularly mobilized neighborhood committees–which, in the absence of any police at all, began to take up the defense of people’s homes, small businesses and so on.

There are now checkpoints all over Egypt, but unlike previous checkpoints run by police, these checkpoints are run by local popular committees. Driving anywhere in the city after curfew, you’re bound to meet one or another checkpoint. But you’re let through, if there’s a reason for you to be in that neighborhood.

It’s not clear exactly what’s happening in every neighborhood. But the reports that I’ve managed to get are that in a great number of working class areas, it’s much more of a festive atmosphere. People have essentially set up popular militia committees, which are armed with whatever people can get, from pipes to baseball bats to knives, so they can defend themselves from the police and any threat by gangs of looters and the like.

Overall, the transformation is amazing. Two weeks ago, I was in Cairo for family reasons. The regime in Tunisia had just been overthrown, and I overheard an American tourist talking on her cell phone and saying, “No, don’t worry, I think this one is more stable.”

I actually tended to agree with that opinion. I left a few days before the protests began on January 25, and following events from the U.S., I couldn’t believe the rapidity of the change.

It’s even more obvious now that I’m back in Cairo–the enthusiasm and sense of spirits lifted is obvious, just in the way people comport themselves. After I returned from Tahrir Square today, I saw one of the television commentators remark on how there was hardly a fight or an act of violence at the demonstration, despite the massive numbers and the very, very tightly packed crowds. That was definitely true–it was another sign of the carnival atmosphere.

It’s difficult to predict where this will end. There could still be a deal cooked up by the U.S.–which sent a diplomat, Frank Wisner, to meet with Mubarak today–to have him step aside, in spite of the speech tonight. But I still don’t rule out the possibility of an attempt by the Mubarak regime to reestablish itself by force.

If it attempts to do so using the army, however, there are big questions. The army presence is very strong in Cairo, but its forces have been on the streets for five or six days, and it’s not acting as a hostile force–at least in terms of rank-and-file soldiers. That’s not to say that the army isn’t a hostile force–just that there’s been considerable fraternization going on.

I think movement toward an arrangement that pushes Mubarak aside is more likely, if only because as the protests continue, they have a spillover effect. Also today, Jordan’s King Abdullah fired his government and appointed a new prime minister after weeks of protests–which is exactly what Mubarak did in the early days of the demonstrations here, to no effect whatsoever. And already, according to reports, there are demonstrations in Jordan demanding further change.

These are momentous events, and we’ve only seen the start. We’re just at the beginning of what are likely to be even bigger transformations. Imagine, for example, the impact of Mubarak finally stepping aside–and yet there are still the underlying questions of unemployment that affects 40 percent of youth in Egypt, of Palestinian self-determination, of the domination of the Middle East by the U.S. and the West, of the control of Middle East oil.

All that hangs in the balance, and it’s forcing everyone involved to think through new strategies. For those of us who have wanted to see the end of the Mubarak regime for many years, our first step is to celebrate the uprising and continue to push as hard as we can–in Egypt and everywhere else–for the downfall of the dictatorship. But we also know that we’re just beginning this new struggle of the 21st century.

Ahmed Shawki is an editor with the International Socialist Review.

Transcription by Christine Darosa and Karen Domínguez Burke.

This article was originally published on

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