After two days of watching the carnage the Egyptian army stepped in today to serve as a security force. But, as Anderson Cooper noted grimly on CNN this evening, while it is right to praise the military for maintaining order in the square one must wonder why they carefully search anti-government demonstrators but not the ‘pro-government’ ones nearby.
To my mind, the most telling quote of the day comes from a New York Times story that was mainly about Thursday’s clashes in Tahrir Square:
“If we can’t bring this to an end, we’re going to all be in the slammer by June,” said Murad Mohsen, a doctor treating the wounded at a makeshift clinic near barricades.
That, I think, captures the real danger here. The protestors have passed the point of no return.
Mubarak’s self-preservation plan seems reasonably clear: his thugs cause violence, which state-controlled media blames on foreign spies. Meanwhile, the army stays superficially neutral (it was telling that when the defense minister came to the Square to inspect troops today he was reportedly well-received by the crowd, but told some of the protestors that what they are doing is “against Egypt”) and waits for the proper moment to step in to “restore order”. The government has promised to investigate and punish those responsible for the violence, but you can be assured that if that ever happens it will be the anti-government demonstrators who wind up in prison, not their persecutors. Mubarak stays on to oversee yet another round of superficial, mainly meaningless, reforms and nothing much changes.
Will this work? It is worth remembering that as dramatic and inspiring as the last two weeks have been the crowds in the streets represent, at best, about 5% of Egypt’s population. We can be sure that for every person marching in Cairo, Alexandria or Suez there are many others who dare not march but fully agree with them. There are also, however, many people who are invested in the regime and have a stake in seeing it continue. The fact that the thugs who caused most of this week’s violence were paid does not mean that they all had to have their arms twisted to do it.
Beyond that, Omar Suleiman’s televised call on the demonstrators to go home quietly, secure in the knowledge that they have made their point and their demands have been met will strike a chord with more than a few Egyptians, as ludicrous as it may sound to those of us watching from afar. It appeals to two very Egyptian cultural traits: a desire to calm emotions and diffuse conflict by saying ‘Hey, it’s OK. No problem. Maalesh. Everything’s good’, and a belief that people should be allowed to save face whenever possible. It is notable that a number of older demonstrators interviewed over the last day or two have been receptive to the idea that Mubarak should be allowed to finish his term because it is the dignified thing to do, granted his decades of service to the country.
Beyond that, it is important to remember that somewhere between one-quarter and one-third of Egyptians are illiterate and very poor. What these people know of the world they get mostly from state TV. And what has state TV been showing? This report from the respected blogger/activist known as Sandmonkey is both depressing and chilling:
In the meantime, State-owned and affiliated TV channels were showing coverage of Peaceful Mubarak Protests all over Egypt and showing recorded footage of Tahrir Square protest from the night before and claiming it's the situation there at the moment. Hundreds of calls by public figures and actors started calling the channels saying that they are with Mubarak, and that he is our Father and we should support him on the road to democracy. A veiled girl with a blurred face went on Mehwer TV claiming to have received funding by Americans to go to the US and took courses on how to bring down the Egyptian government through protests which were taught by Jews. She claimed that AlJazeera is lying, and that the only people in Tahrir square now were Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. State TV started issuing statements on how the people arrested Israelis all over Cairo engaged in creating mayhem and causing chaos. For those of you who are counting this is an American-Israeli-Qatari-Muslim Brotherhood-Iranian-Hamas conspiracy. Imagine that. And MANY PEOPLE BOUGHT IT. I recall telling a friend of mine that the only good thing about what happened today was that it made clear to us who were the idiots amongst our friends. Now we know.
Click here to read Sandmonkey’s entire post.
Some significant things did change today – the appearance of Arab League Secretary General (and former Egyptian Foreign Minister) Amr Moussa in the Square Friday may prove to be a turning point – a first step in the establishment moving to ease Mubarak out of the presidential palace (or maybe not – Moussa has long been known as Egypt’s most glaringly ambitious political figure). Tantawi’s visit to the Square, despite that ominous exchange with a protestor, will be seen by many as a subtle nod toward the anti-government forces by one of the few people with the power to force Mubarak out.
But the bottom line remains: the regime, for now at least, plans to stay. It believes it can tell enough lies, intimidate enough people and shut down the economy to such an extent that, in the end, most of the anti-government forces will give up. It will wait out the demonstrators and exact its revenge after the foreign reporters go home. The terrible truth is, this just might work.