Wall Street Journal: “Egypt’s Regime on the Brink; Mubarak Digs In as Mobs Battle Police”

[The Wall Street Journal is US imperialism’s journalistic watchdog of the bottom line–i.e., how world events affect imperialist financial affairs.  Here, the WSJ examines the events in Egypt as they unfold, with an eye on how well the “mobs” (as they call the people) are being managed and how new power alignments are being manipulated for imperialist interests . — Frontlines ed.]

The Wall Street Journal, JANUARY 29, 2011


A protestor gestures to riot policeman in front of the l-Istiqama Mosque in Giza, Cairo. Thousands of police are on the streets of the capital and hundreds of arrests have been made in an attempt to quell anti-government demonstrations.

CAIRO—President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year grip on power hung in the balance as protesters massed around Egypt and overpowered the police, prompting the army to deploy on the streets of the nation for the first time in 25 years.

The protesters returned to Cairo’s central Tahrir Square Saturday, chanting slogans against Mr. Mubarak after Egyptian television broadcast a speech in which the president signaled he would stay but dismiss his government.

“There is no turning back from the path of reform that we chose,” he said. “We seek more democracy and freedoms.”

His address appeared to only heighten the gulf between Mr. Mubarak and the tens of thousands of protesters who took part in Friday’s planned “Day of Wrath” against what they characterized as the regime’s oppression, stagnation and lack of opportunity.

The words also highlighted the divide between Mr. Mubarak and his longtime ally, the U.S., which threatened to withdraw more than $1 billion in military aid. President Barack Obama said Friday evening he spoke with Mr. Mubarak and told him to refrain from violence and take “concrete steps” to advance the rights of Egyptians. “This moment of volatility has to be turned into a moment of promise,” he said.Friday’s demonstrations turned increasingly violent as the day progressed, as legions of black-clad riot police met protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets. Defying a nationwide curfew as night fell, protesters took over government vehicles, broke through security cordons to mass on Cairo’s central Tahrir Square and set fire to the nearby headquarters of the ruling party.

Those gains came in the face of stiff government resistance—the deployment of thousands of security forces, and the order that mobile phone and Internet connections be disabled throughout the country.

On Saturday, some mobile services were restored, though the Internet remained down.

President Hosni Mubarak makes first speech since Egypt erupted in violent protests aimed at deposing him – and orders his cabinet to disband. Video courtesy of Reuters.

In his early morning address Saturday, Mr. Mubarak said rioting and plundering were unjustifiable and blamed recent protests on a “conspiracy with ulterior motives.” He vowed to “continue as president to hold on to the right of self expression and freedom of speech within the context of peaceful expression.”

His words came as protesters continued to trade control over swaths of downtown Cairo with the army. Many remained on the streets. Protesters set alight the monolithic Mugamma building on Tahrir Square, the office that issues birth certificates visas and other permits, and which has become a symbol of Egypt’s labyrinthine bureaucracy. The boom of tear-gas canisters being fired, a near-constant throughout the day, could still be heard across the city. Cars smouldered.

“We’re staying here until we die,” said one protester on Tahrir Square, Abdel Ali Shokr.

The deployment of army tanks and troops across Egypt late Friday represented a critical point in the crisis. It was the army’s first mobilization on the streets of the Arab world’s most-populous nation since 1986.

A succession of rallies and demonstrations, in Egypt, Jordan, Yemen and Algeria have been inspired directly by the popular outpouring of anger that toppled Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. See how these uprising progressed.

“It means that the military is more in charge than Mubarak, and now there is a lot of uncertainty about who is in charge in Egypt and who is giving orders,” said Issandr al-Amrani, a Cairo-based analyst and blogger.

The military’s role in the country’s future remained unclear. The army has historically been the seat of power in Egypt, with all Egyptian leaders for the past 60 years haling from its ranks. It is closely identified with the regime of Mr. Mubarak, a former Air Force commander, and its officers have been rewarded with lucrative positions in state-run companies.

But the army also enjoys popular support, in part for the success of its 1973 surprise attack on Israel and the distance it has kept from day-to-day politics.

Some protesters appeared to welcome the troops, with chants of “the army are our brothers.” A half-dozen armored personnel carriers rolled through downtown Cairo with protesters riding jubilantly on the roofs. After the army deployed at the foreign-affairs ministry and the besieged headquarters of state television, troops and protesters were seen chanting together: “We are Egyptians, we are brothers.”

The protests in Egypt remained a focus across a wider region gripped by popular uprisings. The fall of Tunisia’s seemingly entrenched ruler two weeks ago has released a surge of anti-government sentiment and brought out a mix of educated middle-class citizens, union members, anti-authoritarian activists and Islamic parties in Algeria and Yemen. On Friday in cities around Jordan, thousands of people took to the streets in peaceful protests, calling for Prime Minister Samir Rafai to step down.

After a day of violent protests, Egypt President Hosni Mubarak’s tenuous hold on power hung in the balance as he pledged to sack his government and institute social reforms.

The Mubarak government’s response to its own protests Friday appeared to drive a sudden wedge between Egypt—one of only two Arab countries that conducts relations with Israel and a linchpin in the region’s security architecture—and Washington, its longtime backer.

The White House on Friday threatened to cut off its $1.5 billion in annual aid to Egypt if security forces continue to use violence to crush the protests. Sharp comments from Mr. Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—who on Friday cautioned Cairo that “violence will not make these grievances go away”—marked a sharp shift in tone from even Thursday, when the White House called for restraint from both sides.

Egypt’s crackdown on protesters intensified Friday with access to most forms of mass communication, including the Internet, mobile and SMS down.

Analysts said the unrest in Cairo is almost certain to doom whatever prospects still existed of Mr. Mubarak handing power to his son Gamal, who many have believed for years was being groomed to rule. The military was already widely reported to be skeptical about the younger Mubarak, who never served in their ranks, and the week’s events would appear to eliminate any vestiges of popular legitimacy he would need to rule.

The president may seek to preserve his regime at least until his current term expires next year, by offering concessions to protestors, analysts said, pushing through long-sought reforms such as the abolition of Egypt’s emergency law.

If the military winds up assuming greater influence, it will likely move to gain legitimacy by distancing itself from the old regime and recasting itself as agents of change. Past leadership transitions in Egypt have often been followed by similar gestures by the new leader. Mr. Mubarak, for example, brought corruption charges against relatives of Anwar al-Sadat after assuming power in 1981.

Some of the most serious violence Friday was in Suez, where protesters seized weapons stored in a police station and asked the policemen inside to leave the building before they burned it down, according to the Associated Press. They also set ablaze about 20 police trucks parked nearby. Demonstrators exchanged fire with policemen, trying to stop them from storming another police station, and one protester was killed in the gun battle.

Roughly 1% of global oil production passes through the Suez Canal, depending on the year. Benchmark oil rose $3.12, or 3.6%, to $88.76 a barrel in afternoon trading in New York.

In Cairo, Friday’s demonstrations were planned by a loose grouping of opposition parties that had planned rallies on Tuesday, largely by spreading word via social-networking sites to Internet-savvy young Egyptians. The tens of thousands who turned Tuesday made those rallies Egypt’s largest in decades; these people were joined by an even broader slice of Egyptian society on Friday, observers said.

U.K.-headquartered Vodafone Group PLC said in a statement that all mobile operators in Egypt had been instructed to suspend services in parts of Egypt. Vodafone CEO Vittorio Colao said in comments to a Davos session on mobile devices that “Egyptian authorities” had asked the company to “turn down the network totally,” a request he said appeared legitimate under Egyptian law.

The country’s Muslim Brotherhood, an officially banned but influential opposition force, said on its website Friday that it would call its full numbers onto the streets. That was a marked change from Tuesday, when the Brotherhood endorsed the goal of the protests but refrained from urging members to join in.

As the day began, protesters convened as planned at mosques around the city for Friday noon prayers. At Cairo’s eminent Al Azhar Mosque, regular noon prayers were cut short by an hour. Security officials said they were instructed not to allow anyone to loiter outside the mosque following prayers.

“We will use force to disperse the people,” said one plainclothes officer.

As worshippers filed out of the service under heavy security, a chant of “Allahu Akbar,” or “God is great,” rose from the exiting crowd. Once the mass of about 500 left the mosque, the chant changed to, “The people want the regime to go,” and “Punish those people,” a reference to the government.

“I couldn’t be there on Tuesday, but I was inspired,” said Mohammed Ahmed, 40, who was running along with protesters after he left the services at Al Azhar mosque. Mr. Ahmed said he had been impressed by the events in Tunisia, where a month of protests ended in the ouster of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. “Why can’t that happen here?” Mr. Ahmed asked.

For most of the day, black-clad riot police in phalanx formations fired near-constant barrages of tear gas, plugged the cities bridges and central thoroughfares and successfully held disparate groups of protesters at bay on the periphery of central Cairo. But they were overwhelmed as numbers steadily grew and as ordinary Egyptians continued to flood into the streets.

Some families marched with young children. On the west bank of the Nile River, Hisham Sherif, a biomedical engineer protesting for the first time in his life, together with wife, Faher, dabbed at the tear-gas filled eyes of their eight-, nine- and 11-year old children. “We’re a little afraid,” said Mr. Sherif, “but we need freedom for the children.”

—Ashraf Khalil, Jonathan Weisman, Alan Murray, Gerald F. Seib, Summer Said and the Associated Press contributed to this article.

Write to Charles Levinson at charles.levinson@wsj.com

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