I’ve been glued to Al Jazeera for the last several hours and monitoring Twitter hashtags #egypt and #jan25 for breaking news about the ongoing protests in Egypt. While things are developing quickly, it’s not looking good for President Mubarak, who has ruled Egypt with an iron fist for the last 30 years.
Tens or hundreds of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets across Egypt today. The exact numbers aren’t clear yet. There were open clashes with the police earlier in the day. Footage showed many throwing stones at the security forces. Several people have been killed, including at least a couple police officers, and hundreds of civilians are reportedly injured. The headquarters for the ruling party is currently in flames, and the police appear to now have retreated from many places. Despite these obvious signs of violence, I don’t think anyone will argue that violence on the part of the protesters was the deciding factor if Mubarak does end up falling. If anything, it has likely only led to increased violence and slowed progress towards a collapse of the regime.
The response to the military, which is now out on the streets, has been quite different. There has been a lot of footage showing the tanks being greeted by cheering protesters. Chris Hayes, The Nation‘s Washington editor, tweeted that a friend in Alexandria wrote that, “Protesters are assembling to greet the army with flowers.” One Al Jazeera reporter said that on at least one occasion soldiers got out of their tanks to shake hands with demonstrators who surrounded them.
There are also signs of defections among the police. The AP reported that “several of the policemen stripped off their uniforms and badges and joined the demonstrators.” And the beautiful picture above was just tweeted by Christine Estima, showing one Egyptian woman kissing a riot police officer.
While the military has not cracked down, it is still not clear whether they will ultimately side with the people. If they do, it could very well be one of the decisive factors in whether the regime survives. Another key factor will be what happens tomorrow. Do the protesters have a plan regarding how to escalate if Mubarak doesn’t step down? If Egyptians hope to have more success than the Green Movement in Iran, they must be prepared to use other tactics, like perhaps a general strike, if the protests don’t produce the changes the people are demanding.
Meanwhile, Mubarak was supposed to give a public speech earlier in the day, but he has yet to be seen. And the US appears to be sitting on the fence, waiting to see what happens. As White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs repeatedly said in response to questions at a press briefing just minutes ago, they are “monitoring a very fluid situation.”
It’s really quite sad. The US has backed the Egyptian government with extensive military aid for decades. If the Obama administration wanted to support the protesters, and in turn real democracy in the Arab world, President Obama could play a decisive role by stating clearly that Mubarak should step down and that US aid to Egypt will be cut off until he does. Instead, Vice President Biden denied that he is a dictator last night on PBS, in essence, choosing to back him until the bitter end – which appears to be rapidly approaching.
UPDATE: President Mubarak finally gave a speech. He said that he was aware of the socio-economic problems that everyday Egyptians face and would be taking measures to address them, including asking the government to resign. He said he would appoint a new government tomorrow and that he supported the freedom of expression, but not the “chaos,” looting and arson of today. (If the protesters would have maintained greater nonviolent discipline, he wouldn’t have been able to make these arguments.)
Analysts and commentators at Al Jazeera are arguing that Mubarak’s speech is unlikely to appease the protesters, who immediately took to the streets chanting, “Down, Down with Mubarak!” following the speech. And again it’s hard to imagine a speech like this being made if the US would have been more direct in cutting aid and telling the Egyptian leader to step down. Now we will have to wait and watch to see what the Egyptian people decide to do next.