A SPECIAL GROUND REPORT CARRIED IN THE INDIA TODAY MAGAZINE
Gaurav C. Sawant | Cairo
Egyptians rally in Cairo to demand President Hosni Mubarak's resignation
The chants of 'Go Mubarak Go' at Tahrir Square in Cairo are rivalled by the pro-Hosni Mubarak slogans requesting the 'beloved leader' to stay on for the country. State-sponsored vigilantes are on the street clashing with pro-democracy protesters. The tottering Egyptian president's televised address, insisting he would step down in September, was booed by thousands of freedom marchers.
Pro-Mubarak demonstrators attacked me and other members of the Headlines Today team, hitting the cameraman for shooting visuals of only anti-Mubarak demonstrators and not of Mubarak supporters. They accused the team of being a part of a "hostile Arab channel". The cameraman was beaten up and his camera tripod broken. They also yanked out the tape and smashed it. "I tried to tell them I am an Indian and not an Arab but the mob does not listen," said cameraman Tahir Chowdhary.
The attackers relented only when we showed our passports. "We kept saying we are Sahafi al Hind (Indian journalists). But the mob was not listening. It was only when a section of the mob saw the passports and intervened did the rest of the mob relent and then targeted another group journalists," said Chowdhary. They also roughed up several foreign journalists covering the crisis in Cairo, accusing them of deliberately trying to destabilise the Mubarak regime.
Braving chilly winds and 4ÂºC temperatures are the 'freedom fighters' who insist they will continue to fight for change even if the army opens fire. This is battleground Egypt. For the first time ever people have dared to defy the state in such large numbers.
Protesters use a shoe to disgrace an image of Mubarak woven into a carpetThe Jasmine Revolution of Tunisia has spread to Egypt and a whiff of freedom is in the air. "This time we will be free. Allah is with us," says Dr Nashwa Salah, professor of philosophy at Cairo's prestigious Ain Shams University. Many tents have come up at the roundabout at Tahrir Square. Thousands of people camping through the week, saying they will leave only when Mubarak leaves. Twenty-eight-year-old Salma Sayed teaches interactive theatre to schoolchildren. "But this is no drama. This is an issue of our life and death. I am here with my parents and entire family. Our entire neighbourhood is camping here," she says.
This is the most unique aspect of this movement. Men, women, children, some as young as five, are taking part in an effort for what they say is Egypt's brighter future. But what is the future when the 82-year-old president who has ruled with an iron fist for over three decades refuses to step down? "I do not know if it will be Mohamed ElBaradei or Omar Suleiman. But even the Muslim Brotherhood cannot be as bad as Mubarak," adds Yaseer Beraka, an engineer from Fayaum who came to Cairo to join the protesters.
A former International Atomic Energy Agency chief and Nobel Peace Prize winner, ElBaradei is the face of moderate upper class Egypt. He has returned to Egypt and is being seen as the spearhead of the movement against Mubarak. He said the president's concessions are too little and too late. He has the support of the youth and the intelligentsia but lacks a mass base. His critics insist he has spent so much time in Vienna that he has completely lost touch with ground realities and the issues concerning the masses in Egypt.
Suleiman, the former chief of intelligence and the newly appointed vice- president, is seen as the acceptable face of transition to democracy.
Then there is also Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi. He is the country's deputy prime minister and defence minister. He controls the army and has played an extremely crucial role in shaping the army's measured response. He has said to have instructed the army not to open fire at the protesters and that news has led to his popularity increasing.
Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, who is the face of moderate upper class Egypt, is the focus of the movement against Mubarak.
"There is also Ayman Nour, the leader of the Al-Ghad party. In the 2005 elections he was very popular but those elections were rigged. He could also be a part of the transition government. More and more people should have a voice. In fact, Mubarak had him jailed because of his rising popularity," says Aisha Shehab, a Nour supporter.
The Muslim Brotherhood, though officially banned, is the biggest opposition group with grassroots support. It will play a key role in the formation of the next government. The Brotherhood's main support base lies in the rural areas among the downtrodden. They lack a mass base in urban areas especially since they insist they want Egypt to be an Islamic state ruled by the Sharia. Their supporters are moving on the streets carrying banners that read "Islam is the only solution to the crisis".
The Muslim Brotherhood has said that ElBaradei is acceptable to them and experts say a combination of ElBaradei and the Muslim Brotherhood could pave the way for a smoother and widely acceptable transition model. One thing is clear, the army will have a major say and role to play in the future of Egypt with Mubarak losing his moral legitimacy to rule. Experts say he is and will remain at the mercy of the army.
Both pro- and anti-Mubarak supporters want peace to prevail and insist they do not want Egypt to become another Iraq. But the country has come to a virtual standstill. Schools, colleges, offices, shops, malls, banks, the stock market are all closed. There is no public transport. Not even neighbourhood shops are opening in the non-curfew morning hours. "I have run out of food. What do I feed my children?" asks Tariq Sadiq, a school teacher. Truckers fear looting and burning, so they are unwilling to ferry cargo to Cairo. The police, virtually non-existent on the streets, are forcing youngsters to form neighbourhood watch schemes to protect their homes and surroundings from looters.
Mohamed ElBaradei addresses the crowd at Tahrir Square in CairoOverall the country is descending into chaos. And many say this is being encouraged purposely by the embattled president to give the people an impression of the chaos that the country will be engulfed in if he quits.
Anarchy in Egypt would mean trouble in the Arab world and its impact will be felt in more ways than one across the globe. The Suez Canal, the shortest link between the East and the West due to its extremely unique geographical location, is one of the world's most critical navigation channels. The canal is still open but there is no loading and unloading of cargo at the ports since workers are staying away due to the crisis. The added tension to the world is what happens if the route that connects the Gulf of Suez with the Mediterranean Sea is shut down. More than 2.5 million barrels of oil, which is more than 2 per cent of the global production, pass through the canal each day and any trouble in the canal would mean the entire sea trade will have to pass through the Cape of Good Hope adding another 6,000 miles to the journey. That would mean loss of time and money.
A hostile Egypt is Israel's worst nightmare coming true again. If the peace treaty with Egypt collapses, Israel will have to rewrite its security doctrine after three decades of peace. A major military threat to Israel's southern border would only embolden Hamas in Palestine and divide the Israeli forces. The Egyptian army is well equipped with American military hardware. The American-trained Egyptian army numbers more than 6,50,000 troops with 60 combat brigades, more than 3,500 tanks and 600 fighter planes, including American F-16s.
Israel's worst nightmare would be a regime change both in Egypt and Jordan where it would return to a 1977-like situation facing a hostile combined Arab army of Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Palestinian fighters.
Tunisia was a wave sparked by one young man setting himself alight. Egypt has the power to amplify that wave into a tsunami of change across the Arab world.
Gaurav C. Sawant is deputy editor with Headlines Today