Egypt protests: An endgame seems to be approaching, but whose?

Egypt demonstrators calling for the immediate ouster of Hosni Mubarak held their ground in Tahrir Square today ahead of calls for more mass protests tomorrow.

By , Staff writer

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    The clash between pro- and anti- Mubarak supporters escalated in Cairo's Tehrir Square on Feb. 2.
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Egypt protesters held their ground in Cairo's Tahrir Square today against pro-regime thugs as foreign journalists and activists were attacked, beaten, and arrested in what appears to be the prelude to a harsh crackdown.

Hossam Hamalawy, an Egyptian journalist and democracy activist in Tahrir, says the mood in the square is buoyant and generally safe, with protesters organizing to protect themselves from pro-regime militias that most Egyptian activists and outside observers believe are being organized by members of the current political order.

But around the square it was a different story.

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Journalists and activists trying to get in were beaten by thugs on multiple occasions. The military went from room to room in the Ramses Hilton (which overlooks the square), looking for foreign journalists and seizing camera equipment. The offices of the Nadeem Center for Human Rights and the Hisham Mubarak Law Center – two of the country's most prominent human rights organizations – were raided by the police. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch had researchers detained.

The BBC had camera equipment taken. CNN reported that a mob attacked a car of its reporters trying to film near Tahrir. The Washington Post and New York Times reported the detention of journalists with their organizations. An Al Jazeera reporter was beaten in Alexandria. A reporter from this paper decided to stay home after her driver told her he'd been visited by the military, who told him to call them immediately if they decided to go out and do some reporting.

What's happening with foreign reporters is a side show compared to the conditions that Egyptians are grappling with. Food prices are soaring in Cairo and other cities, the banks remain closed, and thousands of demonstrators have been hurt in the events of the past week. The situation is now finely pitched for tomorrow, when demonstrators have vowed to hold another mass rally pushing for Mubarak to stand down.

Prelude to a broader crackdown?

Was the intimidation of the press and human rights groups today prelude to a crackdown? Many think so. Activists in Cairo believe the violence has been engineered by the state to justify a crackdown, to frighten average Egyptians from joining protests, and to exhaust the protesters into leaving the streets and Egypt's autocracy intact, though likely with a new man at the helm.

At today's press conference, new Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq repeatedly apologized for yesterday's violence, where soldiers stood aside to allow hundreds of men armed with sticks, knives, and machetes to storm the square, leading to an hours-long battle of Molotov cocktails and brute force that ended with thousands injured and at least ten dead.

Troops in central Cairo intervened more today to protect protesters from the thugs, firing into the air on multiple occasions to keep the pro-Mubarak demonstrators away from them. Mr. Shafiq promised a full judicial investigation while vaguely alluding to "infiltrators" as responsible and saying the violence was caused by the "disappearance" of police from the city's streets.

Blaming 'foreign elements'

The withdrawal of the police had clearly been ordered, and Egypt said today that former Interior Minister Habib el-Adly has been banned from traveling abroad. At around 6:45 p.m. in Cairo, new Vice President Omar Suleiman, now Mubarak's successor in waiting, took to the airwaves complaining that "foreign elements" contributed to the unrest, while promising a presidential election by September. However, Mr. Suleiman gave the impression of seeking to buy time and avoid full reform.

He said "we can talk about complete constitutional reform when a new president comes to the scene," which appears to be a rejection of the protesters' fundamental demand: that political reform start now, not after a successor – likely closely tied to Mubarak and his legacy – has taken power.

His reference to the "state of chaos from both sides" was also not likely to mollify the democracy protesters, who believe they've been targeted by thugs sent by the regime.

Did Suleiman do enough tonight to head off the protesters and fundamental change? Is a crackdown coming that could break the back of demonstrators, or perhaps lead to anti-regime violence in the coming days (from protesters that have been fairly restrained until now)?

We'll find out in the coming hours, and tomorrow.

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