Long time observers of Egypt are fast running out of adjectives to describe their feelings about unfolding events. Unprecedented, stunning, transfixing. I lived there from 2003 to 2008 and dearly love the country. I'll be posting short updates here throughout the day (Friday, Jan. 28) on the fast-moving events in Egypt. This is my first go at this kind of thing, so bear with me.
4:16 p.m. EST (11:16 p.m. Cairo) DON'T KILL MANY PEOPLE or we'll take away your money. That, I think, is an apt translation of White House spokesman Robert Gibb's message on Egypt today. His actual words: "We will be reviewing our assistance posture based on the events of the next few days." I presume that threat could also extend to Egypt turning back on the Internet and cell phone service, and perhaps delivering on some of these vague "reforms" that the US keeps saying Egypt needs. At any rate, it's getting on towards midnight in Cairo, so I think this is the last post for my live blogging experiment today. Not sure how useful it was, but I enjoyed it.
2:47 p.m. EST (9:47 p.m. Cairo) US SAYING IT WILL "REVIEW" aid to Egypt, according to the AP. Well, a "review" can mean many things. By all accounts, the demonstrators are outraged at ongoing US military aid to Egypt – about $1.3 billion last year. Protesters were shown on Al Jazeera holding up "Made in America" tear gas canisters today and saying they saw little distance between the US and the Mubarak regime. I need to find out the specific inventory of weapons that the US provides Egypt. But the key thing to remember is that aid, like money, is fungible. Any equipment the US supplies to Egypt frees up money to be spent elsewhere – like on equipment to control public protests. US military ties with Egypt are longstanding and deep. I'm currently sipping coffee from my "Peace Vector III – Program Management Review, May 1989" coffee cup, that a friend picked up for me in a Boston yard sale last year. Peace Vector III was a US-funded program to improve Egyptian air bases, particularly ones serving US supplied F-16s.
2:40 p.m. EST (9:40 p.m. Cairo) STILL NO WORD from Mubarak, and I think it's safe to say he won't be going on television to speak to Egypt tonight – though it would be fascinating to be proven wrong. The Egyptian strongman is a moody, touchy man, who must certainly feel at the moment that he's being put under pressure by the rabble. Responding to them must seem beneath his dignity. Issandr El Amrani compared him to a water buffalo in a post trying to explain his silence yesterday. "If you only knew Hosni as I do, you'd know he's terribly stubborn. He likes to dig in his heels. He won't be forced into a decision. He is like a gamoosa (water buffalo, as common as cows in Egypt) that just won't be moved off a railroad track. This is his strength and weakness: this stubbornness can be determination (in the 1980s and 1990s, against radical Islamists), but it can also be his Achilles' heel, his inability move quickly to grab opportunities."
"While the US favours Egyptian political reform in theory, in practice it props up an authoritarian system for pragmatic reasons of national self-interest. It behaved in much the same way towards Saddam Hussein's regime in the 1980s, when Iraq was at war with Iran. A similar tacit bargain governs relations with Saudi Arabia. That's why, for many Egyptians, the US is part of the problem... Amid the juggling, one fact may be pinned down: the US would not welcome Mubarak's fall and the dislocation a revolution would cause in Egypt and across a chronically unstable region. Gradual reforms of the kind Clinton discussed in a recent speech in Doha about the Arab world, and a competitive presidential election this autumn, would probably be Washington's preferred prescription. As matters stand now, this is the least likely outcome."
1:45 p.m. EST (8:45 p.m. Cairo) EGYPT AIR FLIGHTS leaving Cairo have been canceled for the next 12 hours, Al Jazeera is reporting. Don't know what to make of this yet, but it's sure to lead to frenzied speculation, considering that a full airport shut down in Tunis preceded the departure of Ben Ali. But so far, the reporting is just Egypt Air, not the many other carriers that fly in and out of Cairo.
1:35 p.m. EST (8:35 p.m. Cairo) IT'S NOW 81 HOURS into Egypt's crisis, and still no word from Hosni Mubarak. It's about 4 hours since NDP officials started putting it around in Cairo that the president would address the Egyptian people "soon." What's going on? Who knows? It's hard to see Mubarak finding any words at this point that would mollify the public. He's certainly well-aware that the lame (and disbelieved) promises of reform made by Tunisia's Ben Ali shortly before his Waterloo didn't do him any good. At this point, Mubarak's long career as Egyptian leader is over – and will probably end formally next September, when the rigged presidential elections are scheduled. I'm sure folks are getting together in back rooms now to sort out who will replace him.
1:05 p.m. EST (8:05 p.m. Cairo) THE BATTLE FOR BEST English-language television coverage of the Egyptian uprising today isn't even close. I've got MSNBC, CNN and Fox on here in the office. I have to watch Al Jazeera English on the internet. And, well, Al Jazeera is leaving the US channels in the dust. (Its Arabic-language coverage is also setting the pace.) They have multiple correspondents around the country, the best live and canned footage, and they don't break for Alka-Seltzer commercials or extended conversations with non-Egypt experts in Davos (as Alex Pareene at Salon caught MSNBC doing).
12:39 p.m. EST (7:39 p.m. Cairo) RAWYA RAGEH IS REPORTING from Alexandria, for Al Jazeera English, that soldiers are emerging from tanks in the city and shaking hands with protesters. The protesters are all in violation of the curfew the government has declared, but she sees no signs they're trying to push them off the street. It now appears the attempt by protesters to storm the Foreign Ministry was unsuccessful. If protests swell again, will the army be willing to use deadly force against protesters (and take the public blame from the Egyptian people) to save Mubarak? That's the big question. Of course, this all could peter out. Perhaps the violence, including the burning of armored personnel carriers and the NDP headquarters today, will frighten many Egyptians away from further protest. I'm beginning to think it's going to take until at least this time tomorrow to get a full picture of what has happened today.
12:28 p.m. EST (7:28 p.m. Cairo) THE ASSOCIATED PRESS is reporting that protesters have stormed the Foreign Ministry in Cairo. Details are sketchy, but I will post a link to a full story or more information when I can.
12:07 p.m. EST (7:07 p.m. Cairo) SECRETARY CLINTON SPEAKING LIVE now, calling for restraint by the security forces. This is interesting: "The Egyptian government needs to engage immediately with the Egyptian people" to implement "reform." Still no use of the "democracy" word from a US official regarding Egypt. But that call for "immediate" engagement is new.
11:55 a.m. EST (6:45 p.m. Cairo) TONIGHT IS CRUCIAL for Mubarak. If the ongoing revolt and rioting gain steam – despite the army being called out onto the streets – then senior generals could withdraw their backing and try to massage a transition. Analogy is always difficult, but I was in Indonesia for the May 1998 rioting that ultimately drove President Soeharto from power. (Incidentally, he was a US client who had been in power 32 years at that point. Mubarak is just shy of 30 years on the job.) Here's how it went down. At first there were peaceful student protests, then the police shot and killed about 12 unarmed demonstrators at Trisakti University and the nearby Semanggi interchange in central Jakarta. (I saw a pretty young woman fall with a bullet through her neck.) That, in turn, sparked rioting and looting for the next few days: thousands dead; shopping malls, government offices, and the homes of the president's wealthy cronies looted and burned. Students occupied Parliament. The Army took to the streets of Jakarta and an uneasy calm prevailed, but the country was still seething. A week later on May 20, General Wiranto, the Armed Forces chief, gave an evening press conference with only tepid words of support for Soeharto – a man he'd been swearing undying loyalty to a week before. I remember a friend turning to me as we walked out of Wiranto's presser: "The old man is done," he said. He was right. Soeharto resigned the next day. Indonesia is obviously a very different place from Egypt. But that's one way a seemingly unassailable strong man can be brought down.
11:33 a.m. EST (6:33 p.m. Cairo) REALLY BIG PROTESTS on January 25 when the Internet was up and the cell phones were working. A really massive, full-blown revolt today, 24 hours after the Internet was shut off and text messaging stopped. Good old fashioned street power is the name of the game now. Still waiting, waiting, waiting, waiting for Mubarak to speak. For that matter, still waiting for President Obama to address events in this close Middle Eastern ally.
11:19 a.m. EST (6:19 p.m. Cairo) THIS IS ONE of those times when I wish I were allowed to swear: What certainly looks to be the ruling National Democratic Party's headquarters in central Cairo is being shown ON FIRE by Al Jazeera and Al Jazeera English. I attended meetings in that complex with NDP officials before the rigged November 2010 parliamentary elections, during which they informed me that the party remains supported by the majority of the Egyptian people. (The election gave the party about 95 percent of the seats in Parliament.)
11:12 a.m. EST (6:12 p.m. Cairo) THE POLICE HAVE clearly disengaged protesters in Cairo, Alexandria and Suez. Whether this is "strategic" or a "rout" remains to be seen. The Army has been called out, with tanks rolling in Suez and Cairo. Some protesters are hoping that the Army – which is generally viewed with pride and respect by the public – will take their side, but I can't see it. We'll know soon how far the Army is willing to go to enforce the curfew and back Mubarak.
11:05 a.m. EST (6:05 p.m. Cairo) AL JAZEERA IS REPORTING that Mubarak is expected to finally address Egypt "soon." (It's about 80 hours and counting since this started, and he hasn't said a peep in public.) Just stunning scenes being shown live on AJ right now: burning, semi-armored police trucks in central Cairo – protesters are trying to push them into the Nile.
11:01 a.m. EST (6:01 p.m. Cairo) AL JAZEERA ENGLISH is carrying live shots of Cairo right now: what looks like thousands of protesters are streaming through central Cairo, not far from the Parliament, the Interior Ministry, the Foreign Ministry – the symbols of government power. The government has declared a nighttime curfew in multiple cities. Will they be able to enforce it? And when was the last time that happened? Checking...
9:47 a.m. EST (4:47 p.m. Cairo) IT'S BEEN ABOUT 77 hours since the unprecented protests of January 25 broke out in Egypt, and President Hosni Mubarak has still not addressed his nation or been seen in public. Is he polishing his speech for the Cairo Book Fair (where he's officially scheduled to speak tommorrow)? Somehow, I doubt that's the reason.
9:39 a.m. EST (4:39 p.m. Cairo) FOR TWITTER USERS who don't speak Arabic, Ben Wedeman of CNN is on the ground in Cairo and intermittently getting out useful stuff. Two folks keeping an eagle eye on the Arab-language press and tweeting about it in English from outside the country are Sultan Al Qassemi and Alaa Abd El Fattah.
9:32 a.m. EST (4:32 p.m. Cairo) HERE'S AN AMAZING GRAPHIC that shows the moment the Egyptian government turned out the lights on the Internet yesterday, a situation that persists now. The decision to shut down the Internet and restrict cell phone use (calling has been shut down in select areas and text mesaging has been turned off everywhere) shows how seriously the government is taking the uprising – and, perhaps, panic. About 20 percent of Egyptians use the Internet; about 70 percent use cell phones.
9:15 a.m. EST (4:15 p.m. Cairo) CAIRO CORRESPONDENT Kristen Chick finally checked in with us about a half an hour ago. She attended noon prayers in Mohandiseen (a huge neighborhood on the Giza side of the Nile). She describes middle-class housewives and old men hanging over balconies and cheering on thousands of marchers trying to get across the bridge to downtown, where tens of thousands of protesters are converging on Tahrir (Liberation) Square. Most cell phones in central Cairo appear to be shut off, and she had to borrow a land line to feed us a story. Keep an eye on our home page – it should go up soon.