Egypt: update

There appears to be a critical moment approaching in Alexandria, where the revolutionaries have been camping around the Northern Military District HQ since Mubarak’s speech last night. A huge crowd has formed at the president’s residence in the city and at the naval base, where naval personnel have been reported to be passing out food and drink to the protestors. (This has also now been reported in Cairo.) However, the palace gates and the approach along the beach are guarded by a group of tanks. There have been some parleys between the crowd and senior naval officers using a loudspeaker truck. The tank guns are trained towards the crowd, but elevated as if to engage a distant target, rather than depressed to fire at point blank. (Now that’s what I call a mixed message.) In the last few minutes a file of what appear to be either sailors, marines, or perhaps police marched out of the gates.

Across Egypt, the mobilisation has been bigger than ever today. Large crowds have moved onto the TV centre, where they have blockaded all access. However, a skeleton staff was apparently left on site last night, and they continue broadcasting. Elsewhere in Egypt, some local affiliate TV stations have been forced off the air. In another move in the TV wars, a new TV channel has appeared calling itself Tahrir – the Revolutionary Youth Channel, operating ironically over a transponder on Nilesat channel 10949.

Another huge demonstration has set up camp outside the presidential palace in Heliopolis. Senior army officers were reported to be parleying with groups of demonstrators there. And, apparently, the protestors are very chic. Al-Jazeera just reported the arrival of a large group of bikers, so this may depend on your tastes. Meanwhile, it’s been repeatedly rumoured that Mubarak is already off, at least as far as Sharm el-Sheikh.

In an index of how the revolution is progressing, an imam in Tahrir Square this morning preached that the “state of Ahmed Ezz” would be lifted as well as the state of emergency. Ahmed Ezz is the man who held a monopoly of steel distribution in Mubarak’s regime and became a fabulously rich symbol of, as they say, power, corruption, and lies. He was a minister until very recently when the government suddenly discovered his corruption, and was threatened with criminal charges during last night’s surreal telethon.

At the same time, part of the demonstration outside the TV centre now consists of strikers from an arms factory in Helwan, according to Hossam el-Haramawy.

However, this is surely one of the only times in history that a revolutionary mob has welcomed the presence of paratroopers.

An “important statement” is expected from “the presidency” at any moment, but after past experiences, you wouldn’t hold your breath. It may be significant that the message is going to come from the presidency rather than the president, or it may not.

Update: Al-Jazeera is reporting that the presidential plane has been sighted in Sharm el-Sheikh, and that state TV has announced that he has left Cairo, bizarrely quoting “foreign news agencies” (which of course they are not meant to be allowed to use, according to last night’s statement!).

Egypt Links

Asef Bayat at OpenDemocracy argues that we’re looking at the post-Islamist era, by analogy to Fareed Zakaria’s post-American world, and suggests that the politics of Islam are changing. The jihadis wanted to fight the Far Enemy in order to undermine the Near Enemy. Now it seems that the Near Enemy can be dealt with, and without the jihadis at that. And the Big Two religious political movements – politicial Shi’ism, and Wahhabism – are suddenly much less relevant.

Interview with a crack Egyptian blogger.

Want to know why the Saudis offered to make up the US military aid if Mubarak stuck around? Wonder no more. Here’s an Egyptian blogger’s response to the idea. Note that Egypt has a long standing foreign policy aim of competing with Saudi Arabia as the leading Arab power. About as much help for Mubarak as an endorsement from Binyamin Netanyahu – but then he got one of those, too.

Learn about the Brothers.

Feminism in action in Tahrir Square; an absolute must-read.

The White House seeks advice from…not obviously the right people.

Hossam El-Hamalawy‘s Flickr stream – gripping photoreportage. He’s streaming live video from the march on Nile TV right now.

Reading the Egyptian leftist movement

This piece is an absolute must read. Interesting questions for discussion: The importance of small businesses, or people who are partly small businessmen, partly workers. It’s probably more interesting to think in terms of the boundary between the formal and informal sectors of the economy. I wonder what a revolutionary leftist movement based on the people Paul Amar described will look like? What kind of economic ideas will it use?

Also, the importance of cybercafes as a stereotypical small business, as well as, well, cafes – places of gathering, free speech, and perhaps a little commerce. Or was it the other way around?

Hossam el-Haramawy is angry as hell and is reporting live from the field. His blog is here, with superb photography from the field.

And for me that’s about it – I know they’re there, and increasingly it’s clear that they’re the backbone of the movement. The Brothers are half-in, the right-liberals lionised by the neocons are there but they’re no mass movement. Who else should I be reading?

this is a public service announcement, without much content

Since my last post, we’ve had the two biggest mobilisations of the Egyptian revolution so far. So much for petering out, even though people blogging from Tahrir Square on Tuesday were complaining about the n00bs getting in the way. For clarity, what I was expecting was that the mass mobilisation would continue, but that the back channel talks would become the revolutionary main effort, with the crowds in support, validating the delegates’ authority, backing up their claims, providing an ultimate deterrent power in the background.

Everyone’s now beginning to notice the role of trade unionists and labour activism in general. In fact, the April 6th movement itself memorialises the deaths of a group of strikers. It’s part of the revolution’s DNA. Today’s callout was part of a massive strike wave – my favourite was the column of diving instructors from the Red Sea coast who arrived in Tahrir Square with a banner reading “Mubarak! Get out before the oxygen runs out!” This movement is not running out of anything – not numbers, not commitment, not ideas, not humour. If it didn’t set out as an Internet revolution, people certainly thought it would arrive at its first objective that way.

Which brings us to tonight’s bizarre speech. It was a strange kind of event – revolutionaries gathering to await the broadcast of what was expected to be a pre-recorded statement, while live TV watched them, and bloggers commented on it. I went as far as checking flights into Dubai from Cairo – the timings for one Singapore Airlines movement seemed possible, and their service standards suitable. Surely, sayid rais couldn’t be waiting at the microphone for the weather forecast to be over and the programme controller to give him the green light? Eventually, after his now traditional delay, he spoke and said (after a great deal of guff) that he was handing over extensive powers to the vice president but not formally resigning.

This has been seen as an outrageous and ridiculous statement, but it wasn’t that far off what had been discussed over the last week or so – because a vice president who becomes president after a resignation doesn’t take over full powers, but the president can define the powers of the VP or any minister (the Kompetenzkompetenz, in German), Mubarak could empower his deputy to prepare for a real election, and then quit. Of course, if he delegated his full powers, it would be a philosophical question of some interest in what way he was still president.

It seems quite clear that no-one thinks this is enough. Further, both the Army and the NDP have as good as promised to deliver the president’s head tonight. For his part, Omar Suleiman demanded that everyone stop watching Al-Jazeera (and also Al-Arabiya, the BBC, Abu Dhabi TV, etc), the day after the Egyptian air force signallers stopped trying to jam Al-Jazeera’s satellite transponder (on the Egyptian-owned Nilesat bird – not the first time that an Arab government has tried to wreck a satellite it owns to silence them).

The general theme, of both the Egyptian political elite and the Western ones being at least a day and often more behind events, remains very true. The so-called Article 139 solution – delegation, then resignation – has been discussed for at least a week. Tellingly, it was also the Muslim Brotherhood’s favoured option. We’ve not heard anything from them tonight.

(PS, this is the first post on Fistful of Euros covering Egypt that is categorised “Transition and accession”. It’s a while since we needed that one.)

where axis of evil meets Arab moderation

A little more about that missile relationship I mentioned earlier. The one between Egypt and North Korea:

At the same time, Egypt has counted on North Korea for military aid in the 1970s and began purchasing Scud missiles from North Korea around the time that Mubarak became president. North Korea also provided the technology for Egypt to manufacture missiles on it own.

“Cairo is the hub of North Korea’s missile export,” says Choi Jin-wook, who follows North Korean affairs as senior fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification. Mr. Choi says North Korea’s embassy in Cairo is headquarters for the North’s Middle East military sales network and ranks as the North’s “most important embassy” after its embassy in Beijing.

Choi believes the deal with Orascom calls for North Korea to pay for the telecom network in hard currency earned from the sale of missiles and technology to clients including Iran, Syria, Yemen, and Libya.

Orascom is the Egyptian telecoms firm behind the North’s Koryolink mobile network. It’s kind of interesting that Pyongyang would work on something so sensitive with a country which has extensive intelligence co-operation with the US. It apparently has Vice President Suleiman’s nephew on retainer.

But what’s even more interesting about all this is that it was allowed to go on in the face of what was supposed to be a rigorous sanctions regime against Pyongyang and its weapons sales, also the source of collateral charges of evil against Iran, Syria, Myanmar etc.

ancient warfare

Incredible stuff:

The pro-Mubarak crowd suddenly retreated, and the pro-democracy protesters advanced a moveable wall of metal shields to a new front line much further up.

A side battle erupted down a street behind the pro-Mubarak lines, with rock throwing and molotov cocktails.

which means that the anti-regime protestors have organised flank protection. Army input here?

An armored personnel carrier opened fire into the air, shooting red tracers up over Cairo, in an apparent effort to disperse/frighten the pro-Mubarak crowd, who contracted again.

The pro-democracy protesters are now advancing their line of staggered metal shields farther and farther and seem to have gained decisive momentum.

This war nerd piece is absolutely recommended (cheers to Chris).

The journalists on scene are obviously trying to make it clear who, in the general picture, is doing the attacking and who are the victims. But what's equally clear is that there's terrific resistance from the demonstrators; that's why they're still occupying the square. And they appear to be making a fantastic job of it.

i see dominos

The Jacksonauts make their contribution to public discourse:

MPs were given a stark warning this week: "We've already lost Turkey, Lebanon is gone too" – and now the west can't afford to lose Egypt.

The bearer of this message was Mort Zuckerman, the American newspaper and property mogul. He was in Westminster as a guest of the neoconservative Henry Jackson Society, which boasts Michael Gove and Nick Boles among its supporters.

Well, yeah: thanks for that. Allegra Stratton says that the Tories are divided over Egypt and suspicious of their soft-on-the-muslims coalition chums. Well, probably. It’s not a three line whip issue. Personally I think Cameron has been a distinct improvement on this predecessor but one on this. I heard him yesterday going on about how despicable the violence was and thought he sounded…well, quite sweet, really.

The worst prospect for people like the Henry Jackson Society is if the Egyptian revolution succeeds and doesn’t lead to the Brothers establishing the Nilotic branch caliphate. It’s not a result you’d welcome if your financing and raison d’etre is threat-mongering. A lot of so called anti-jihadists have already flipped over into alternate reality, but that’s not an option if you have pretensions to respectability. Not so much, anyway.

goons of yore

Mubarak’s goon squads remind me a bit of the countergangs organised by the Indonesian army to try and terrify the population of East Timor into voting against independence in 1999. They’re described at length in Richard Lloyd Parry’s In the time of Madness.

A number of recruits for these outfits – with names like Red and White Iron – were drawn from children orphaned by the TNI in the original round of massacres after the 1975 invasion and raised in Indonesian orphanages. There was a payroll vote, as you’d expect, and criminal elements raised through various rackets run by Kopassus* partly as a means of harvesting street muscle as required. Quite a few were recruited through an organisation called Gardapaski, supposedly a local version of the Grameen Bank. What it actually did was front money to unemployed young men in return for their support when necessary.

Obviously, Mubarrak’s people will have their own channels for getting the meat on the street. I guess the point here is that a reasonably imaginative dictatorship has all sorts of ways to get the people it needs to do the things it wants done while not wearing official uniforms and that we won’t find out what they are until the system that does it is brought to an end.

And it’ll have to end now. A couple of days ago it was pretty clear that if they put Husni on a plane then the policy status quo could stay basically unchanged; that the removal of Mubarrak would carry enough of a symbolic charge to preserve most of the power of the local overclass, though of course things would have to become more inclusive. I thought that was the strategy: make Husni, or his absence, the change we can believe in, and yay reform. But not now. How can you hope to have an even partially fair election in nine months with the power structure that caused today’s carnage still basically in control?

Tunisia

The developments are too rapid to have much considered to say but it seems clear that there are new features to this uprising.  The role of Wikileaks in showing that the US diplomats didn’t view the political economy of the place much differently than the people in the street.   Nor is this a “colour revolution” of the type from the mid 2000s — it’s not that organized or branded.  And for the first time in a long time, a decision for European and Arab governments about government legitimacy in their own backyard — and how to handle graceful retirement for the former incumbent.  At least two imponderables: the reaction of overseas Tunisians, who would have been forgiven for wondering if things would ever change, and the spillover to Egypt, where some of the political features are similar and succession is already, obliquely, in the air.