Monday, January 31, 2011

how much longer can mubarak hang on?

Independent | The old lady in the red scarf was standing inches from the front of am American-made M1 Abrams tank of the Egyptian Third Army, right on the edge of Tahrir Square. Its soldiers were paratroops, some in red berets, others in helmets, gun barrels pointed across the square, heavy machine guns mounted on the turrets. "If they fire on the Egyptian people, Mubarak is finished," she said. "And if they don't fire on the Egyptian people, Mubarak is finished." Of such wisdom are Egyptians now possessed.

Shortly before dusk, four F-16 Falcons – again, of course, manufactured by President Barack Obama's country – came screaming over the square, echoes bouncing off the shabby grey buildings and the giant Nasserist block, as the eyes of the tens of thousands of people in the square stared upwards. "They are on our side," the cry went up from the crowds. Somehow, I didn't think so. And those tanks, new to the square, 14 in all that arrived with no slogans painted on them, their soldiers sullen and apprehensive, had not come – as the protesters fondly believed – to protect them.

But then, when I talked to an officer on one of the tanks, he burst out with a smile. "We will never fire on our people – even if we are ordered to do so," he shouted over the roar of his engine. Again, I was not so sure. President Hosni Mubarak – or perhaps we should now say "president" in quotation marks – was at the military headquarters, having appointed his new junta of former military and intelligence officers. The rumour went round the square: the old wolf would try to fight on to the end. Others said it didn't matter. "Can he kill 80 million Egyptians?"

Anti-American sentiment was growing after Mr Obama's continued if tepid support for the Mubarak regime. "No, Obama, not Mubarak," posters read. And Mr Mubarak's face appeared with a Star of David superimposed over his face. Many of the crowd produced stun-gun cartridge cases fired last week with "Made in the USA" stamped on the bottom. And I noticed the lead tank's hull bore markings beginning "MFR" – at this point a soldier with a rifle and bayonet fixed was ordered to arrest me so I ran into the crowd and he retreated – but could "MFR" stand for the US Mobile Force Reserve, which keeps its tanks in Egypt? Was this tank column on loan from the Americans? You don't need to work out what the Egyptians make of all this.