Tuesday, February 01, 2011

flames and fighting on the nile

The Australian | It is hard to grasp the sheer size and weight of Egypt in the Arab identity: with 80 million people, it is the most populous nation, the fount of classical Arabic, an ancient centre of Sunni Muslim learning and a fertile source of newspapers, books, music, films and soap operas adored from Casablanca to the Gulf.

Yet an undercurrent of terrorism lurks on the fringes of Egyptian civilisation. Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's right-hand man who helped plan the September 11 attacks, was born in Cairo. Terrorists killed 58 Western tourists at Luxor in 1997 and at least 88 people died in a bomb attack at the Sharm el-Sheikh resort in 2005.

Egypt embodies the woes of other Arab nations: economic deprivation, an oppressive political system, a super-wealthy elite and a family that has ruled for decades.

Its armed forces, once the most powerful in the region, consume billions in American aid but 30 years of peace with Israel have left them indolent and riddled with corruption. They do, however, command patriotic prestige, an asset that could now become crucial.

So the warning signs were there. But none of President Hosni Mubarak's generals or secret policemen seems to have expected the torrent of events last week.

On Tuesday, thousands of mostly young men poured into the streets, taking the government by surprise and overwhelming the security forces, who broke ranks and ran.

On Wednesday, the authorities outlawed public gatherings and detained hundreds of demonstrators and political activists. The protesters held their nerve. Skirmishes ignited in the afternoon, with riot police chasing people to clear streets, beating some with bamboo staves and lengths of rubber hose.

In the northern city of Suez, protesters set fire to a provincial government office and a fire station. Satellite television relayed images to a restive Arab world. At that point, governments and markets across the globe took notice, because Suez commands the strategic canal that carries trade between Europe and the booming economies of the Far East.

Thursday was tense but quiet, except for a bizarre protest in Cairo by lawyers who started throwing rocks from inside the neo-classical building of their union at riot police on the streets outside.

In fact, the eerie calm of Thursday was just the sound of people regrouping, via Facebook, Twitter and mobile phone messages. They called for a day of rage on Friday, the Muslim holy day.

After prayers, the word went out to head for Tahrir Square at the heart of old Cairo, which had become the centre of the protests.

Few details were on Facebook, as it had become clear the authorities were monitoring the site. But, as it turned out, few details were needed.

As crowds spilled out of the mosques they scorned the anodyne sermons they had heard as proof that the clerics were in the pay of the government. "We must express our opinion as individual human beings without bloodshed or destruction of property," the speaker at the Fatih mosque said, telling the faithful that the leader should "be your guide".

The time had passed for that. The anger of the crowds was directed at Mubarak personally: his rigged elections, the corruption of his circle and his ceaseless grip on power. "Mubarak must go!" they chanted. Rasha el-Sayed, 36, said: "There are no jobs, and the prices are so high we cannot afford bread. The women are becoming spinsters and the men are sitting at home doing nothing."

Within half an hour the police started firing tear gas. Only a few brave young men stood their ground, throwing rocks and at one point hurling a tear-gas grenade back towards the police.

After that, protests swelled like the Nile in flood.

Buildings burned, cars were set ablaze, clouds of tear gas hung in the air and gunshots punctuated the chants of protest in towns and cities across the country.

By midnight on Friday, when a haggard Mubarak went on television to say he had listened to his people and sacked his government, pledging to make things better, Egypt was in flames.

The wind of change in the Arab world -- predicted by both bin Laden and George W. Bush--had come. So important is Egypt in the region that the future of the whole Middle East could now be forged on the streets of Cairo and Suez.

Western governments and Islamic revolutionaries from Tehran to Peshawar are holding their breath this weekend. There appear to be three possible outcomes: a transition to democracy; a new dictatorship, perhaps led by a general around whom the old guard would coalesce; or an Islamic state.

However, nowhere has technology combined with peaceful protest beaten a truly ruthless regime, as the Burmese could testify.

From Tehran there came predictions that Muslim fundamentalists would triumph in Tunis and Cairo, as they did over the liberal and leftist factions in the Iranian revolution.