These pieces under the tagline “Ringside at Tahrir” were first published in The Telegraph in February 2011
Feb 9, cairo: They want his head; he’s offering them decrees of reform and pay-rise, no more.
The strident Go-Mubarak cry was pitched up on Tuesday with protesters demanding his trial for “crimes against the people and the state”, but Hosni Mubarak remained disdainfully indifferent to the clamour, even receiving the UAE foreign minister to suggest the uprising hadn’t cast a shadow on scheduled business.
Much of Cairo was immersed in recovery rites after a protracted shutdown. But spurred by the sudden release of Google executive Wael Ghonim, whose Facebook page became the staging-post of the January 25 eruption, a human torrent billowed into the smouldering heart of Tahrir Square on Tuesday afternoon, assailing the establishment with that one demand it has refused to heed: Go Mubarak! Cairo’s face remained bizarrely fractured between the quotidian and the chaotic.
Ghonim had been picked up by the army two weeks ago and his freeing last night made him an instant cause céèbre and fed new momentum to a rebellion which was beginning to slacken.
“Today is proof that this is indeed a revolution in the making,” screamed an ecstatic Hashem Nour, regime-change activist, as the square swelled to unprecedented proportions in expectation of Ghonim’s appearance, “Mubarak should listen, we are not going anywhere from here, we are closing in on him.”
Pointedly deaf to the call emanating from Tahrir, Vice-President Omar Suleiman, emerging face of the regime, made a clinical appearance on state television to announce fresh measures to assuage the street:
A presidential decree on a constitutional committee to consider reforms and amendments and a clear roadmap to transition;
A fact-finding commission to inquire into violence against anti-Mubarak protesters;
Amnesty to all those arrested during the protests and redressal of their complaints;
A 15 per cent pay and pension hike for nearly 10 million public sector employees; and
A directive to Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq to appoint a steering committee to take forward the dialogue with opposition groups.
Those concessions not merely left Tahrir Square unimpressed, they left the opposition a little aghast. Most groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, have backtracked and decided not to pursue last Sunday’s dialogue, alleging the government is not serious about addressing demands.
“We wonder who the Prime Minister will take forward the dialogue with,” scoffed Moneim Abdul Fatouh, spokesperson for the Brotherhood, “they are just misleading people.”
But the purpose of Tuesday’s vice-presidential appearance was probably altogether removed. It was to stress Mubarak is still under control. The concessions are his to grant and his to deny.
This has been a roller-coaster uprising, Mubarak and his detractors jousting to outwit each other. There are times when it has seemed it’s been reduced to a long-haul battle of attrition which Mubarak is slowly getting the better of. At the centre of Tahrir Square has sprung a tent-and-tarpaulin city with tea-vends and eateries littered around; it would suggest hardcore rebels expect it not to end anytime soon.
Yet on other occasions, such as Tuesday evening, it has appeared like the electric eve of something momentous in Egypt’s history. On Monday, Tahrir Square bore a vaudeville air, an open-air revue that Cairenes were happy to flock to.
Tuesday evening, it suddenly churned into a throbbing, high-decibel political protest thrashing against Mubarak’s embattlements, as if in the throes of a final push. On Wednesday, it could well be back to a grinding protest, seeking fresh infusion of ideas and support.
But on Tuesday night, there was an edgy sense atmospherics, like the littlest trigger could tip a contained brinkmanship into a no-holds-barred conflagration. A minor skirmish, a mad call from one of the many podiums plonked around the square, a collision with the army, whose men and machines describe the physical limits of the protest, just anything.
“It’s thrilling but sometimes also scary,” said Hoda Yemani, a young university student out protesting with her friends. She was apparently shivered: “There has been violence before, if it happens again it can turn really ugly.”
More soldiers, tanks and armoured carriers closed in and around the pulsating theatre as dusk fell. A military chopper begun to circle above, often swooping low on the congregation; the chanting grew louder and some clapped mockingly in the direction of overhead surveillance, even intimidation. What sounded like security sirens began to blare beyond the square. People on stage were trying to be heard, but was it impossible to in the din on earth and above.
Three weeks into the uprising, there are sections within it that are increasingly restive, and fearful this historic effort could collapse if not pushed to a new level.
Inarguably, there are those who are resigned to a prolonged struggle and have dug in to Tahrir Square. And even those who believe the regime has already yielded “unprecedented concessions” and will slowly be forced to give in, gradualists who think Egypt has already turned the corner and there isn’t any harm in a more “ordered transition”.
But others, especially the youth, are pressing for an escalation. “We have to be more creative about where we go from here,” Gamal Hassan, a student-activist hectored in the midst of cacophonic demonstrations, “We cannot just sit here and keep dancing and singing, we have to push so they take notice.”
A Cairo University professor arrived at Tahrir for the first time lamented the disorder. “This movement needs a focal point, a pinhead,” he said, excusing himself from being named, “it does not even have a single stage, it has too many. I am happy to support the demonstrators, but who am I to listen to or follow? There comes a stage you need cohesion and tactics.”
If this has become a bottled revolution, it is now seeking to blow the lid. Only, it remains clueless on how. There is speculation the youth have finally come around to appointing a leadership — a group of 20 in a coalition of agitating groups including the spearhead April 6 Movement — but they remain an anonymous set lost in the mill of thousands. They’ve disowned the opposition as “unrepresentative” of the movement, and offered no face or strategy of their own.
One group of protesters tried to nudge the vigil out of Tahrir Square this afternoon and takeover greater parts of central Cairo — the adjoining Parliament Building, the state television headquarters and the arterial 6 October Bridge over the Nile itself.
Trickles managed to slip out of the armed fencing but the army reasoned with them before it brought in concrete barricades to seal the approaches to those key facilities. It is clear the uprising is feeling hemmed in, politically and physically, and wants to expand the siege and take the unrest beyond Tahrir Square.
In what may be another provocative poke at the regime, a group of lawyers led by Ibrahim Yousri, petitioned the chief prosecutor to “verify” if Mubarak and his family were guilty of “stealing” national wealth.
“We have documented our complaint to the prosecutor and prayed that Mubarak and his family be investigated,” Yousri said, “If these allegations are not true, it is fine, but we must know, we hear too many rumours about wealth amassed here and abroad, Egyptians seek the truth.”
Pressure, physical and psychological, remains mounted on the Mubarak regime, but it has managed to meet it with clever posturing rather than panic so far.
Reports coming into Cairo suggest northern towns of Asyut and Aswan have joined in the protesting along with the Mediterranean port of Alexandria.
“Many more groups of people have joined us today,” said Ahmad Ghour, member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s youth brigade, “university teachers, officials, doctors, they are getting the message, this is probably the biggest gathering we have had.”
He willingly conceded, though, that these energies could well be dissipated if the uprising cannot “urgently get a step up and amplify the heat”. What did he have in mind? A violent turn? Confrontation with the army that stood cheek-by-jowl? He shrugged enigmatically and loitered back into the pulsing mass.