2011, Egypt, Reportage, Telegraph Calcutta

Mubarak mocks Halfway offer enrages Tahrir ahead of Friday march

These pieces under the tagline “Ringside at Tahrir” were first published in The Telegraph in February 2011

Feb 11, Cairo: Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said tonight that he was handing some powers to the Vice-President but refused to step down, hours after the army appeared to be closing in for a takeover to avoid bloodshed.

Protesters in Tahrir Square waved shoes in rage as Mubarak ploughed through a speech that fell far short of expectations ahead of what could turn out to be a decisive Friday in Cairo.

Mubarak did not specify the powers he would hand over to Vice-President Omar Suleiman or when he would do so. Such a handover is unlikely to pacify the protesters as Suleiman is considered too close to Mubarak.

Earlier, the army’s Supreme Council, headed by defence minister Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi and chief of military staff Gen. Sami Anan, said they were acting to “safeguard” the interests of Egypt.

The first hints of the military stirring came when the Cairo Area Army Commander, Hassan al Roueini, told the gathered protesters: “All your demands will be met today.”

“We’re almost there, we’re almost there,” the crowd roared back in Tahrir Square, only to be let down later by Mubarak.

In calibrated manoeuvres all morning, army tanks and personnel took over vantage points in and around Cairo. Their largest concentrations were in downtown Cairo around Tahrir Square and in suburban neighbourhoods surrounding Mubarak’s Heliopolis Palace north of Cairo.

The armed forces, which have produced all of Egypt’s leaders since Gamal Abdel Nasser overthrew King Farouk — Anwar el Sadat and Hosni Mubarak succeeded Nasser — stood between the Mubarak regime and the uprising almost like a neutral empire.

But with street anger rising and protests spreading, the 17-day deadlock was becoming increasingly tough to hold.

Tahrir activists had in fact threatened a march on Mubarak’s Heliopolis Palace after Friday prayers, in addition to a siege of the state television building.

It was a prospect that chilled many, including the army, which refused to use force on the protesters through the demonstrations, and displayed remarkable restraint in the face of provocation. Many of the tanks in Tahrir were immobilised because protesters clung to treads and mounted their turrets.

The ominous build-up assumed shape ahead of Friday’s “10-million march” called by the anti-Mubarak uprising at Tahrir Square and other centres, including key port towns of Alexandria and Suez.

A new cry rising off Tahrir’s platforms this afternoon was for demonstrators to proceed north of the square after Friday prayers and lay siege to the gridlock fortification around Mubarak’s opulent palace.

Protesters have already secured a stronghold around the parliament building abutting Tahrir Square. Increasingly restive and irate that Mubarak has held off for more than two weeks, hardliners among the protesters wanted to push ahead with their brinkmanship even at the risk of bloodshed.

“We want this stand-off to yield results, squatting at Tahrir is not enough,” activist Foad Qasri, a student, told The Telegraph on the phone from the square centre. “We have to fight this regime down, either Mubarak goes or we.”

Qasri said there may be an attempt to take over the headquarters of national television, not far from Tahrir on the west bank of the Nile. “We must be more imaginative about how we proceed now. We have been wanting to surround national television because of its anti-people reporting, tomorrow might be the day.”

More than two million are expected to gather at Tahrir Square on Friday — larger than any congregation thus far — and tempers have a menacing edge to them, especially among youths who have received badly Vice-President Suleiman’s indirect threat of a military coup.

“If that is what this regime wants, so be it,” said Mahd Bashar, a young Muslim Brotherhood member. “Let us see if the Egyptian army is willing to kill innocent and peaceful Egyptians.”

Para commando units have taken position within and around Tahrir; several more tanks and armoured carriers have rolled in to block the many downtown approaches.

Two Patton tanks — smaller than the Abrams machines ringing the square itself — parked themselves below the ghoulish burnt shell of Mubarak’s party headquarters, just where the 6 October Bridge, so named to commemorate the day Anwar El Sadat was assassinated, dips right en route to Tahrir. Their manoeuvres made a spaghetti mess of traffic in central Cairo on what’s the Egyptian weekend.

The build-up of military hardware became more awesome as we crawled along north in the direction of Heliopolis Palace.

Salah-e-Salem, the main link between downtown and Heliopolis had been shut to traffic, no explanations offered. Traffic was having to turn on its tail and nose through snarls roundabout after roundabout.

On Al Malassa Avenue in Nasr City, where Sadat was gunned down inspecting a guard of honour in 1981 and where now stands a pavilion in his memory, Abrams tanks were lining up by the dozens, trundling alongside the traffic, belching black smoke. More dozens stood snaked along the Cairo International Conference Centre; military trucks were disgorging troops.

The Heliopolis Palace is invisible from the high street, curtained off by high walls and trees; today it had become a little more unapproachable than hitherto: concentric rings of concertina fencing, concrete barriers, gun-toting soldiers and, of course, tanks.

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