2011, Egypt, Reportage, Telegraph Calcutta

SPHINX CRACKS Mubarak hands power to army, decamps to resort

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

Feb 12, Cairo: The dramatic and dogged Egyptian Revolution has claimed its great trophy; it is now faced with the greater challenge of picking through the chaotic debris of Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year dictatorship to make good its promise to itself. History has unfolded, casting a tyrant aside; the future now dares Egypt to embrace the gift of opportunity.

As the ashen-faced Vice-President Omar Suleiman appeared on Nile Television shortly after 6pm local time to announce that Mubarak had decided to “waive his office as President and asked the Supreme Army Council to take over”, a quake of exhilaration tore through Tahrir Square, the unrelenting eye of the 18-day uprising that brought down the entrenched despotism in the Arab world’s most populous nation.

“Allahu Akbar! Egypt is Free! Egypt is Free!!” they yelled in a heady, rippling rapture, setting off waves that must reverberate even stronger through this ferment-ridden neighbourhood.

Shortly before Suleiman’s clipped admission of surrender to countrywide eruption of rage, Mubarak had decamped to the southern Red Sea resort of Sharm al Sheikh with wife Suzanne and other members of his family. His despised elder son Gamal had fled en famille to London last fortnight following the first wave of protests. Nothing is immediately known of the disgraced Mubarak’s plans, but he may well want to eat his words and escape Egypt before demands that he be tried for “crimes against the people and the nation” catch up with him.

For a ruler who averred till Thursday that he would “never run away from my people or my country”, Mubarak couldn’t muster the courage, or the dignity, to tell Egyptians himself he was bowing out in deference to their wishes. He slipped through the back-alley of a gathering siege, leaving that job to a discredited proxy, through whom he had desperately tried to retain his withering hold.

But Cairenes wouldn’t squander their moment of triumph this evening contemplating a wasted leader’s future. “That’s for later, that’s for later,” chortled sexagenarian human rights lawyer Ahmed Seif Hamad, who has battled Mubarak most of his life. “Let me live this and savour this moment,” he screamed, overcome to tears and sobbing, “I never thought I would live to see this day, but what we could not achieve, the youth of Egypt have, I salute them.”

Just behind him, a youngster had managed to slither up a telegraph pole and was waving a huge Egyptian flag; hundreds of thousands massed under him swung to its motions. “Egypt is Free!” they cried ad nauseam, “Egypt is finally Free!!” Fireworks erupted over Cairo’s skies and the tremors of happy electricity ran through the capital. The barriers around had been trampled, the barbed fencing flattened by ecstatic celebrants. The ring of Abrams tanks and armoured carriers became instant symbols of Egypt’s unshackling as people clambered atop and embraced soldiers.

The army, which maintained a remarkable entente with the uprising, often in the face of provocation, now has the onerous task of guiding this exultant anarchy to a stable transition. The army is Egypt’s only respected state institution and has gained popular reverence for the restraint and impartiality with which it conducted itself through the roller-coaster revolution. It was a tough, often perilous, tightrope the army was walking but it has come through, along with revolutionists, in flying colours.

As a creature of the fallen regime, the status and role of defence minister Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi isn’t known but chief of military staff General Sami Eman will most likely be in effective control to see Egypt through to the “free and fair” elections it promised in the run-up to Mubarak’s toppling.

The Muslim Brotherhood (MB), which automatically becomes Egypt’s most potent and critical political force with the collapse of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP), was quick to remind the army of the task at hand. “The army is the repository of the promises of this revolution,” said Essam El Erian, executive board member and spokesman for the MB, “It has to quickly and smoothly ensure that the platform is laid for fulfilling the democratic aspirations of the people. The army cannot hope to perpetuate itself in power like earlier, not after a revolution like this.”

The MB has clarified it won’t stake the presidency, but it might well contest the parliamentary elections and the outcome could determine what course they take. “We are at a very happy but also very critical moment in our history,” Erian said, almost as if to sound a warning, “We must remind ourselves this is just the beginning, not the end.”

The portents of an imminent downfall had begun to become clear since early in the day. Cairo was a cascade of protesters. People began streaming out of neighbourhoods across the capital mid-morning to join what became a deluge pounding the foundations of a tottering regime.

The response to the Friday protest call unlocked a final run on Mubarak. Tahrir spilled over, rainbow emotions sweeping across the gathering — anger, anxiety, wrath and, above all, expectation that the remorseless pressure they had mounted over the past 18 days would finally unhinge a dictatorship whose hatred-quotient has soared over past days.

And as organisers had indicated, preparations for laying siege to Mubarak’s heavily guarded Heliopolis Palace in north Cairo, and the headquarters of state television close to the heart of the uprising in the downtown.

Despite a formidable military buildup around Heliopolis — dozens of tanks and armoured carriers in addition to armed troopers on the ground — crowds swept down, unafraid, from Tahrir shouting “Go Mubarak, Go!” As Thursday, little boys made the best of the stalled traffic and massed protesters, selling Egyptian flags, souvenirs of a revolution that was beginning to defy Mubarak more than Mubarak was able to defy it.

Through the last fortnight, Mubarak tried to buy time and sentiment, handing out sops that were never ever enough for the revolution’s appetite. Every step he took to assuage the street was seen as a step in retreat. He first announced he wouldn’t stand for re-election, disbanded his hated cabinet, got a new Prime Minister and, for the first time in 30 years, appointed a Vice-President in spymaster Omar Suleiman.

Then, he packed off son Gamal and the entire secretariat of the NDP, and appointed the more acceptable Hasham Badrawi as party boss.

As the protests pressed on and acquired a shriller tone, he announced a slew of promises including constitutional reform and amnesty to political prisoners; he also dismissed unsavoury colleagues and got prosecution initiated.

His last stand was handing over most of his powers to Omar Suleiman, and assuming a more nominal role. But Suleiman’s credibility had tobogganed, he was seen no more than a willing Mubarak puppet. The trick tripped on events running ahead of themselves. The anger generated by last night’s ill-advised call to people to “go home and resume normal life” spilled over; it was clear by this morning Mubarak’s time was ticking over.

In a coordinated move with Tahrir demonstrations, agitationists laid rings around the Presidential Palace in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria. Egyptian sailors secured it with cables but stood in unstated compact with the crowds pressing in, even supplying them food and water. News of similar outbreaks came from newer Egyptian datelines — Mansoura, Al Arish, Quseir, Baris, Ras Ghareib, the standard of revolt unfurled in town after town, police stations and government installations under encirclement or outright assault.

In Cairo itself, another section of protesters broke away from Tahrir to surround the headquarters of state television and demanded that it shut operations because it had acted as a “willing tool of the anti-people regime”.

The revolt was in quantum augmentation since Thursday, after showing signs of flagging. It was the sudden release of Google executive Wael Ghonim, whose Facebook page spurred the January 25 protests, that catalysed energies yet again at the turn of the week. Tuesday saw massive protests and the revolution never looked back.

It swirled wider across Egypt. More sections joined in, emboldened and propelled by the resilient Tahrir Square watch. Symptoms of a meltdown erupted at the top of the establishment itself. Following the resignation of newly appointed culture minister Gaber Afsour owing to peer criticism, Hasham Badrawi, appointed NDP general secretary in last’s week’s party shake-up, quit both his post and the party. “It is time for a new politics,” he proclaimed, and within less than half an hour, his prophecy had been inaugurated to riotous reception on Egypt’s streets.

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