Feb 10, Cairo: News, as we know it, scarcely ever emanates from secretive seraglios such as the one President Hosni Mubarak continues to command at the fenced-off Heliopolis Palace in north Cairo.
Often what eventually becomes information starts off as an unsourced, though inspired, leak and is allowed to float about till it becomes, at the very least, a believable rumour, as opposed to boudoir gossip.
One such — birthed on credible German websites and currently in frenzied word of mouth circulation here — is that Mubarak might invoke failing health to fly off to a posh infirmary in Baden-Baden as a best-of-both-worlds solution to the tense Egyptian deadlock.
He’ll remain President in title, but not in effect, and leave newly appointed deputy Omar Suleiman to grapple with the mess at home until he can ‘honourably’ retire at term-end in September.
Should you believe the Cairo bush telegraph — even some of its private television networks and newspapers — the great escape is one of the deadlock-breaking possibilities the army and the self-appointed group of “wise men” has been discussing with Vice-President Suleiman, even as the regime maintains a grand façade of being in control.
“Rule nothing out,” advised a Cairo University professor once close the ruling establishment. “Dictators have done stranger things in the past to flee sticky situations, Mubarak has tremendous wealth stacked in Europe, generations could last there. He could be testing the waters, contemplating, if not putting plans in place.”
Amr Hamzawi, one of the so-called “wise men”, who said he has been part of backdoor negotiations with Vice-President Suleiman, didn’t confirm any plan Mubarak might have to leave Egypt for health reasons, but he did affirm they had discussed a proposal whereby Mubarak might issue a decree to hand over all effective powers to the Vice President.
“But whatever is discussed, we are not sure how firm it is. We cannot trust them. The government continues to tell us Mubarak will not step down, nor will he go away. Mubarak, so far, is firm on that, despite discussions on handing over of powers. Talks are going nowhere, frustrating. ”
The news of the day from Cairo has been dreary compared to that juicy bit of speculation all of town has been chewing on.
Another day of protests at Tahrir Square, another set of drip-fed concessions from the Mubarak regime. Suleiman announced on Wednesday the government would move six amendments to a constitution most demonstrators want scrapped anyhow.
The Vice-President didn’t help the curiosity of those who might have been interested by saying nothing on which six. The government also released close to 50 political prisoners, many from the Muslim Brotherhood, and reiterated gratuitously that the Hosni Mubarak democracy would no longer prosecute protesters or those who spoke against the regime.
And accompanied by the carrots nobody at Tahrir Square is bothering to bite at, came the intimations of future stick if activists didn’t mind themselves.
State-run newspapers ran reports on Wednesday morning of the government’s “growing impatience” with the Tahrir Square sit-in and that it wouldn’t “put up” with it for too long.
One newspaper even quoted Suleiman as saying he saw only two ways out of the impasse: consultations or a coup. Was he hinting at an army takeover, martial law? Would the army even agree? Isn’t the regime committed not to use force on the siege? Nobody makes themselves available to shed light on such questions in today’s Cairo.
Asked whether he got a sense the regime was holding out the threat of a coup behind-the-scenes, Amr “wise man” Hamzawi said, “Yes something like that because they are concerned about maintaining public order, but I hope it is only a benign threat, if it is one.”
If Suleiman was looking for a response to his indirect dare, it came bit by bit all day.
Cairo University teachers and new ranks of officials joined in rebellion. Then came a strike call by factory workers and trade unions in and beyond Cairo. Pensioners and schoolteachers began agitating for higher allowances, if not regime change altogether.
“More and more people are joining the revolution,” said Maha Chalaby, who has pitched a tent at the centre of Tahrir Square and has been there all fortnight, “I have seen newer faces added to the older ones, yesterday was a huge gathering, Friday will be bigger, pressure on this corrupt killer regime is becoming unrelenting. How long will they resist this?”
If Cairo is slowly dropping off the headlines, from an overdose revolution-fatigue perhaps, its faceless newsmakers are cautioning against any hasty withdrawal of the global eye from the ringside.
At the core of the newest siege in the Egyptian capital — a raucous and tenacious eddy around Parliament House — regime-change activists ran a dizzying victory lap all afternoon, clapping and crying “death to Mubarak!” They were a mere spillover from Tahrir Square on Tuesday, Wednesday morning they consolidated their hold around Parliament.
The army moved behind the iron gates of the building and took defensive positions, the protesters were eyeball-to-eyeball behind concertina fencing outside.
“We are not going to attack the Parliament or anything, we don’t want to go inside,” said Issa Hanouri, one among them, “But we will not let any politician in and we will not leave this place. Either Mubarak goes or there is bloodshed, if that is what they want. We have expanded the protest beyond Tahrir now and we will go on pushing, day after day. We are going nowhere, Mubarak has to go.”
The news still is Mubarak isn’t going anywhere, but the reigning rumour of the day had it otherwise.