Comments on this afternoon’s events as I understand them and over the next several days I’ll try to fill in the events of the past week. I did not go down to Midan al-Tahrir today so I have no direct observations about what happened there. I was sitting in a café on a major street leading into central Cairo while thousands of pro-government demonstrators marched into the downtown. Actually pro-Mubarak demonstrators were at the massive march February 1 albeit in small numbers and at the edge of the crowd. They were tolerated and as far as I could tell no clashes occurred. Today was different. First today’s demonstrators were much better organized and had a clearer political message. That message, orchestrated as it was by pro-government forces, might give some pause to Americans viewing events in Egypt through the prism of the Arab-Israeli conflict or debates about the intervention in Iraq.
I saw one leaflet handed out by the pro-government demonstrators. Predictably accused the pro-democracy youth, who they identified as a “lying gang” of threatening Egyptian stability. Somewhat less predictably they identified the al-Jazeera television station which has long been a bête noire of the right win in the US as an American-Qatari organization that distorted the news. While American neo-conservatives have evidently decided the Muhammad al-Baradei is untrustworthy because he opposed the US intervention in Iraq, he was accused in this leaflet of being an American agent who delivered Iraq to the Americans. It goes without saying therefore that whatever battles American intellectuals and analysts are fighting among themselves about policy are poor guides to how political debate in Egypt is currently being carried out.
Because I have an Egyptian cell phone I also get text messages from my cell phone carrier which I have to assume are coming from the government in one way or another. This morning I received one telling me to be wary of rumors; tonight in the wake of the assaults in Tahrir Square and the open fighting there in which the army evidently refused to intervene I received another one. This one told me, in a repetition of earlier statements, that the army would not use force against the Egyptian people. Yesterday that meant against the demonstrators, but today one has to wonder if it means the army will, for the moment, simply stand aside. For those who wonder if the government, which after all includes the army at its highest levels, is waiting to strike back another possibility emerges. Given the fears of chaos, disorder, economic dislocation, and the pervasive fear of a government dominated by the Muslim Brothers (which the regime has used for a long time to legitimate its repression) one has to wonder if the army will now bide its time. Then after a couple of more days of unrest and insecurity, given that Egypt is still governed under a state of emergency the army could resume direct control of the country.
One last item in Mubarak’s very ambiguous message last night struck me. I will try to write a bit more about the entire speech later but I should say I heard the last couple of minutes first this morning and only later the entire thing. The end seems conciliatory but the beginning is far less so. What strikes me as an important turning point in the speech is Mubarak’s ominous assertion of what the appropriate narrative of the last few days is. In his view, he appointed Omar Sulaiman to undertake a discussion of the outstanding issues with the opposition but despite his (magnanimous?) offer, elements in the opposition refused. If this is the view President Mubarak and his regime want to put forward of the events of the past few days, then presumably at some point soon it will be necessary to move with force against those who have used legitimate rights of expression guaranteed by the government to obstruct a constructive solution to the crisis. This is clearly the opening gambit in an attempt to portray the opposition as the obstinate party rather than Mubarak himself and his government.