The regime lashes back

February 3, 2011

Ahmed Shawki reports from Cairo on a day when Hosni Mubarak and his regime struck back with savage violence directed at protesters demanding that he go.

FORCES LOYAL to Hosni Mubarak counter-attacked on Wednesday in a highly coordinated attempt to intimidate the mass movement that has taken over the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities in a struggle against the dictatorship.

At least 600 people were injured and several killed by mobs of Mubarak supporters who converged on Tahrir Square, the symbolic heart of the struggle in the center of Cairo, and attacked protesters. People fought back with determination and tenacity throughout the day--as this article was being written at 9 p.m. in Egypt, the clashes were continuing.

The counter-attack followed Tuesday's massive demonstrations against Mubarak, numbering somewhere between 6 million and 8 million around the country, according to estimates. Those demonstrations had an almost festive atmosphere, giving people confidence that the end of the dictatorship was near.

The picture is very different 24 hours later. To understand what happened in a single day, it's important to go back to the speech that Mubarak gave on Wednesday night, in which he announced that he would not run for re-election this coming September, but that he intended to serve out his term and preside over the "transition" to a new regime. This was exactly what Barack Obama apparently signaled to Mubarak in both direct conversation and through visits to the presidential palace by U.S. diplomats yesterday.

A protester wounded by pro-Mubarak thugs who charged the crowds in Tahrir Square
A protester wounded by pro-Mubarak thugs who charged the crowds in Tahrir Square (Nasser Nouri)

Today, we found out what kind of transition Mubarak has in mind.

Mubarak's regime is finished--I'm still convinced of that. But Mubarak and the U.S. want to maintain the regime with as little change to the fundamentals as possible. Mubarak is playing the one card left to him in order to survive, and it was one that shocked people with its viciousness. But what has happened in the previous eight days hasn't been lost for the majority of Egyptians--their sense of their ability to mobilize, the first taste of freedom.

Mubarak talked in his speech about how he's sacrificed for 30 years. My response was that he ought to make the ultimate sacrifice and take himself out. That's obviously not what he's doing now. But I also think there will be a massive counter-reaction tomorrow and in the days to come. People will be furious about the violence unleashed by the regime, and there are calls for big demonstrations again on Friday, the first day of the weekend in Egypt.

People were jubilant at the character of the demonstrations on Tuesday--their peacefulness, their sense of purpose, their unified demands. Today, they were taken aback by the crackdown. This will make people have to think about their own resolve and their organization--how it is that they confront the challenge from the regime from now on.

IN HIS speech, Mubarak insisted that that he recognized the legitimate concerns of the Egyptians who were protesting, but he also suggested that the protesters at Tahrir Square were manipulated tools of unknown enemies of the Egyptian state. He repeated the line from a speech the week before that he wouldn't allow chaos.

Exactly what he meant was made clear today. Beginning in the morning, large numbers of state security and police forces were mobilized around Cairo, as were people who are employed in state-owned companies, along with others who accepted the message of Mubarak that there would be a six-month transition before he left.

The counter-attack was highly organized. It had an ideological component, and there was also the use of physical force on the streets. Both aspects were part of an intense attempt to try to weaken the resolve of the occupiers and protesters at Tahrir Square.

There are three main bridges that lead into the central part of Cairo around Tahrir Square. In the morning today, I noticed one of these bridges was filled with people--they were supporters of Mubarak, who carried signs with messages like "Yes sir, Mubarak," "Get out of town," "Go back where you came from" and the like.

In addition, there were demonstrations in several different neighborhoods. In Mohandiseen, a middle-class neighborhood in Cairo where there had actually been a pro-Mubarak demonstration of 1,000 or 2,000 on Tuesday, these numbers were joined by several thousand more today.

In other parts of the city, a number of taxi drivers who participated in a government-sponsored program to trade in their old taxis for new ones and who have benefited from state subsidies as part of an attempt to build up the tourist industry were mobilized in force. They honked their horns and posted pre-printed signs in support of Mubarak in their windows.

In other parts of the town, there were caravans of cars honking their horns, and as the day developed, it became clear that many of these people were state functionaries who had been given the day off, and were instructed to participate in rallies in support of the president.

All this was picked up by the media as proof that there was support for the president after all. That's part of the ideological component of the counter-attack, which tries to blame protesters for the problems of the country--that is, to turn the situation on its head. The goal is to say that it's time now to unite as a country, it's time to go back to work, it's time for calm to prevail.

Of course, this could have been accomplished by Mubarak's departure. Instead, the regime is trying to use the demonstrations against Mubarak as the explanation for continued disorder.

MOST FRIGHTENING were the mobilizations of organized groups of thugs in and around central Cairo, demonstrating up and down the side streets leading toward Tahrir Square. There are about a dozen access points to Tahrir, or Liberation, Square. The thugs marched through the side streets to these access points to try to create an imposing presence that would intimidate the demonstrators--and to then penetrate into the square.

Early in the day, state security people were allowed into the square by the army--there was a report on television of a car filled with weapons stopped as it was attempting to get into Tahrir Square. As the day went on, the demonstrators were able to expel the thugs.

But as evening fell, there was a concerted attack started from several access points into Tahrir Square--in particular, coming off the Sixth of October bridge over the Nile, where there's a construction site. The Mubarak supporters started throwing large projectiles and rocks into the crowd. I saw Molotov cocktails thrown directly into the crowd--later, there were press reports saying the pro-Mubarak thugs seemed to have an endless supply that they were throwing through the night.

A number of people were badly beaten, including journalists--Anderson Cooper of CNN was one of them. The attacks caused hundreds of injuries, but according to the report of a doctor outside Tahrir Square, the thugs were especially targeting medical staff who attempted to go into the square to help people who were injured.

There was also a bizarre scene where several thugs on horses crashed into the crowd, and a couple of the riders were tackled. They were carrying their police IDs, and those were held up to the crowd. That's now been reported on the BBC and Al Jazeera--so it's obvious to everyone who was behind this mobilization. This was an attempt to use violence against what had been an extremely peaceful and effective mass demonstration.

The intentions of the regime are now clearer than before. For one thing, in appointing Omar Suleiman, the former head of internal security, as his vice president, Mubarak was attempting to bolster the resolve of the sections of the state that rely on him.

He also intended with the violence today to send the message that Egypt is not Tunisia. There's the obvious difference in terms of Egypt's importance to the U.S. and Israel as a pillar of regional stability. But there's also a difference in the regime--in terms of the number of people whose position within the security forces, the bureaucracy, the state-employed sector and so forth that depend on the current set-up. Those forces are being mobilized very consciously to come out in support of the regime.

I think that the way to understand these events is that the transition Mubarak has proposed isn't really about transition at all. It's about maintaining the essence of the regime. And in this regard, we need to see that the U.S. government is complicit in what's taken place today.

I think the decision has been made that the stakes are too high to have the dictator Ben Ali go in Tunisia, and then have Mubarak go within a week or two. That would change the face and shape of everything in the Middle East, and it threatens American power in a way that's unacceptable, whatever the public wording of Obama's speeches about "democracy" and "supporting freedom."

So the fate of the movement is at stake. Today's events show us that if anybody expected a revolution against a 30-year dictator to go as easily as we've seen up until now, we now see what those in power are willing to resort to in order to protect their order.

THE PLAN for the regime going forward isn't hard to decipher. They'll want to make difficult for people to make it back to Tahrir Square, where the demonstrations have been centered. And if they can keep the crowds thinned out, they could attempt an all-out assault, as the Chinese government did against the protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

One big question now is about the army. It's clear that the army was introduced last week because the police force could no longer maintain order, and throughout the last week, there were some examples of fraternization between demonstrators and the soldiers.

But now, the police have reappeared. Officially, they've returned not in Tahrir Square, but mainly in middle-class neighborhoods like Mohandiseen, where they joined the community cordons that patrol the areas. And there's no doubt whatsoever from any media source that many of the people who were assaulting demonstrators were agents of the state--police in plain clothes.

And in this context, the army determined that it would stay "above the fray." At one stage today, I saw soldiers shoot in the air to push back some of the pro-Mubarak supporters from the square, because there was an outcry beginning to build against the attack on what was such a united and peaceful demonstration. But there's also no doubt that the army allowed the violence to take place against the demonstrators.

Spokespeople for the army have been saying for several days now that the time for demonstrating is over, and that message was accentuated on Wednesday. The same phrase gets repeated over and over--that the army is "above the fray" and "above politics." But that's obviously not the case. In the history of Egypt, the army plays a very important role.

People are in shock at the degree of violence that's been unleashed, and so there's a kind of context where the army can be brought in to save the day. But it will be a complicated question, because everyone knows that the call for demonstrations on Friday will probably produce a bigger turnout than ever.

The situation is harder to read outside of Cairo. For example, from the reports I heard, Alexandria--where the anti-government demonstration on Tuesday also numbered in the millions, like Cairo--was virtually free of any pro-Mubarak support on Wednesday. Alexandria is more political place in some ways, in part because there was a yearlong movement against police repression that saw very large mobilizations. The anti-Mubarak sentiment has a harder edge in Alexandria.

There were also reports of big mobilizations against the regime on Tuesday in many towns across the country, as well as several strikes and occupations--thought that's been subsumed to some extent by the fact that nobody's going to work.

I think it's important to point out as well that the regime may have overstepped itself in this latest bid to stay in power. As powerful as the images of Tuesday's massive demonstration were in projecting the movement for change in Egypt, the images of the attacks on that peaceful demonstration will not be forgotten by anyone--certainly not by anyone who was in Tahrir Square today.

I think the key question is going to be the ability of the movement to continue to mobilize--to defend Tahrir Square, which has now become an important symbol, and also to understand that the regime has made a move, and the movement will have respond in kind.

The demonstrations are going to continue, but people are beginning to think through other questions, like how you get rid of a dictator who doesn't want to go and who has an armed force at his disposal. These were the things that activists and socialists I spoke to today were preparing for--to expose the truth of the situation, to maintain the pressure on the regime by mobilizing to defend Tahrir Square, and to organize for a huge turnout on Friday for a showdown with the forces being used against them.

Transcription by Matthew Beamesderfer and Karen Domínguez Burke

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