CAIRO, Jan 25 (Reuters) - Thousands of Egyptians, inspired by the Tunisian president’s overthrow after public protests, took to the streets to demand the end to President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule.
Tuesday’s events have raised questions about what this now means for Egypt’s sclerotic political system.
Ordinary Egyptians have often said they would not take to the streets for fear of tough security forces. Protests, as a result, rarely numbered more than a few hundred. But on Tuesday Egyptians seemed to gain courage with every hour. Protesters on the streets called up to onlookers from windows above to join in — and many did. Police were relatively restrained and when they did come down with a heavy hand — firing water cannon in a central Cairo square for example — instead of sending people away, protesters seemed emboldened. Some even chased after officers, who fled down side roads. That suggests more Egyptians are losing their fear of retribution, which could itself galvanise others.
If momentum builds and police cannot contain the fury, then the army, which is trained to fight enemy soldiers and not fellow citizens, may be called in. That may prove a difficult decision for officers to agree to and it was the point Tunisia reached when its generals seemed to drop their support for Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. He fled.
Protesters have shown no sign of giving up. As night fell in Tahrir, a main central Cairo square that was the focus for Tuesday’s action, many protesters seemed to be settling in for the night. Some shared food with police, though security reinforcements raised tensions. Some protesters are now urging Egyptians to turn out again in the days ahead. Twitter and Facebook, tools that proved driving forces for Tuesday’s protests, were full of talk of more to come.
Some police seemed clearly uncomfortable with their role. One policeman told a protester that he had three months of duty left and after that “I’ll be on the other side of the barricade”. But other police had not changed their approach, like those who thrashed protesters with batons. Egypt’s youthful activists clearly still face a challenge if they are to maintain the momentum with aim of pushing the country to a tipping point.
The government has quickly blamed the usual Islamist suspects, a tactic that in the past quickly won support from the West. An Interior Ministry statement said members of the Muslim Brotherhood were behind the riotous behaviour. Yet the Brotherhood has played only a bit part, even drawing the wrath of its own youth members for not taking a more proactive role. The real leaders of this protest were vociferous web campaigners who have shown they can use new tools social media to help galvanise thousands of Egyptians, who had grumbled in private about poverty and political repression.
In Tunisia, feisty unions played a role in sustaining the demonstrations. Although Egypt’s workers have marched in many much smaller protests, the independent union movement is still weak. That means Egyptians lack at least that pillar to sustain them and suggests much still depends on the coordination work of online activists. However, other opposition movements such as Kefaya (Enough), who have struggled to get their voices heard recently, could now be revitalised. After organising modest protests around the time of Egypt’s first multi-candidate presidential election in 2005, Kefaya and groups shrank into the shadows from where they could emerge again.
That is what it looked like when police, usually swift to charge protesters, hung back and at least initially allowed marchers to take over major thoroughfares. Several officers admitted they were under orders not to force a confrontation. That suggests the Egyptian authorities do not want an escalation as in Tunisia, where a rising number of deaths and casualties only served to fire up protesters.
But Tuesday also showed that this technique can embolden protesters, who could start fearing security forces less.
If Hosni Mubarak, 82, ever wanted to put his son in his seat — and he has never said he does — then Tuesday’s protests may make such a transfer even more difficult. The idea of such a family succession had already been deeply unpopular with swathes of Egypt’s 79 million people. But the message was sent loud and clear on Tuesday. “Gamal, tell your father Egyptians hate you,” they chanted in Cairo, while they tore up a picture of Mubarak’s son in Alexandria. Gamal, 47, a former investment banker, is blamed for economic liberalisation measures that the poor say have filled the pockets of the rich. Foreign investors and businesses think otherwise. Gamal has no military background, unlike all the other presidents since the king was toppled in 1952. There has already been talk about unease in the military over Gamal. Tuesday’s events could make that more pronounced. (Additional reporting by Dina Zayed and Patrick Werr; Editing by Alison Williams)