Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Watching a Revolution Unfold--Live

With increased globalization of media, we can now watch a revolution unfold live in real time. And a revolution is what Egypt is getting (unless something changes soon). Like Iran in 1979 or Eastern Europe in 1989, popular mobilization is driving events.

Al Jazeera's live stream continues to broadcast stunning live footage from the streets of the capital city, Cairo. In just the last few minutes, pro-government gangs on horseback and camelback charged into the crowds of anti-government demonstrators. (Some of them were carrying police IDs, which suggests that the regime fomented this counter-protest.) Groups are prying up pavement and throwing rocks at each other. It appears that anti-government forces are trying to keep the pro-Mubarak groups from getting to Tahrir Square, the center of the protests. With popular violence escalating, we are now in Phase 3 of the ongoing power struggle between the regime and its critics in the streets, with no glimpse of resolution.

Phase 1 of the protests ran from Tuesday to Friday of last week. The anti-government forces seized the initiative and surprised the regime with their bold and open contempt of the Mubarak regime. The police were ordered to crack down but failed. On Friday, January 28, the government shut down all Internet and mobile phone service, which only inflamed popular anger. After Friday midday prayers, thousands of people streamed to Tahrir (Liberation) Square in Cairo, although the police prevented many from coming by blocking passages on the two main bridges over the Nile (6 October Bridge and Qasr al-Nil Bridge). The military was ordered into the streets on Friday night, but they took no action. On Friday night, in a speech on Egyptian state television, Mubarak made his first concessions, dismissing his cabinet and appointing a new prime minister. He also claimed to be standing "on the side of the poor," a statement so far detached from reality as to be laughable.

Phase 2 began on Saturday. Defying a military curfew that was supposed to begin at 4:00 pm local time, hundreds of thousands of people poured out to Tahrir Square, at the center of Cairo. That night, looters, many of them carrying police IDs, rampaged through Cairo neighborhoods. The police disappeared from the streets and the military remained neutral, a position that they publicly announced as their official stance on Monday afternoon. Protestors also welcomed the military with hugs and smiles, doing nothing to provoke them. By Tuesday, with military protection, up to a million demonstrators responded to opposition leaders' calls to march, making these the largest demonstrations so far.

However, the opposition forces were not organized enough to march on any government sites. Had they surrounded the presidential compound in Heliopolis, they might have been able to convince Mubarak that he was truly in danger. (Of course, such a move would have put them in danger, too.) Instead, Mubarak continued to believe that he could survive this crisis--despite the protestors' demands that he go immediately. Unlike Tunisia's, Egypt's anti-government resistance is divided. That may be their undoing.

Today Egypt is in Phase 3, the escalation toward revolutionary violence. Last night (Tuesday night, February 1), in a speech on Egyptian TV, Mubarak offered a mix of responsiveness and stubbornness. He responded by announcing a few concessions, saying that his new vice president  would open a dialogue with opposition forces, that he would not run for re-election in the September presidential elections and that he would allow amendments to the constitutional articles that currently allow limits on candidates for presidential elections. But he did not explicitly rule out the possibility that his son Gamal could be one of those candidates. He also hinted darkly at the possibility of chaos, calling for people to return to normalcy. And he said that he planned to be buried in Egypt. In other words, he would not be leaving like Tunisia's Ben Ali.

Whether they are following orders or responding spontaneously to this speech, Mubarak's allies in the police are today fomenting counter-revolutionary chaos. To evoke the poet Dylan Thomas, instead of going gently into the good night, Mubarak is raging against the dying of the light. He and his regime cannot imagine giving up power. They will try to cling to power as long as possible, even if that brings violent clashes on the streets and widespread destruction of property. Mubarak will allow Egypt to burn before he will lose face.

Neither pro- nor anti-government forces have any leadership on the streets to restrain them. Unless the military topples Mubarak soon, this could easily escalate out of control into social breakdown and revolutionary chaos. Across the world, we are witnessing the utter collapse of a regime and a social revolution--live.

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