A Bahraini security court sentenced 20-year-old student Ayat al-Qurmezi to one year in prison yesterday. The young woman, infamous for her February recitation of an anti-government poem in Pearl Square, has been found guilty of speaking out against the king and inciting hatred. Her poem has become an international symbol of the Bahraini opposition:
We are the people who will kill humiliation and assassinate misery
We are the people who will destroy the foundation of injustice
Don't you hear their cries, don't you hear their screams
Down with Hamad
Al-Qurmezi has been in captivity since March. She was rumored to have been raped and tortured after an alleged phone call was made from doctors at an army hospital in April. Yesterday, a relative confirmed that her face had been shocked with an electrical cable, she was forced to clean the prison bathroom with her hands, and held in a near-freezing cell for days at a time. Ayat al-Ghermezi has incited a rally cry for free speech in Bahrain, where female students, doctors and professors have become targets of government crackdown on civil rights.
She is not the only poet to face such harsh punishments recently in the Middle East. Waleed Mohammad al Rumaishi had his tongue cut out after reciting poetry in support of embattled Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. In 2009, civil servant and poet Moneer Said Hanna wrote a five-lined satirical poem about former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and is now serving a three year sentence, as well as paying a fine of over $16,000. Syrian poet, Faraj Bayrakdar, now fuels the revolution from Sweden after enduring over 13 years of torture in prison where he would carve pens from wood splinters and make ink from tea leaves in order to write poetry.
Robert Frost said that poetry is what gets lost in translation, but for Ayat al-Qurmezi and her fellow dissident poets, the message is quite clear.
John Moore/Getty Images
Wael Ghonim, the Google marketing executive who famously cofounded the "We Are All Khaled Saeed" Facebook page that helped spark the Egyptian revolution, is facing heat today for some comments he made on Twitter -- as well as resentment of his growing international stardom and his perceived failure to speak out more strongly against recent abuses by the Army.
Amira al-Husseini translates Ghonim's tweets:
The Council is losing its legitimacy with the revolutionaries but we need to realise that the revolutionaries are losing their credibility with the silent majority, who are starting to suffer from the economic side effects of the crisis
We all agree that Egypt was at the threshold of an economic crisis, whether the revolution happened or not .. but we still cannot deny the adverse side effects the revolution has had on the work force, particularly its poor segments
Workers who earn a daily wage (and those number not less than 1 million Egyptians) and people employed in tourism and real estate development, and many more, never hear us speaking about their concerns
Economy should be the priority for the revolutionaries, because it is the safety valve which will guarantee the continuation of the revolution and the cleansing of Egypt from corruption
That sparked an outpouring of criticism and support, set off by a mock Ghonim account called -- I kid you not -- @GhonimWithBalls (the bio on that account calls the real Ghonim a "crybaby bitch boy"):
Some highlights of the Twitter debate that followed:
@salmasaid: I #UnfollowedGhonimBecause he is failing to do his expected responsibilities given the role he chose.
@fazerofzanight: I #UnfollowedGhonimBecause because he doesnt deserve a platform and so I won't give him one.
@MohHKamel: Haven't #UnfollowedGhonimBecause he did for #Egypt more than any of you. He works hard, avoids the spotlight & doesn't run his mouth off.
@amirakhalil46: i #UnfollowedGhonimBecause he's a sell-out. Falling for the "economic stability" manipulative tactic!! Forgetting what #Jan25 is all about.
Few of the big Egyptian Twitterati, however, joined in, and the hastag devolved into crude personal attacks and bad jokes. Even its originator lost interest after a while:
@GhonimWithBalls: Disappointed to see #UnfollowedGhonimBecause evolve into personal attacks of @Ghonim as opposed to his views and policies.
Ghonim can still boast nearly 156,000 followers, and many conceded that he had a point. Tomorrow, President Obama is expected to announce a bailout package for the Egyptian economy, something the country desperately needs if the revolution is to succeed.
On Sunday, for the first time since January 25, the Arab world's attention was riveted not on scenes of protesters castigating their own governments, but on much more familiar imagery: that of Palestinians resisting Israeli occupation.
For months, Palestinian and Arab activists had planned to mark May 15 -- Youm an-Nakba or "Day of the Catastrophe," which usually takes place the day after Israel's independence celebrations -- with a civilian march on the occupied territories. For Arabs, Nakba Day represents a day of mourning, a time to commemorate the expulsion during the 1948 war of Palestinians from their villages and homes, press for the right of refugees to return, and denounce the Jewish state.
In past years, Nakba Day has generally passed without much fanfare: demonstrations around the world and in Palestinian villages, occasional attempts to march on Israeli-held territory, met with force.
But this is 2011, and things were rather different on Sunday. In Lebanon, a group of hundreds of Palestinian refugees tried to stream across the border and were fired upon by both Israeli and Lebanese troops. Near the Erez crossing in Gaza, IDF soldiers fired on Palestinians seeking to cross into Israel. Near Ramallah in the West Bank, a large crowd battled tear-gas-wielding riot troops with rocks and Molotov cocktails. And in Syria, another large crowd swarmed over the fence along the disputed line that separates the two countries and made it into Majdal Shams, a Druze village in the Golan Heights, before being rounded up by the IDF. (Jordan and Egypt prevented smaller crowds from reaching the border.) Altogether, more than a dozen Palestinians were killed and dozens more wounded by live fire, according to the New York Times.
Al Jazeera Arabic went large with its coverage, deploying a split screen to show the events live, while thousands more followed developments on Twitter using the #nakba tag. So did Syrian state television, happy to change the subject from the domestic demonstrations of the last few months. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah hailed the protesters, addressing them directly: "You are adamant to liberate your land no matter how many sacrifices you make and the fate of this [Jewish] entity is to fade." Hamas declared the onset of a third intifada; its leader in Gaza, Ismail Haniya, declared that changes sweeping the region would "lead to the collapse of the Zionist project in Palestine and victory for the program of the nation." Meanwhile, in Cairo, Egyptian security forces violently dispersed a large crowd demonstrating in front of the Israeli Embassy, arresting a number of well-known revolutionary Twitterati.
Somewhere in Damascus, Bashar al-Assad is smiling for the first time in weeks.
All of this sounds a bit like the old Middle East, doesn't it? Arabs raging impotently at the Jews instead of their own brutal rulers? And yet the narrative that the Arab revolutions were never about Israel has always been wrong, or at least incomplete. For Arabs living under authoritarian regimes, Israel (and America's support for Israel) has long been seen as an important reason for their subjugation. Nowhere is this more true than in Egypt, where Hosni Mubarak bucked popular opinion by selling gas to Israel below market rates and enforced a widely reviled blockade of Gaza. In Tahrir Square, there were plenty of chants denouncing Mubarak as an Israeli and American agent, no matter what Thomas Friedman says.
Yet there is nothing impotent about Sunday's tactics, which put Israel and its American ally in an incredibly tough position. Whatever Assad's cynical motives for allowing and even encouraging the protesters to reach the Golan ("See, Bibi, you need me after all!"), Palestinians now have a powerful tool at their disposal, and there will no doubt be attempts to replicate the feat. As Haaretz columnist Aluf Benn puts it, "The nightmare scenario Israel has feared since its inception became real -- that Palestinian refugees would simply start walking from their camps toward the border and would try to exercise their ‘right of return.'"
Even more awkward for the United States, Netanyahu is due to visit Washington in a few days in what will likely be one long exposition of the words, "I told you so." If he is smart, he will announce a serious plan for peace and get out ahead of the most serious threat to Israel's security since the 1973 war. If he is true to form, he will use the opportunity to double down on his argument for the status quo.
President Obama has planned two speeches for the coming week: one for Thursday, billed as a disquisition on the Arab Spring, and another an address at the AIPAC conference. With George Mitchell's resignation, the peace process is officially dead. The Arab street now understands its power -- people clearly aren't going to sit around quietly waiting until September for the U.N. General Assembly to pass a resolution recognizing a Palestinian state. The BDS movement ("boycott, divestment, sanctions") is gaining steam internationally. There will be more marches, more flotillas, more escalation, more senseless deaths.
What is Obama going to say now?
Jalaa Marey/JINI/Getty Images
The headline on the home page of the New York Times -- "U.S. Mideast Envoy Resigns After 2 Years of Frustration" -- says it all. George Mitchell's departing note to the president is curt:
When I accepted your request to serve as U.S. Special Envoy for Middle East Peace my intention was to serve for two years. More than two years having passed I hereby resign, effective May 20, 2011. I trust this will provide sufficient time for an effective transition.
I strongly support your vision of comprehensive peace in the Middle East and thank you for giving me the opportunity to be part of your administration. It has been an honor for me to again serve our country.
What's amazing is not Mitchell resigned, but that he hung in there so long. As my colleague Josh Rogin reports, Mitchell has long been marginalized: The Israelis weren't interested in meeting him, and his own ostensible colleague in the White House, longtime peace-processor Dennis Ross, developed his back channel to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (In typical fashion, Israel and Palestinian officials took the opportunity to blame each other for Mitchell's failure.)
This is usually the point in an article about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict where the author offers up an alternative strategy for advancing peace, but unfortunately I don't have one. The peace process has long been a charade -- a cowardly game of inches and incrementalism -- because none of the three parties to the dispute dares take any political risks. Most Israelis seem happy with the status quo, and the settlers' bloc has expanded to the point where its power may be impossible to check. Bibi Netanyahu has written an entire, tedious book explaining why he doesn't believe in a two-state solution, and takes every opportunity to exploit to the other side's obstructionism, divisions, and weakness. The Palestinian Authority is led by Mahmoud Abbas, a dumpy, charmless Fatah party functionary who has international support but close to zero street legitimacy; Hamas controls Gaza and has yet to admit the abject failure of its violent strategy. The Israeli and Palestinian publics still have vastly different expectations on sensitive issues like Jerusalem and the right of return, and the current political leadership on both sides has made no effort to prepare the ground for concessions. Peace seems as far away as ever.
The one bright spot is Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who has put his head down and built functioning institutions to the point where one of the many arguments made in favor of the Israeli occupation -- that Palestinians just aren't ready to run their own country -- is no longer so credible. But Fayyad is not popular domestically, either, and he may become a casualty of the recent Fatah-Hamas unity deal, a move that would spook the international donors that would keep any nascent Palestinian state afloat. The U.S. Congress is already making rumblings about cutting off aid.
All of this comes months ahead of Abbas's September deadline for declaring independence, a move that will put him in direct disagreement with the United States just as the 2012 campaign begins to hit up. European countries have signaled quietly that they might break with Washington and recognize Palestine, and frankly at this point I think many Americans would welcome the idea, because nothing else seems to work. Barack Obama will likely give a speech in August signaling his "deep commitment" to Middle East peace, but there is no chance whatsover that he'll make any bold or creative moves in election season. According to Yahoo's Laura Rozen, he's not even planning to raise the Arab-Israeli issue during next Thursday's big speech on the Middle East.
So the floor will be clear for Netanyahu, who meets with Obama next week and is due to address Congress on Tuesday, May 24. If past is prologue, we can expect Bibi to bamboozle: offer just enough movement to seem reasonable but not enough to actually induce the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table. And why not? There's very little pressure on him domestically to cut a deal, and he knows that little pressure will be forthcoming from Washington, especially given the risk that one Hamas leader or another will pop off and say something crazy.
Perhaps the abject failure of U.S. peacemaking efforts to date will encourage other folks -- I'm looking at you, Nabil El-Araby -- to come forward with creative solutions. But I wouldn't bet more than a few sheckels on it.
World opinion seems to be divided on the propriety of America's sometimes-raucous celebration in the wake of Osama bin Laden's death. Hopefully, though, we can all agree that Americans -- by virtue of long-standing national tradition -- should at least be indulged a few attempts to make a quick buck off of the affair.
Book publishers have been especially eager to track down authors who can write knowledgably and efficiently - read: quickly! - on the subject of Al Qaeda. As one publishing executive told the Wall Street Journal, "If it's not going to be great, it's got to be as fast as possible."
A number of authors have been happy to oblige. Former Newsweek Jon Meacham has already begun editing an e-book essay collection called Beyond Bin Laden for Random House. Peter Bergen, author of The Longest War and The Osama bin Laden I Know, has been signed by Crown to write a book tentatively titled The Manhunt, covering Washington's search for the fugitive terrorist. The Free Press has also said that it is hoping to publish a digital work by Bergen.
Following Hollywood's standard playbook, Penguin Press announced Wednesday that it had signed New Yorker correspondent Steve Coll to write, in essence, a sequel to his Pulitzer Prize-winning Ghost Wars, which covered America's vexed relations with radical Islam from the 1980s through September 11. The new book will discuss the last ten years of that relationship.
Finally, there are those publishers who already have a perfect book in the works, but somehow failed to predict months back that a potential assassination in early May would provide the opportunity for marketing synergy. Sales strategies have been scrambled, as relatively unknown authors prepare to bask in the full media spotlight. The Black Banner, a narrative account of the war on terror written by Ali Soufan, a former FBI agent who served on the front lines against Al Qaeda, is certain to be marketed heavily when it's published in September by Norton.
Then there's St. Martin's Press, which had originally scheduled a May 24 release for a book by retired Navy SEALs Howard Wasdin and Stephen Templin on the subject of the military's secretive Team Six. When that unit succeeded in its secret mission to kill bin Laden on May 1, the publishing house immediately pushed to get the book in stores as quickly as possible. The release date has now been moved to May 10. "Sometimes you get lucky with current events," Mark Resnick, executive editor at St. Martin's, told the New York Observer.
With the passage tonight of a robust U.N. Security Council resolution calling for a no-fly zone in Libya -- and then some -- Barack Obama has committed the United States to intervening in a Muslim country for the third time in a decade.
Only this time, the resolution's passage was a victory for the kind of painstaking multilateral diplomacy that was so often scorned by his predecessor, who preferred to work with "coalitions of the willing" and dismissed the United Nations as ineffective, weak, and morally questionable.
Of course, there's no guarantee that a piece of paper will succeeding in protecting the thousands of Libyans cheering in Benghazi's main square from Qaddafi's forces, which are gathering some 100 miles away outside the besieged town of Ajdabiya and have completely surrounded Misrata. What needs to happen now is swift military action against Qaddafi's heavy weapons -- call it a "no-drive zone," and perhaps even the bombing of his compound in Tripoli. Are Britain and France, which have taken the lead in pushing for military action, up to the challenge? Or will the U.S. once again be called upon to clean up a nearby mess Europe couldn't solve on its own? We'll soon find out.
One thought: It is amazing, and altogether incredible, that an uprising that began as peaceful protests calling for the release of political prisoners has made it this far, just as it is unfortunate that Qaddafi's horrific use of violence has forced the international community to intervene. But if such is the price of saving the Arab revolutions, so be it.
The world now has to win this fight. As NATO Secretary-General Fogh Rasmussen put it earlier today, "If Gadaffi prevails it will send a clear signal that violence pays."
At the Al Jazeera Forum this weekend in Doha, where dozens of Arab political figures and activists of all persuasions gathered to discuss the dramatic events sweeping the Middle East, there was a lot of optimism in the air. One Egyptian organizer, YouTube starlet Asma Mahfouz, even expressed her hope that next year's forum would be titled "One Arab Nation With No Borders."
Pressed over lunch about the risks of it all turning sour, one Emirati political scientist told several of us, "Let them dream. These youth have never had the chance to dream before. It is good to have dreams."
But outside of Tunisia and Egypt, Arab dreams are fast becoming Arab nightmares. In Libya, a spontaneous popular uprising is turning into a civil war -- one that the rebels are rapidly losing. In Bahrain, protests that began as a call for civil rights and constitutional reform have devolved into ugly sectarian street battles; and as Saudi forces intervene to protect the ruling Sunni monarchy, the situation risks sparking a proxy struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Yemen is kicking out foreign journalists as tribes cowboy up and activists talk of an impending bloodbath. Iraq's hapless government is clamping down on political freedom. And all of this is taking place against the backdrop of rising oil prices, a hopelessly stalled Middle East peace process, and an epic natural disaster in the world's No. 3 economy.
There are some bright spots: Morocco's King Mohammed VI seems to understand at some level that he needs to embrace change lest he be swept up by it; Jordan has remained surprisingly calm even though its monarch, King Abdullah II, has thus far only pretended to get it; Kuwait already had a relatively vibrant political scene; and quiescent Qatar and the go-go United Arab Emirates don't seem at risk of any unrest whatsoever. But in general, the region's autocrats are responding as they always have to popular anger: with a combination of brute force, comically half-baked reforms, and economic bribes.
What will happen next is anybody's guess, but I find it hard to be optimistic in the short term. Much depends on how the democratic transitions in Tunisia and especially Egypt go, but it will be many months before the dust settles there. In the meantime, the rest of the region is ablaze. And as they did with Iraq, Arab leaders will now eagerly point to Libya and Bahrain as cautionary examples of what happens when citizens take to the streets.
Meanwhile, the region's two traditional problem children -- Lebanon and Palestine -- haven't even joined the fray yet. Burgeoning youth protest movements in both places are calling on their bickering, ineffective leaders to get their acts together in the name of national unity, but the forces of the status quo are far stronger. It's hard to imagine Hezbollah and Lebanon's March 14 movement in Lebanon, or Fatah and Hamas in Palestine, putting aside their differences and coming together for the common good. And Iran and its pal Syria haven't begun to make trouble yet. Now that Saudi Arabia has thrown down the gauntlet in Bahrain, the gloves may come off -- especially if the U.N. special tribunal ever gets around to indicting Hezbollah figures for the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri.
None of this is to say that there is some magic formula that the United States could have employed to avoid this dangerous state of affairs. U.S. influence in the region is fast evaporating, as evidenced by the fact that its ostensible allies -- Israel and Saudi Arabia -- are now flaunting their rejection of Washington's advice: Benjamin Netanyahu is reportedly about to debut an absurdly disingenuous peace initiative, and Saudi troops just rolled into Bahrain a day after U.S. Defense Secretary Bob Gates urged King Hamad to compromise and embrace political reform. The Pentagon didn't even get a courtesy call.
But what happens next will have huge repercussions for U.S. national security, and will present President Obama will terrible dilemmas in the region. If Saudi troops kill Shiites in Bahrain using American weapons, what will he say or do? Iran wasn't behind any of these uprisings, but if it starts creating mischief, how should he respond? What if Yemen turns into another Somalia? What if Palestinians rise up against Israel in a third intifada? If Egypt's transition goes badly? Right now, coming up with tough questions is a lot easier than providing answers.
Here's the video of a Bloggingheads discussion I had Friday with Issandr el-Amrani, an FP contributor who now writes for the Economist and various other outlets, about the wave of revolutions now sweeping the Arab world. Issandr is one of the most knowledgable people I know when it comes to Middle East politics, and his thoughts are well worth your time.
Check it out:
In case there were any remaining question that Seif al-Islam Qaddafi, the scion of Libya's fast-fading leader, is not exactly the brightest star in the galaxy, he dispelled those doubts today by appearing on the Al-Arabiya satellite channel to declare that "everything is normal" in Tripoli even as news outlets reported on growing signs that the Qaddafi family is losing its grip on Libya.
Earlier this week, Seif had invited foreign journalists to the Libyan capital so they could see for themselves just how wonderfully the Qaddafis were handling what he downplayed as the work of foreign-backed, pill-popping Al Qaeda terrorists bent on Libya's destruction.
But correspondents for both Al Arabiya and the New York Times, two news outlets that took up his invitation, managed to break away for their minders and report that all was not, in fact, under control.
The Times' David Kirkpatrick "discovered blocks of the city in open revolt" and spoke with eyewitnesses who told of "snipers and antiaircraft guns firing at unarmed civilians, and security forces were removing the dead and wounded from streets and hospitals, apparently in an effort to hide the mounting toll." Al Arabiya reported that Qaddafi's security forces appeared to be abandoning Tripoli's streets to the rebels. And the Associated Press relayed word that the Libyan regime "passed out guns to civilian supporters, set up checkpoints Saturday and sent armed patrols roving the terrorized capital."
Recent reports from eastern Libya, where Western news organizations have had correspondents for days now, make it clear that the Qaddafis have lost control of everywhere east of Ajbadiya, some 850 kilometers from Tripoli, while the opposition has held onto Misurata, the country's third-largest city, and is closing in on the capital from the west as well. The Qaddafis still have plenty of firepower in Sirt, their home base, and in Tripoli, but their room for maneuver is shrinking rapidly.
So, what was Seif thinking?
Perhaps he thought that the regime really could control the flow of information, present a cleaned-up Potemkin village inside the capital, and earn some goodwill from foreign news organizations by appearing to be cooperative. But nobody's buying the spin, and newspapers and satellite channels have become extremely sophisticated in how they leverage citizen networks in difficult reporting environments. Libyans inside the country are still, miraculously, risking their lives to take gritty cell-phone videos and upload them to Facebook or other social networking sites, where Libyan exiles pick them up, translate and provide context, and pass them along to a broader audience. Activists and journalists have been using tools like Skype to communicate directly with sources in and around Tripoli, and then spreading the news quickly on Twitter.
So, even if Kirkpatrick were stuck being driven around by government minders who only showed him what they wanted him to see, his colleagues in Benghazi and Cairo would still be able to get the real story from brave Libyan eyewitnesses who want the world to hear their story.
Unfortunately for Seif, Kirkpatrick managed to go a step beyond that and even managed to speak with some anti-Qaddafi folks in person:
[A]t another stop, in the neighborhood of Tajoura, journalists stumbled almost accidentally into a block cordoned off by makeshift barriers where dozens of residents were eager to talk about a week of what they said were peaceful protests crushed by Colonel Qaddafi’s security forces with overwhelming, deadly and random force.
A middle-age business owner, who identified himself only as Turkey, said that the demonstrations there had begun last Sunday, when thousands of protesters inspired by the uprising in the east had marched toward the capital’s central Green Square. He said the police had dispersed the crowd with tear gas and then bullets, killing a man named Issa Hatey. [...]
Asked why he and his neighbors were rising up now, after living under Colonel Qaddafi for 42 years, Mr. Turkey, 46, shrugged. “No one can tell the time,” he said. After forty years of pressure, “you explode.” Two funerals were taking place nearby for those who died on Friday, and he said they expected another big protest on Sunday.
It seems hard to imagine the regime can hold out much longer, given how quickly the information walls are coming down, but let's not forget that the Qaddafis have said repeatedly and emphatically that they will fight to the death. Their loyalists have every reason to believe that the rebels -- who say they are preparing to march on Tripoli and liberate the city even if it takes "pilots who are ready to crash their planes in a suicidal way" -- will exact furious retribution after 42 years of tyranny. Expect them to go down swinging.
It's hard to imagine that a Vogue editor woke up this morning and decided it wouldn't be hugely embarrassing to publish a puff piece today, at the moment of the greatest upheaval in the Middle East in two generations, about Syria's ruling family. But that appears to be exactly what happened.
The article does not once mention the protests currently under way in the Middle East, including scattered evidence of demonstrations in Syria. Instead, the article focuses on Syrian first lady Asma Assad -- the "freshest and most magnetic of first ladies," endowed with "[d]ark-brown eyes, wavy chin-length brown hair, long neck, an energetic grace." At a time when other Middle Eastern first ladies, notably Tunisia's Leila Trabelsi, have been the target of protesters' wrath, this may not be the wisest moment for Asma to flaunt her glamour.
One can only assume that the Assads agreed to be interviewed for this piece before the current outbreak of unrest made it embarrassing for both for them, and for Vogue. Still, some of the damage done to the Assads is self-inflicted. In one anecdote, Asma pays a visit to one of the centers run by her NGO, Massar, in the Syrian port city of Latakia -- and promptly lies to the assembled schoolchildren about closing the foundation.
Then she throws out a curve ball. 'I’ve been advised that we have to close down this center so as to open another one somewhere else,' she says. Kids’ mouths drop open. Some repress tears. Others are furious. One boy chooses altruism: 'That’s OK. We know how to do it now; we’ll help them.'
Then the first lady announces, 'That wasn’t true. I just wanted to see how much you care about Massar.'
MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP/Getty Images.
It took a little under a month for Tunisians -- with a vital assist from their military -- to oust Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak went from pillar of stability to disgraced ex-president in just 18 days.
Now, as we enter a seventh day of protests and armed street battles raging across Libya, the unimaginable fall of Muammar al-Qaddafi suddenly seems very imaginable indeed.
So far, ant-government demonstrators have more or less taken over major cities in eastern Libya, including Benghazi, the country's second-largest. The uprising has been bloody: Human Rights Watch reports that as many as 233 people have died, and probably more.
Last night, events seemed to reach a tipping point, as representatives of several large tribes voiced their support for the rebels and several diplomats -- including Libya's envoy to the Arab League and its No. 2 man in China -- resigned in protest.
Then, as protesters reportedly thronged Tripoli's Green Square and marched on Qaddafi's compound, Seif al-Islam Qaddafi, the son of the ruler, appeared on state television, dressed in a black suit and tie and slouching in front of a green map of Africa.
In a bizarre, apparently off-the-cuff speech, Seif accused the protesters of receiving foreign help and seeking to set up "Islamic emirates" in eastern Libya -- that is, when they weren't doing LSD and working with African mercenaries. Warning of a "civil war" in the making, he vowed to fight "until the last man, until the last woman, until the last bullet."
Many things still aren't clear in Libya, where rumors are flying fast and furious and foreign journalists aren't able to operate. Last night, there was a rumor going around Twitter that Qaddafi had fled to Venezuela; Caracas denied it. Another story had it that Seif had been shot by his brother Mutassim, who as the national security advisor theoretically controls large parts of the security apparatus.
Seif's speech was certainly crazy, but he may be right about one thing: There is a nasty internecine conflict on the way in Libya. From all that we've seen, the regime will do anything to stay in power, including shooting people in cold blood with heavy-caliber weapons. It doesn't look like there will be a nice, friendly "let's all hold hands and clean up Tahrir Square" moment. After four decades of unspeakable tyranny, Libyans will be out for vengeance.
For those interested in following events in Libya on Twitter, I've made a list of key sources to follow. Please bear in mind, however, that much of what goes around in hearsay and unconfirmed rumor -- much of it no doubt wrong. Unfortunately, it's the best information we have to go on right now. I'll keep adding good feeds to the list as I find them, and feel free to recommend your own.
Revolutionaries in Benghazi, Libya's second largest city, have taken over a radio station and are broadcasting their message on the Internet. Benghazi has long been a center of dissent against the rule of Muammar al-Qaddafi, who has ruled Libya with a mercurial iron fist for more than four decades.
While it's hard to know what's going on in Libya given the difficulties in reporting there -- the country has no independent press to speak of, basically zero civil society, and is not at all welcoming to foreign journalists -- Libyan exiles have been working hard to get the word out.
The radio commentary itself is gripping, with breathless amateur announcers calling on the international media to cover what "the criminal Qaddafi" is doing and warning fellow Libyans about "foreign mercenaries."
"This is an Arab revolution not just a Libyan revolution. This is a Muslim revolution," I heard one announcer say.
Perhaps the best source in English is the Libya February 17 blog, which is posting videos and short dispatches sourced to Twitter. What seems clear so far is that the government's response to widespread and growing protests has been brutal, with reports of at least 24 deaths so far and likely many more. This is not going to be the kind of peaceful revolution that I witnessed in Cairo.
On June 29, 1996, the Libyan regime of Moammar al-Qaddafi put down a prison revolt with deadly force, killing as many as 1,200 detainees in cold blood with grenades and machine guns. Their bodies have never been found, and the Libyan government has never fully admitted the massacre at Abu Salim Prison, despite the best efforts of witnesses and human rights organizations to document it in grim detail.
Fifteen years later, relatives of the victims are still demanding justice. On Feb. 15, 2 days ahead of a planned nationwide day of protests, the Libyan regime arrested Fatih Tarbel, an advocate for the Abu Salim families -- sparking outraged demonstrations in the coastal city of Benghazi. The BBC says the crowd was about 2,000 people, and activists on Twitter claim that at least 2 people have died.
It's not easy to report in Libya, and details of the protests remain sketchy and hard to confirm. It hasn't helped that some news organizations, such as the Associated Press, have confused what are doubtless orchestrated pro-Qaddafi protests with the genuine outpouring of anger against one of the world's most odious regimes (at one point, Qaddafi himself even said he might demonstrate against the prime minister).
While it's not clear how far the unrest might spread, the mere fact that people are lifting up their heads in a brutal police state like Libya is an incredible testament to human courage. And the swift fall of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in next-door Tunisia is a reminder that even the toughest regimes can prove surprisingly brittle once that mantle of fear is lifted.
The scene in Cairo's Tahrir Square had an aura of finality today, as volunteers dismantled barricades and checkpoints, began packing up their blankets and tents, and prepared to go home. Crowds of Egyptians strolled the square, many of them looking more like tourists as they gawked at the scene of last week's intense battles and took pictures with soldiers and bandaged-up protesters. Others -- some wearing signs saying "Sorry for Disturbance. We Build Egypt" and "Enter Egypt in Peace and Safety" -- brought out brooms, dustpans, and trash bags, sweeping away the piles of garbage and dust that had accumulated over the siege of the past three weeks.
Mohamed Azzam, 33, an unemployed high school graduate, was ebullient about President Hosni Mubarak's departure: "For 7,000 years, we haven't had freedom."
But while Mubarak may have left the scene, the revolution is not quite over.
In its statement this afternoon, the military council that is now governing the country stopped well short of signaling a full transition to democracy. The existing cabinet, for one thing, will stay on for now (one exception is Information Minister Anas el-Fiky, who was reportedly arrested while trying to flee the country). The military did say it would oversee a return to an elected civilian government, but it also urged Egyptians to cooperate with the police -- a despised institution that retains broad, unaccountable powers under Mubarak's emergency law.
Ahmed Naguib, a spokesman for the core group of organizers in Tahrir Square, said glumly that the military's statement was "not a good start." The organizing committee planned to tell people to go home, he said, but would ask the protesters to return to the square every Friday until all of their demands were met. "At least they could have named a new prime minister," he said.
According to the coalition of youth groups who helped staged the "January 25 revolution," as it is now widely being called here, there is still a long way to go. At a press conference at the Journalists' Syndicate in Cairo, representatives of several of them -- including the April 6 Youth Movement, the Justice and Freedom Party, and the Muslim Brotherhood Youth -- laid out their objectives: an end to the emergency law, an interim government of national unity, an anti-corruption drive, accountability for the abuses and violence by police forces and armed thugs over the last few weeks, the immediate release of all political detainees, the dissolution of parliament, complete freedom of the press and association, and committee to write a new constitution.
Mohamed Abbas, 26, said that the youth coalition had begun indirect talks with the military Friday, though he declined to comment on the discussions. Ahmed Maher, the co-founder of the April 6 Youth Movement, said that it was "just the beginning" of the political process and that the protesters had to "keep the pressure" on in order to ensure a transition to an elected civilian government and a new constitution. He said that Ahmed Zewail, an eminent Egyptian-American scientist, was negotiating with the Army on their behalf.
Back in the square, Abdelaziz Abdel Qadr, a 30-year-old Arabic teacher and Muslim Brotherhood supporter, said, "The ball is in the Army's court."
Osama Khalil, a 37-year-old English teacher who had been manning the barricades in Tahrir Square since Jan. 28, said he wasn't leaving until all of the protesters' demands were met. "We don't trust anybody."
Typos corrected, 1:04 p.m., Feb. 14, 2011
Today, here in Cairo, the action began shifting outside Tahrir Square, which remains occupied by thousands of prostesters who insist they won't leave until their demands -- above all the removal of President Hosni Mubarak -- are met.
Vice President Omar Suleiman met with an array of youth activists and opposition figures, among them top members of the Muslim Brotherhood. There are a lot of conflicting reports flying around about the talks, and former IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei wasn't invited to what he called an "opaque" gathering. (His brother Ali emails: "[Omar Suleiman] said he would not talk to Dr. ElBaradei according to the Washington Post because he is not part of the opposition. It just shows how fake and futile this whole process is.")
Suleiman released a carefully crafted statement afterwards that fell well short of meeting the protesters' bottom line, and once again blamed "foreign elements" for stirring up all this trouble. I haven't watched state TV today, but foreign journalists are still being harrassed by plainclothes police types going in and out of Tahrir Square, and Al Jazeera English superstar Ayman Mohyeldin was detained for a few hours today with his hands behind his back, according to fellow journalist Ashraf Khalil.
There's a lot of wiggle room in Suleiman's words, notably in his insistence that "the state of emergency will be lifted based on the security situation and an end to the threats to the security of society" -- the same kind of thing the regime has been saying for the last three decades. Under Egypt's emergency laws, the police can pretty much grab anyone anytime they want, without any real accountability. (For a spot-on description of how the system really works on the ground, read this excellent account by Frederick Bowie.)
Another item, "Media and communications will be liberalized and no extra-legal constraints will be imposed on them," provides no mechanism for ensuring that the commanding heights of the media here -- state television -- will be able to evolve into something resembling objective journalism rather than propaganda. And in an ominous sign of new restrictions yet to come, Internet watchers reported today that Egypt had dramatically data uploads, presumbly to choke off the posting of damning videos from the last few weeks and preserve the ability to do so in the future.
There's no talk of any oversight of the police and security services -- the so-called deep state that has been brutalizing Egyptians for more than 50 years. Perhaps such issues will be addressed by the committee being set up to "study and recommend constitutional amendments, and legislative amendments of laws complimentary to the constitution," but again -- there are no guarantees that the government will take up these "recommendations," or that the committee will include real democrats instead of the usual toadies and hacks.
It's also worth noting that Suleiman has already violated one of the pledges he made, to "immediately release prisoners of conscience of all persuasions." Google executive Wael Ghonim, who has been missing for well over a week now, is mysteriously to be released tomorrow at 4 p.m., according to Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq. Why not now? And without a complete overhaul of the legal system -- the emergency laws especially -- there's nothing to stop him and others from being arbitrarily detained once again.
No question, the protesters have won some important victories: Mubarak and his son are finished in Egyptian politics, and a number of the most corrupt party figures have been cashiered. Tens of thousands of young Egyptians have risked their lives and their livelihoods and inspired the entire world with their courage (this incredible footage of last Friday's epic battle on Qasr el-Nil bridge leading into the square gives you a taste of it). One of the most common phrases you hear in Tahrir Square is "we've regained our dignity" -- the protesters are enormously proud of what they've done, and rightly so.
But there are no signs that the regime is willing to concede any fundamental authority, and plenty of signs that it is trying to tire and isolate the protesters politically, divide opposition movements and groups in order to weaken them, and stall for time in the hopes of going back to business as usual.
Meanwhile, the United States -- perhaps due to inflated fears of an Islamist takeover -- seems willing to preside over the installation of yet another military strongman in Egypt, proving that the cynicism about America that is widely shared on the Egyptian street isn't too far from the mark.
In a seeming tactical victory for the thousands of protesters still occupying Cairo's Tahrir Square, top members of Egypt's ruling party resigned Saturday, according to Egyptian state television.
Safwat el-Sherif, the widely reviled chief of the National Democratic Party, is out, to be replaced by Hossam al-Badrawy, a doctor who was previously the party's secretary for business. Gone, too, is Gamal Mubarak, the president's son, as well as the other four members of the Steering Committee that runs the NDP.
Protesters were clearly not satisfied by the announcement.
"It's a good step, a good tactical gain for the protest movement," said Ghad Party secretary-general Wael Nawara, calling instead for the full dissolution of the NDP. "So far they have not responded to any of our demands," he said. "Instead they have been sacrificing scapegoats."
"It's just a game," said Magdy Soliman, 38, a software engineer who supports former International Energy Agency head Mohamed ElBaradei's National Association for Change. "They're all criminals. From the same gang." (A longtime Egyptian democracy advocate who knows Badrawy well said he was "pretty decent" in comparison to other party figures and had tried to reform the NDP from within, albeit to little discernable effect.)
The news came amid reports, sourced to U.S. and Egyptian officials, that Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman "was exploring a transition of power in which President Hosni Mubarak would give up presidential powers but remain a figurehead until elections are held."
According to the New York Times, the Obama administration has formally backed "a gradual transition" that would involve Suleiman supervising fresh elections in September as Mubarak informally cedes power but does not leave outright.
A group of prominent Egyptians calling itself the "Council of the Wise" is trying to mediate a similar solution between the government and protest leaders, though it's doubtful many of the demonstrators Tahrir Square will accept anything less than Mubarak's outright resignation.
Hassan Nafaa, chairman of the political science department at Cairo University who is in touch with many opposition figures, worried that the loose coalition of groups calling for Mubarak's ouster don't have a coherent game plan. "There is no strategy. Every group has its own perception of the situation, its own dynamics, but I don't think there is any common strategy. They want Mubarak to leave or delegate authority but differ on how to achieve that."
Meanwhile, Mubarak was shown on state television Saturday presiding over a meeting of his economic advisors, and he remains head of the NDP. A number of journalists and activists remain missing, including the bureau chief of Al Jazeera's Arabic channel, presumably swept up by the Egyptian regime's still very active and brutal security apparatus. "There's a new game in town and we don't know the rules," said one Cairo-based analyst whose organization had come under severe pressure in recent days.
At Tahrir Square today, the army took a firmer hand, sending elite reinforcements, manning checkpoints, and pushing protesters to move their makeshift barricades inward. A top Army general appeared and urged the protesters to go home, telling them he respected their right to speak out but said that they were damaging the Egyptian economy.
Outside the area around the square, traffic surged as life began returning to normal. State television appeared to be toning down what Nawara described as a "campaign of terror and xenophobia against foreigners," though the overall depiction of the protesters as wide-eyed radicals bent on destroying Egypt -- with the help of Iran, Israel, and Qatar, no less -- remained in place.
"Given the events of the past 48 hours, the best possible scenario is a slightly more open authoritarian regime. Egypt's democratic moment was thwarted this time," said Joshua Stacher, an assistant professor at Kent State University.
Greetings from the center of the world.
I'm in Cairo, Egypt, where thousands of protesters remain holed up in Tahrir Square in the heart of this city's decaying Beaux-Arts downtown, fighting pitched street battles with pro-regime thugs and defiantly refusing to buckle under, give up, and go home.
I arrived here this afternoon at around 2:30 p.m., after a surprisingly quick ride in from the airport. I found a city that looked largely as it did back in 2005 and 2006, when I lived here as an Arabic student, wannabe journalist, and democracy activist.
There are, of course, some important differences. Commerce has ground to a halt. Army vehicles now dot the major arteries into the city -- I counted at least five armored personnel carriers and five tanks on the way in to downtown -- and the area around Tahrir Square shows the signs of a weeklong siege. There are burned-out wrecks and makeshift barricades at major entrances, which are halfheartedly manned by Army troops. To enter, one must show ID -- presumably one that doesn't say "I'm a police spy" -- and submit to one or more enthusiastic pat-downs by (polite) volunteer guards. But once you're inside, it's generally peaceful, as the raging rock fight near the Egyptian Museum is at the far end of the square, perhaps a quarter-mile away from the main roundabout.
Speaking by phone from Cairo, Human Rights Watch's Joe Stork told me that he is alarmed by the U.S. media coverage portraying the clashes on the streets as spats between "rival protesters" -- citizens who have two different visions of the future of Egypt:
"These are not rival factions. This is brown-shirt tactics. This is the government sending in people -- whether they are paid or not is a very subsidiary question -- sending in thugs armed with knives, stones, sticks, to attack the pro-democracy protesters, who were there in an entirely peaceful manner."
Asked how we can be sure that the pro-government crowds had been sent by the government, Stork cited several bits of evidence, having been in Tahrir Square when the fighting erupted this morning: People he spoke to there mentioned young men being paid as much as $500 to fight for the regime; others who were caught looting were later found to have IDs indicating that they were members of the Ministry of the Interior-controlled security service.
Were this a rival protest, they could easily have gone to one of the many other public squares in Egypt. Instead, the Army began "letting people in [to the square] today who had mayhem on their minds." "Any one of these things is circumstantial," he explained, "but altogether" the conclusion is clear.
Today's crackdown in Tahrir Square is horrific, but can anyone truly claim it's surprising? Journalistic parlance seems to have settled on the word "thug" to describe the attackers, but that seems to me to obscure more than it clarifies: I'm skeptical that a group of mercenaries spontaneously assembled early this morning and instructed itself on the finer points of counterinsurrection. Mubarak's Egypt was a security state, after all. In all likelihood, these are the people who held Mubarak's regime together in the dank corridors of the Interior Ministry, and this is the brutal manner in which they worked. Under Mubarak, menacing peaceful Egyptians had become a promising career path.
If it's hard to imagine that the "thugs" are motivated by ideological conviction -- Mubarak had no basis on which to indoctrinate a Basij or Revolutionary Guard -- it's easy to imagine they're acting out of self-interest and fear. The Egyptian military seems to have a place reserved for itself in whatever new order emerges. But who can say the same for the country's security services? When Egypt's emergency laws are eventually rescinded, who will have use for people practiced in torturing their fellow citizens? The people wielding machetes in Tahrir Square probably have a hazy vision of a future Egypt in search of scapegoats. And they know that there won't be a plane waiting to bring them out of the country, like there will be for Mubarak.
At 11:29 a.m. Cairo time, Egypt's Internet roared back to life Wednesday after more than five days of darkness, and a cacophony of Egyptian voices returned to Twitter, Facebook, and various other social-networking sites to express their anger over last night's speech by President Hosni Mubarak.
The immediate reason for the blackout's end seemed to be the Army's call for demonstrators to return their homes, a message sent to thousands of Egyptian mobile subscribers.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Mubarak supporters hit the streets of Cairo in an ominous sign that the regime was determined to hang on and perhaps exact a measure of vengeance for its humiliation over the last week. Many Egyptian tweeters claimed that the pro-Mubarak demonstrators were motivated by money or were government employees and security forces forced to be there against their will. While Mubarak undoubtedly retains some measure of support, nobody thinks these demos are spontaneous expressions of popular sentiment.
Several news organizations -- CNN, Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, and ABC News, among others -- reported being assaulted or otherwise intimidated by the pro-Mubarak groups, thousands of whom entered Cairo's Tahrir Square shortly before 2 p.m. local time. Lara Setrakian tweeted that it was a "dangerous and combustible situation" in the square, with both sides squaring off against each other and chanting opposing slogans. There are similar reports of clashes in Alexandria.
So now we see the regime's strategy emerging: concede Mubarak's sixth term, divide and conquer the opposition and buy some off with concessions, and send its thugs to intimidate the remaining protesters into going home. The government has made no promises to revoke the hated Emergency Law, and it seems that Mubarak's "constitional reform" will be aimed at allowing his new deputy, Omar Suleiman, to contest this fall's presidential election.
The Wall Street Journal also cleared up a major mystery, shedding some light on the sudden disappearance of the police last Friday:
At 4 p.m., the battles appeared to tip decisively in the protesters' favor. An order came down from Mr. Mubarak to the Minister of Interior, Habib al-Adly to use live ammunition to put down the protests, according to a person familiar with the situation.
Mr. al-Adly passed on the order to his top lieutenant, Gen. Ahmed Ramzy—but Mr. Ramzy refused, according to this person.
"It was a poor assessment of what [orders] his generals would take from him," this person said.
When Mr. Mubarak saw that Mr. Adly wouldn't get the job done, he gave the order for the army to deploy, this person said. Mr. Adly was furious, according to the person. Mr. Adly then gave a sweeping order to pull all police from the streets, from lowly traffic monitors, to prison guards, to the vast armies of truncheon-wielding riot police that had been a ubiquitous presence around Egypt for decades.
"That withdrawal was a disastrous mistake," said Fuad Allam, a former commander of the country's internal security forces. "You just can't do that."
The deployment orders caught the military by surprise, according to soldiers.
"No one expected it," a junior officer said on Monday. "The order came and four hours later we were on the streets."
This story offers a slight twist on the going rope-a-dope theory -- that Mubarak ordered the police to disappear in order to create enough chaos to scare middle- and upper-class Egyptians into supporting a return of order and stability. In the WSJ's version, which seems very well sourced, it was the Interior Minstry itself that launched this strategy in a bid to show Mubarak that it was still essential to his regime.
This could get very ugly indeed. As I write, pro- and anti-Mubarak demonstrators look like they are about to rumble in Tahrir Square. The results could be very bloody -- just as Mubarak & co. intend.
UPDATE: It has indeed gotten bloody, with pitched battles in the square between the two sides. In a surreal moment, pro-Mubarak thugs rode into the square atop horses, camels, and donkeys. I am not joking. More later.
As hundreds of thousands of angry protesters mobbed downtown Cairo to denounce his 30-year rule, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak delivered an utterly unapologetic speech Tuesday evening, vowing to safeguard his country's stability and security while announcing that he would not seek a 6th term.
Defending his record and saying he would "die on Egyptian soil," Mubarak indicated that he he had no intention of following the example of former Tunisian president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and fleeing ignominiously into exile.
Almost immediately, the demonstrators in Tahrir Square renewed their calls for his ouster, rejecting his bid to remain in office for another few months. It seems that Mubarak has made yet another mistake, one that may ultimately lead him to share Ben Ali's fate. So what were his biggest blunders?
1. Failing to spread the wealth. Egypt's economy as a whole has grown by a respectable amount, but most Egyptians don't feel they've gotten their fair share. Instead, they see wealthy businessman with ties to the ruling National Democratic Party stealing the country's riches.
2. Allowing corruption to pervade Egyptian life. If there's one thing Egyptians complain about, it's the grand and petty corruption that makes it nearly impossible for anyone in the country to make an honest living. Getting anything done requires a bribe (the infamous baksheesh) and/or connections (wasta), and high-level embezzlement is rampant.
3. The vision thing. Say what you want about Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat, but Mubarak's two predecessors knew where they wanted to take the country and had a plan for getting there. Nasser wanted to create a pan-Arab union under the banner of socialism and non-alignment, while Sadat sought to regain Egypt's martial pride before making peace with Israel and joining the West. As for Mubarak, what does he offer Egyptians? Crumbling infrastructure, decaying socio-economic conditions, and utter fealty to the United States.
4. Half-hearted reforms. Egyptians have grown rightly cynical at their-government's on-again off-again reform efforts, characterized by unpersuasive propaganda or Orwellian doublespeak. When they hear the word "reform," Egyptians look for the catch, such as the constitutional amendment that more or less bars independent candidates from contesting the presidency.
5. Grooming Gamal. If there's one thing nearly all Egyptians agree on, it's that they don't want to be ruled by Mubarak's British-educated son. Over the last decade, Gamal played an increasingly visible role in setting domestic policy, tying his fortunes to unpopular liberal economic reforms and wealthy businessmen who are seen as corrupt and out of touch with ordinary Egyptians. Some of the most popular chants at demonstrations in recent years were variants of "No to inheritence!"
6. Underestimating the activists. Clearly, the Interior Ministry and the police were not prepared for the surge of protesters that first hit the streets on January 25. Accustomed to small demonstrations organized by Egypt's utterly inept, fractious opposition parties, the security forces clearly expected more of the same. But the organizers behind the current uprising are networked, tech-savvy young people who obviously know how to connect with their audience and get the word out. They're not from the political parties. The police were clearly rocked back on their heels, exhausted, and outmaneuvered last Friday -- and that's when the army had to step in.
7. Cheating too much. In most of the parliamentary contests during his 30 year reign, Mubarak has allowed a token number of seats to go to opposition parties. But in the 2010 elections, the NDP's rigging got out of control, leaving only a handful of seats for the coopted Wafd Party. The Muslim Brotherhood was shut out, leaving it with no stake in the government and the patronage opportunities that go along with representation in parliament.
8. Sending in the thugs. After the police forces mysteriously dissolved Friday, reports came streaming in of looters attacking people in the streets, breaking into shops and homes, and otherwise intimidating ordinary Egyptians. Many of these thugs were found to be carrying police or state security IDs. If Mubarak's hope was to drive the middle class back into the loving arms of the state, it seems he badly miscalculated -- the protests have only gotten bigger since then.
9. Bringing in his cronies. Despite his Friday speech vowing to enact various unspecified political and constitutional reforms, Mubarak named his spy chief Omar Suleiman his vice president, dumped his cabinet, and named a retired Air Force general as his prime minister. Opposition leaders and analysts rightly interpreted this as a sign of business as usual.
This is hardly an exhaustive list, and I imagine Mubarak will make a few more major mistakes in the days ahead. What do you all think he got wrong? Please weigh in below.
Sitting at my desk in Washington, scanning the latest photos from Tahrir Square streaming in and reading live blogs that pull together the latest disparate strands of information, I can't help but wonder whether I know more about the protests happening in Cairo than the reporters who are actually there. That's how I sometimes felt, at least, when I was in Tehran in 2009 covering the Iranian presidential elections and their alternately inspiring and bloody aftermath. Observing an incipient revolution on the ground wasn't always clarifying so much as it was harrowing and confusing and exhausting.
I wonder how much work reporters in Egypt have had to devote to mitigating the dangers and intimidation suddenly associated with their jobs. The Iranian government rescinded all press passes the day after the 2009 election and were eager to arrest journalists thereafter on charges of espionage: it seems that in the early days of the Egyptian protests, security services were similarly targeting journalists, though that may no longer be an issue. I'd guess that only a fraction of the correspondents in Cairo right now are credentialed, but the Egyptian government seems to have deteriorated to such a point that there's probably little danger involved in filing stories.
But that begs the question of how to file at all after the government's shut down all Internet and mobile phone communications. It's easy to feel adrift when the modern correspondent's toolkit of laptop, cell phone and digital camera is suddenly and completely rendered useless. Any reporter worth his or her salt is going to find a way to get the story out, but it may involve risks that aren't calculated in advance. When the adrenaline subsides, paranoia can begin to cloud one's thoughts. Am I being monitored? Which of these protesters I'm interviewing are actually plainclothes police? The technological isolation also produces a certain practical myopia: it's hard to know if you're ever reporting at the right place at the right time.
But there are advantages to myopia as well. On the ground, reporters can observe the motley collection of personal motivations being expressed in these public events. The political upshot of the Green Revolution was to challenge the legitimacy of the Iranian theocracy. But the individual protesters I encountered were most often motivated by a longing for dignity, a concept that is not strictly political: many told me about their economic frustrations, others about grievances against the regime that they had harbored for years or decades, still others told me they were seeking to test their manhood. No one mentioned geopolitics, or the support or lack thereof of President Obama. (Who would choose to risk their lives for the sake of the president of another country?) Outside observers inevitably see too much of themselves and their own ideas in these stories.
It's clear that the Egyptians have done something politically momentous, but that doesn't mean they calculated its political import. Before we interpret what the Egyptians have done, we should try to listen to what they have to say, even -- especially -- if it's not yet what we want to hear.
ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
If, like me, you are obsessively following the unfolding drama in Egypt, there's no better medium than Twitter, where you can get 140-character dispatches from foreign journalists and Egyptians on the ground (at least, those that still somehow have Internet access), as well as curators and analysts watching the action from afar. Here are some, but by no means all, of my proven providers (it's also light on Egyptians right now since few seem to have Internet access at the moment):
Abeer Allam - Egyptian-born FT correspondent in Riyadh
Sandmonkey - Foul-mouthed Egyptian blogger
Hossam El-Hamalawy - Blogger and labor activist
Alaa Abd Al Fattah - Blogger and tech activist based in South Africa
Gamal Eid - Human rights activist
Khaled Abol Naga - Egyptian actor
Sharif Kouddous - Egyptian-American producer for Democracy Now
Ramy Raoof - Human rights activist and blogger
Gigi Ibrahim - Socialist activist
Amr El Beleidy - Travel writer cum activist
Mo-ha-med - Economic consultant
Zeinobia - Egyptian blogger
Journos on the ground:
Al Arabiya - Breaking news from the Arab satellite network
Ashraf Khalil - top-notch senior journalist for Al-Masry Al-Youm
Issandr Amrani - dean of the Cairo press corps
Ben Wedemann - veteran Middle East correspondent for CNN
Nic Robertson - CNN reporter in Alexandria
Frederick Pleitgen - CNN reporter in Cairo
Jan25voices - phoned-in tweets from Egypt
Curators and analysts:
Sultan al-Qassemi - columnist for Abu Dhabi's the National
Brian Whitaker - Guardian editor
Katherine Maher - tech and civil society expert with the National Democratic Institute
Dan Murphy - Christian Science Monitor journalist, former Cairo correspondent
Michael Wahid Hanna - Century Foundation analyst
Steve Cook - CFR analyst
Pomed Wire - Project on Middle East Democracy
Marc Lynch - FP blogger, GW professor
Daniel Serwer - Middle East expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace
Max Fisher - Atlantic editor
Andy Carvin - Senior strategist at NPR
Tom Gara - Quick-witted financial journalist living in Dubai, Egypt experience
Joshua Stacher - Professor at Kent State University with extensive knowledge of the Muslim Brotherhood
Nasser Weddady - Mauritanian activist living in Boston
Ammar Abdulhamid - Syrian activist living in Washington
Jacob Appelbaum - Cyberactivist monitoring the Egyptian Internet
Kim Ghatttas - BBC State Department correspondent
In a few minutes, according to Al Arabiya, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak will speak and offer a "solution" to his country's unrest -- perhaps by agreeing not to run in this September's upcoming presidential election. Such an announcement would be an epic moment for the Middle East, and for Mubarak, who once said he would serve as Egypt's president "until my last breath."
Meanwhile, the New York Times is reporting that U.S. President Barack Obama -- through retired diplomat Frank Wisner -- has told Mubarak he shouldn't run again:
Mr. Wisner’s message, [American diplomats in Cairo and Washington] said, was not a blunt demand for Mr. Mubarak to step aside now, but firm counsel that he should make way for a reform process that would culminate in free and fair elections in September to elect a new Egyptian leader. [...]
His mission was to “keep a conversation going,” according to a close friend of Mr. Wisner’s.
As a result, this person said, the administration’s first message to the Egyptian leader was not that he had to leave office, but rather that his time in office was quickly coming to a close. Mr. Wisner, who consulted closely with the White House, is expected to be the point person to deal with Mr. Mubarak as the situation evolves, and perhaps as the administration’s message hardens.
More to come soon, but my strong hunch is that the protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square will be satisfied by nothing less than Mubarak's ouster. The Washington Post's Jackson Diehl relayed via Twitter that Mubarak actually refused Wisner's counsel, and the LA Times quotes a source saying that Wisner's message was "plainly rebuffed."
If it's indeed true that Mubarak is announcing that he won't seek a 6th term -- and nobody other than Al Arabiya is reporting that right now [UPDATE: Now Egyptian state TV says it will be a statement, not a speech] -- it's more than a little awkward that U.S. officials have already leaked his decision to the New York Times. Not that I have much sympathy for the old tyrant, but I don't think the Obama team wants to be seen dictating the course of events.
That said, if Mubarak does indeed announce his retirement tonight, you can expect some fingerpointing at Obama for "losing" a key U.S. ally, thanklessly "throwing him under the bus," and so on.
I wonder if the people making that argument will have the courage to spell out what itimplies: They would have preferred to see the Egyptian police and military kill and injure more peaceful demonstrators on the streets of a major Arab capital, on international satellite television, using U.S.-made weapons.
Because let's be honest: that's what it would have taken for Mubarak to remain in power. His military was refusing to enforce a curfew or fire on protesters; his police had mysteriously fled after brutally attacking them. The morality of this position aside, can you imagine the kind of blowback the United States would face in the Arab world, let alone everywhere else?
MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images
With the announcement today of his new cabinet, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak all but confirmed that he sees the current unrest sweeping across his country primarily as a security matter, not an issue that demands political reform.
Let's look at his appointments. His new vice president is Omar Suleiman, his longtime spy chief, a man distinguished by his unstinting loyalty to the boss. The new prime minister is Ahmed Shafiq, an Air Force veteran who previously ran the civil aviation ministry. The new interior minister, retired police general Mahmoud Wagdy, last ran Egypt's vast prison system. This is not a government of reformers.
In fact, the reformers -- Ahmed Nazif, Rashid Mohamed Rashid, Youssef Boutros-Ghali -- won't be in the new government. Although Al Arabiya reported that the latter two ministers refused to join, it's also possible that Mubarak wanted to send a signal that he blamed their economic liberalization policies for stirring up unrest.
What's clear is that Mubarak's son Gamal, who was close to the technocrats and was widely thought to have been angling for the presidency, is finished in Egyptian politics. Nobody has seen him for days, and there are rumors that he's fled to London along with his mother Suzanne and brother Alaa.
The other half of Mubarak's strategy is to scare Egypt's upper and middle classes into demanding a return of stability. On Friday, police forces mysteriously disappeared and thousands of prisoners suddenly escaped from several facilities. Reports of chaos and looting in the streets dominated state television, while the army did little to provide security beyond protecting government buildings. Neighborhoods have set up local watch groups, grabbing makeshift weapons like kitchen knives, baseball bats, and even, I saw in one report, lacrosse sticks.
Will it work? I doubt it. Mubarak's legitimacy seems utterly depleted. Ordinarily, the regime would stage counterdemonstrations to show that it still has support. On Sunday, a host on Al Jazeera English challenged Mohamed Ragab, a backbencher from the ruling party, to back up his claim that "millions and millions" of Egyptians still support Mubarak. He couldn't do it.
The opposition has called for a million-man show of strength in downtown Cairo Tuesday, while the regime has shut down the train system in what looks like a desperate attempt to deny the protesters reinforcements. But Cairo is a city of 20 million people, many of whom are already defying the military's half-hearted attempts to enforce a 3 p.m. curfew tonight. Tomorrow's demonstrations could be truly huge.
Hosni may indeed limp along for a little while longer. But I doubt anyone is betting that he'll be there for the long haul.
UPDATE: The Egyptian army has issued an unusual statement saying it "will not resort to use of force against our great people."
"Your armed forces," the statement continued, "who are aware of the legitimacy of your demands and are keen to assume their responsibility in protecting the nation and the citizens, affirms that freedom of expression through peaceful means is guaranteed to everybody."
A lot of people are interpreting this as the army signaling that it is with the protesters and against Mubarak. I think that may be premature, but only slightly. Suleiman just appeared on television and said the government would take a look at complaints about last fall's parliamentary elections -- another attempt to buy off more moderate demonstrators (and rather meaningless as most of the problems came in runoff elections between "official" NDP candidates and "unofficial" NDP candidates). Meanwhile, both the EU and the United States are now calling for a "transition" -- i.e. goodbye Hosni. But he's a stubborn old man. Let's see what happens tomorrow.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, remarks with Spanish foreign minister, January 25:
QUESTION: [T]here are some major demonstrations in Egypt today, and I'm wondering if there is concern in Washington about the stability of the Egyptian Government, of course, a very valuable ally of the United States?
SECRETARY CLINTON: With respect to Egypt, which, as your question implied, like many countries in the region, has been experiencing demonstrations. We know that they've occurred not only in Cairo but around the country, and we're monitoring that very closely. We support the fundamental right of expression and assembly for all people, and we urge that all parties exercise restraint and refrain from violence. But our assessment is that the Egyptian Government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people.
President Barack Obama, State of the Union address, January 25:
And we saw that same desire to be free in Tunisia, where the will of the people proved more powerful than the writ of a dictator. And tonight, let us be clear: The United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of all people.
White House press secretary statement, January 25:
As we monitor the situation in Egypt, we urge all parties to refrain from using violence, and expect the Egyptian authorities to respond to any protests peacefully. We support the universal rights of the Egyptian people, including the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly. The Egyptian government has an important opportunity to be responsive to the aspirations of the Egyptian people, and pursue political, economic and social reforms that can improve their lives and help Egypt prosper. The United States is committed to working with Egypt and the Egyptian people to advance these goals.
More broadly, what is happening in the region reminds us that, as the President said in Cairo, we have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and free of corruption; and the freedom to live as you choose - these are human rights and we support them everywhere.
Clinton, remarks with Jordanian foreign minister, January 26:
SECRETARY CLINTON: Before I talk about our meeting today, I want to say a word about the protests taking place in Cairo and other Egyptian cities. As we monitor this situation carefully, we call on all parties to exercise restraint and refrain from violence. We support the universal rights of the Egyptian people, including the rights to freedom of expression, association, and assembly. And we urge the Egyptian authorities not to prevent peaceful protests or block communications, including on social media sites.
We believe strongly that the Egyptian Government has an important opportunity at this moment in time to implement political, economic, and social reforms to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people. The United States is committed to working with Egypt and with the Egyptian people to advance such goals. As I said recently in Doha, people across the Middle East, like people everywhere, are seeking a chance to contribute and have a role in the decisions that affect their lives. And as the President said in his State of the Union yesterday night, the United States supports the democratic aspirations of all people.
When I was recently in the region, I met with a wide range of civil society groups, and I heard firsthand about their ideas, which were aimed at improving their countries, of giving more space and voice to the aspirations for the future. We have consistently raised with the Egyptian Government over many years, as well as other governments in the region, the need for reform and greater openness and participation in order to provide a better life, a better future, for the people.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. Madam Secretary, I'd like to follow up on your opening statement on Egypt. In Tunisia, the United States was quick to support the aspirations of the protestors. Will the United States support the aspirations of the Egyptian protestors? Mr. Minister, is Jordan worried about these protests spreading elsewhere in the region? Madam Secretary, there are reports already that Egypt has shut down Twitter and Facebook. Do you plan to bring this up with the Egyptian Government directly?
And if I may stay in the region on behalf of a colleague and go a little further south - (laughter) - to Sudan, your meeting later today with the foreign minister of Sudan. Is the United States ready at this point to take them off the terror list? Thank you.
SECRETARY CLINTON: I hope I'm awake enough to remember all those questions.
FOREIGN MINISTER JUDEH: I remember mine.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Good, good. (Laughter.)
Well, first, let me say clearly the United States supports the aspirations of all people for greater freedom, for self-government, for the rights to express themselves, to associate and assemble, to be part of the full, inclusive functioning of their society. And of course, that includes the Egyptian people. I think that what the President said last night in the State of the Union applies not only to Tunisia, not only to Egypt, but to everyone. And we are particularly hopeful that the Egyptian Government will take this opportunity to implement political, economic, and social reforms that will answer the legitimate interests of the Egyptian people. And we are committed, as we have been, to working toward that goal with Egyptian civil society, with the Egyptian Government, with the people of that great country.
With respect to the Egyptian Government, I do think it's possible for there to be reforms, and that is what we are urging and calling for. And it is something that I think everyone knows must be on the agenda of the government as they not just respond to the protest, but as they look beyond as to what needs to be done economically, socially, politically. And there are a lot of very well informed, active civil society leaders in Egypt who have put forward specific ideas for reform, and we are encouraging and urging the Egyptian Government to be responsive to that.
P.J. Crowley, press briefing, January 26:
QUESTION: P.J., on Egypt, are you aware of reports that a number of journalists have been detained, some of them roughed up, by Egyptian police in trying to cover the demonstrations? And if you are, what do you make of this?
MR. CROWLEY: We are aware that certain reporters have been detained, I think a couple of AP reporters in particular. We have raised this issue already with the ministry of foreign affairs and we will continue to monitor these cases until they are successfully resolved.
QUESTION: Okay. And when you say you've raised the issue with the ministry of foreign affairs, does that mean you've said that you expect that these people will be released or that they will be treated well?
MR. CROWLEY: We are calling for the release of journalists, yes. Absolutely, and we will continue to raise this with the Egyptian Government if it is not quickly resolved.
QUESTION: Okay. And then more broadly, the Egyptians say that they've arrested close to - I think it's close to a thousand people now. What about those people?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, as the Secretary made clear in her remarks earlier today, we believe it's vitally important for Egypt to respect the universal right of its people to freedom of assembly, freedom of expression, the right to peacefully protest. Our Ambassador, Margaret Scobey, had a meeting today with the Egyptian Government. She expressed our concern about the situation and the need for the Egyptian Government to demonstrate restraint. She also raised the issue of interference with social media. Internet freedom is just as important as a citizen's right to enter a city square or criticize the government without fear of reprisal.
QUESTION: When you say that Scobey met with the - who did she meet with?
MR. CROWLEY: She met with the Minister of State for Legislative and Parliamentary Affairs Moufid Shehab.
Goyal. Oh, I should mention one thing. Assistant Secretary Jeff Feltman left Tunisia today. He's now in Paris conferring with his counterpart within the French Government. But he met today with civil society representatives and had a press conference with Tunisian media. And that's the latest on him as well.
QUESTION: Are there any plans for him to go to Egypt?
MR. CROWLEY: Hmm?
QUESTION: Any plans for him to go to Egypt?
MR. CROWLEY: I don't think so. I think he's coming back here tomorrow. I think there's a conference later this week on Iraq that he plans to attend.
QUESTION: I'm sorry. He's in Paris talking about what? About Lebanon or Tunisia?
MR. CROWLEY: He's meeting with his counterpart. I have no doubt that the bulk of the conversation will be on Lebanon.
QUESTION: Just on the reform issue with the Secretary this morning and the statement last night --
MR. CROWLEY: But yeah, I think he'll also talk about Tunisia.
QUESTION: -- was talking about that now's a good time for Mubarak maybe to move ahead with some reforms. And you talked broadly about the political, economic, social opportunity. Does the U.S. Government have any specific ideas about political reforms, which might improve the situation in Egypt, and are you making those suggestions to them?
MR. CROWLEY: This is a conversation that we've had with Egypt for some time. We do believe that political reform is important for Egypt, just as it's important for other countries in the region. We have long called for Egypt to create greater space for broader participation in its political process. Our concern and the fact that we have raised this issue with Egypt is longstanding, actually.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, press gaggle, January 26:
Q Robert, last night you issued a statement calling on the Egyptian authorities to allow peaceful assembly. Today, as you've seen, they've banned gatherings and they've cracked down on Twitter and Facebook. What is your response to that? And my second question is, do you still back Hosni Mubarak?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, obviously we are monitoring quite closely the situation in Egypt and continue to do so, obviously, in Tunisia. You heard the President speak about universal rights last night in the State of the Union.
We continue to believe, first and foremost, that any of the parties -- all of the parties should refrain from violence. We support, as the President mentioned last night about the people of Tunisia, the universal rights of the people of Egypt. And this is an important time for the government to demonstrate its responsiveness to the people of Egypt in recognizing those universal rights.
So we're going to continue to monitor the situation. I got a couple updates very early this morning, and we'll try to get more as we go along the day.
Q But do you believe they should lift the ban on protests? Should they allow these demonstrations to go ahead as long as they're peaceful?
MR. GIBBS: Again, yes, we are supportive of the universal right for assembly and speech. Those are universal values.
Again, I think we would stress quite clearly, for all involved, that expression should be free of violence. Again, we're working with -- obviously we have a close and important ally in Egypt and they will continue to be.
Q And as you stand today, you still back President Mubarak?
MR. GIBBS: Again, Egypt is a strong ally.
Crowley, press briefing, January 27:
QUESTION: Egypt. Does the U.S. Government have any view about the return of former IAEA Director General Mohamed elBaradei to Egypt.
MR. CROWLEY: This is a matter for the Egyptian people and how they view his return.
QUESTION: Would you like to see more potential political candidates showing up in Egypt?
MR. CROWLEY: We would like to see political reform in Egypt, as we've made clear for a number of years, and a broader opportunity for people to participate in the political process in Egypt. How that - what that actually means in terms of who might run for what office, that's, again, a matter for the Egyptian people.
QUESTION: Was there a particular significance to Secretary Clinton's language yesterday when she said that "Egypt had an opportunity for political, economic, and social reform at this moment in time"? Normally, your exhortations for political reforms in other countries, and particularly in Egypt, are much less specific in terms of time. Was she trying to signal a particular urgency because of the protests?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, this is actually not necessarily a new issue. We've had - this has been part -
QUESTION: I didn't say it was a new issue.
MR. CROWLEY: Well, I know that. And -
QUESTION: Then why are you saying it's not a new issue? I didn't say it was, right?
MR. CROWLEY: Let me continue.
QUESTION: Please do.
MR. CROWLEY: This is an issue that we have talked at length with Egypt for quite some time. We have made investments over the years to try to help expand Egyptian civil society. Clearly, what you are seeing this week is very significant public protests in Egypt. As the Secretary made clear, we want to see Egyptian authorities allow and enable those protests to occur peacefully. We've also made clear that we want to make sure that there's no interference with the opportunity for the Egyptian people to use social media. But to the extent that we obviously see that, country by country across the region, people are watching what has happened in Tunisia, country by country, population by population, they are drawing lessons from what is happening.
Now, what happens going forward will be something that develops indigenously, country by country. We're not looking at this as - there's a regional dynamic, if you will, in the sense that many - as the Secretary said in her speech in Doha, across the region from the Middle East to North Africa, countries do face similar demographic challenges - young populations, highly educated, very motivated, looking for jobs, looking for opportunities, and quite honestly, frustrated by, depending on the country, what they see as a lack of opportunity. This is bringing more people out into streets. This is bringing forward public calls for a greater dialogue, greater opportunity. And the Secretary, given what we are seeing and observing in Egypt, was responding to current events.
QUESTION: So that phrase implies that she does indeed see a greater - see the need for reform with greater urgency because of the protests and violence?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, because of - everyone has been watching what's happening in Tunisia, drawing lessons from what's happening in Tunisia, it has created an opportunity. It's an opportunity that presents itself in Egypt. It's an opportunity that presents itself in Yemen. And we believe that governments need to take advantage of this opportunity to expand their dialogue with their populations and respond to the aspirations of their people.
QUESTION: Wouldn't you have preferred - I mean, presumably they've had this opportunity for many years, not just in the last three, four weeks. Wouldn't it have been better if these governments had taken advantage of this - of these important opportunities before blood was shed in the streets?
MR. CROWLEY: Well - and obviously, we deplore the deaths that have occurred among protesters and the security forces. I mean, I think we need to be careful here. Obviously, there is a dynamic that is underway within the region. But the - what happens from this point forward will rely on indigenous actions that happen country by country. The solution in Tunisia is not the solution in Egypt is not the solution in Yemen. And yet because people are observing what's happening, they're reacting to what's happening, it is an important moment for these countries to find ways to respond. And that was the message that the Secretary gave to leaders in Doha. And we're clearly seeing that there's an opportunity here, and it will be best for these countries if they actively respond at this time to obvious concerns and the voices of their people.
QUESTION: All right. And so you --
QUESTION: Are you simply telling the Egyptian Government that you need to reform to stay in power? Are you getting --
MR. CROWLEY: No.
QUESTION: -- that specific?
MR. CROWLEY: This should happen because it's important for these countries to reform and evolve. This has not happened because we, the United States, are telling any country what to do. We see a dynamic in the region, as the Secretary said. The status quo in the Middle East and North Africa is not sustainable. The fact is that they have young populations that are looking for more than their respective countries and governments are currently giving them. And it is better for governments to respond when moments like this occur.
So we think that this can happen, change can happen, in a stable environment. In fact, if you look at Tunisia, even though protests do continue, in order to get to where the people of Tunisia want to go - to credible peaceful elections - you're going to have to have calm in society so that these events can be generated. Jeff Feltman is on his way back from Paris and will be looking at how can we contribute expertise to help build a credible process so the Tunisian people can have the opportunities - opportunity to influence their future. But obviously, it has to be a peaceful environment for things like this to occur.
QUESTION: P.J., that was a fine answer, but I'm not sure it was the answer to Lachlan's question. (Laughter.) His question was are you telling the Egyptian Government --
MR. CROWLEY: I heard fine answer.
QUESTION: Are you telling the Egyptian Government that they need to adopt reform? That was his question.
MR. CROWLEY: No, we're --
QUESTION: And - hold on a second. As the Secretary said yesterday --
MR. CROWLEY: Well, as a friend, we're --
QUESTION: Wait, wait, wait --
MR. CROWLEY: We're offering our advice to Egypt. But what they do is up to them.
QUESTION: Well, fair enough. But what the Secretary said yesterday was reform must be on the agenda for the Egyptian Government. How is that not telling them that they should reform, enact reforms?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, we're giving Egypt and other countries our best advice.
QUESTION: Okay. So you are telling them that they should reform.
MR. CROWLEY: Well, we're - no, I didn't hear that. I thought - I thought was there a particular - was there something in particular that we wanted to see Egypt do.
QUESTION: I think the transcript will reflect that what Lachlan asked was: Are you urging the Egyptian Government to reform to stay in power?
QUESTION: That's correct.
MR. CROWLEY: This is not an either/or proposition. It's not up to us to determine who, in the future, will lead the people of Egypt. That is a choice for the people of Egypt. We want to see political, economic, and social reform that opens up the opportunity for Egyptian people, just as the people of other countries, to more significantly influence who will lead their country in the future and the direction of that country and the opportunities generated in that country.
QUESTION: Could you be a little more specific, like would you recommend that they hold elections the way the Tunisians are heading, that they need some credible elections after the ones in November that you didn't like?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, again, that's an important distinction. We encourage reform. We want to see greater opportunity generated. How that happens will be something that develops country by country. We are willing, as a partner and a friend and an ally of Egypt, to help in that process if Egypt is willing. But as the Secretary said, we definitely believe that reform is needed. No question about that.
QUESTION: But are you talking about elections with them? Are you getting that specific?
MR. CROWLEY: We have always talked to Egypt about elections and the character of the elections that they have had and concerns that we've had about who gets to run and the dynamic and the environment surrounding elections.
QUESTION: And in light of the --
MR. CROWLEY: We did not hesitate earlier this year to express - or last year express our concerns about that.
QUESTION: So you must be urging them to do a better job next time, and you might be telling them maybe to do it sooner rather than later?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, as I said, we're encouraging reform, clearly. But exactly what the government does and how they do it and on what timeline, that is a matter for the government to work with its own population.
QUESTION: All right. And so at the risk of you just dropping the word "Egypt" and substituting "Yemen" in everything you've been saying for the last 15 minutes --
QUESTION: Can I ask - can I stay with Egypt for just one last one?
QUESTION: Well, this is going to be - all right.
QUESTION: I just wanted to follow up on something from yesterday. You mentioned that there were several overtures from U.S. officials to the Egyptian Government about the detention of journalists and about stopping social media sites. I was curious if you were satisfied with any --
MR. CROWLEY: I believe the journalists have been released, by the way.
QUESTION: -- satisfied with any response that you - or reaction that you've seen from the Egyptian Government since then.
MR. CROWLEY: I mean, at this point, I did ask if we had any high-level conversations with Egypt over the last couple of days. I'm not aware of any. Our interaction has primarily been through the Embassy. But I'm not aware that we've had any particular feedback from Egypt at this point.
QUESTION: Okay. No, but in their actions, I guess I was referring to, regarding the detention of journalists that they --
MR. CROWLEY: Like I say, I can't speak for whatever discussions have happened with the government and our ambassador and embassy staff in Cairo, but I believe I saw a report earlier today that my counterpart in Egypt, or one of my counterparts in Egypt, has acknowledged that there is a need for a dialogue with those who are protesting. And that would be the kind of thing that we would encourage.
Gibbs, press briefing, January 27:
Q And in Egypt, street protests are continuing. Former IAEA chief ElBaradei has returned to the country and is calling for Mubarak to step down. How would the -- does the administration see ElBaradei as a viable alternative to Mubarak?
MR. GIBBS: Well, let's broaden the discussion and have a little bit of a discussion about some of the events in Egypt. First and foremost -- and I said this yesterday, but I want to reiterate it -- that there's an obligation by the government not to engage in violence. There's an obligation by those that are protesting not to engage in violence by burning government buildings. So, first and foremost, this is a process that should be conducted peacefully, and that is one of our primary concerns.
I'm not going to get into different personalities except to say that we believe that this represents an opportunity for President Mubarak and for the government of Egypt to demonstrate its willingness to listen to its own people and to devise a way to broaden the discussion and take some necessary actions on political reform. Those are issues that the President talks with President Mubarak about every time they meet, and I doubt that there is a high-level meeting that happens between the two countries in a bilateral nature where those issues aren't brought up.
Q And how concerned is the administration that the unrest, the upheaval in the Middle East, is now spreading to Yemen, which is a key base for al Qaeda?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think it is important not to -- because every country is different and every country is at a different stage in its political development -- to not generalize across the platform. So I think you heard the President talk about the people of Tunisia, and I think myself and the Secretary of State have said quite a bit on Egypt. Again, I hate to generalize across a whole series of countries at different stages in their political development and their history.
Q Just to follow on Egypt, does the White House believe that the Egyptian government is stable?
MR. GIBBS: Yes.
Q So Hosni Mubarak has the full support of the President?
MR. GIBBS: Well, again, Dan, I think it's important to -- this isn't a choice between the government and the people of Egypt. Egypt, we know -- and President Mubarak has for several decades been a close and important partner with our country. And every time the President meets with President Mubarak -- and I would point you to the speech in Cairo in 2009 where the President also specifically addresses this, as well as the readout that we put out on the September meeting that the President had with President Mubarak as part of the Middle East peace process -- that we consistently have advocated for the universal rights of assembly, of free speech, of political reform. All of those are important and we have at every turn encouraged President Mubarak to find a way to engender that political discourse in a positive way. And we will continue to do that.
Q On Egypt, Mubarak has been the leader of Egypt and the United States has worked with him for a very long time. By not vocally supporting him but simply saying we support the people of Egypt, is that sending a message to the people who are out there protesting against him that they should just go full-bore and is that going to inflame the situation? And is that what the President is trying to do?
MR. GIBBS: No, again, I --
Q It sounds like he's being tossed aside to a lot of people.
MR. GIBBS: No, no, again, it's what I said to Dan, Chip. This isn't -- our government and this administration and I presume previous administrations aren't here to pick the leaders of countries over the people of those countries. We stand for the universal rights that are enshrined in our Constitution and what led our country to be created more than two centuries ago. We think that and believe strongly that those rights are held by those throughout the world.
Just recently when President Hu was here, the President discussed universal rights. We do not see this as a choice between one or the other, and I don't believe it should be. We think that -- again, he is a close and important partner.
Q He is?
MR. GIBBS: He is. And every time the two meet the President talks about the steps that he believes that President Mubarak should be taking to have that fuller conversation and to make some important reforms as it relates to political freedoms, we believe -- and they'll have an opportunity to do this later this year -- to have free and fair elections. We believe that the emergency law that's been largely in place since 1981 should be lifted, and spoke out in a statement by me that its extension was not a good thing. It gives the government obviously extra judicial powers, which we don't find to be necessary.
So all of these things we will continue to push and prod President Mubarak on in order, again, to create a situation peacefully -- peacefully -- and I think that needs to be underscored, both the government and the protesters -- to get into a place where a political dialogue can take place.
Q Since he has been so heavy-handed for so many years and you are saying that the most important thing here is adherence to international human rights or the international rights of the people of Egypt, would it be a good thing if he were overthrown?
MR. GIBBS: I'm not going to get into picking the leaders of Egypt and that's not what the government of this country does. Again, I think that what is important is we can -- President Mubarak and those that seek greater freedom of expression, greater freedom to assemble, should be able to work out a process for that happening in a peaceful way.
Q The perception by many on the ground in Egypt is the United States is taking sides here -- not with Mubarak, but with the people out there protesting. Is that accurate?
MR. GIBBS: Again, I'll say this for the third time. This is not about taking sides. This is not about choosing --
Q But I'm saying the perception there is that you're taking sides.
MR. GIBBS: Well, let me try it a fourth time. This is not about taking sides. So I hope you'll perceive to them that, again --
Q We don't perceive -- they perceive from you, not us.
MR. GIBBS: Well, I hope you'll play each of the four times in which I said it's not a choice that you make.
Q And one other question on this --
MR. GIBBS: Because, again, let me just -- when President Mubarak was in the Oval Office in September, these were issues that were brought up. When the President spoke with President Mubarak around the events that were taking place in Tunisia -- again, go to the readout that we put out about that. It's very explicit that the President talked about the political reforms that have for quite some time needed to take place in Egypt.
So this is a sustained and important message that we want to deliver to President Mubarak, to the government of Egypt, and we think they have an important role to play.
Q There are some analysts who believe the President is expressing that message much more forcefully now than, for example, he did during the Iran uprising; that he was a bit slow and cautious then in supporting the people out in the streets but he's not now.
MR. GIBBS: Again, I think our response has been quite similar in speaking out in support of universal rights. The President I know spoke with you all in the Rose Garden prior to the Iranian elections. And, again, as I said earlier, I hate to -- political conditions and development in different countries are different, and I would hate to generalize.
Obama, YouTube interview, January 27:
QUESTION: Over the past few days in Egypt, people have taken to the streets of Cairo and been filming their experiences. A lot of people wrote in from the streets of Cairo wondering your reaction to the events that are taking place there. Kam Hawy wrote in saying: Dear President Obama: Regarding the current situation in the Middle East and Egypt over the past two days, what do you think of the Egyptian government blocking social networks to prevent people from expressing their opinions?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Let me say first of all that Egypt's been an ally of ours on a lot of critical issues: They made peace with Israel; President Mubarak has been very helpful on a range of tough issues in the Middle East. But I've always said to him that making sure that they are moving forward on reform (political reform, economic reform) is absolutely critical to the long-term wellbeing of Egypt. And you can see these pent-up frustrations that are being displayed on the streets. My main hope right now is that violence is not the answer in solving these problems in Egypt. So the government has to be careful about not resorting to violence, and the people on the streets have to be careful about not resorting to violence.
And I think that it is very important that people have mechanisms in order to express legitimate grievances. As I said in my State of the Union speech, there are certain core value that we believe in as Americans that we believe are universal: freedom of speech, freedom of expression, people being able to use social networking or any other mechanisms to communicate with each other and express their concerns. And I think that is no less true in the Arab world than it is here in the United States.
Vice President Joseph Biden, PBS Newshour, January 27:
JIM LEHRER: Has the time come for President Mubarak of Egypt to go, to stand aside?
JOE BIDEN: No, I think the time has come for President Mubarak to begin to move in the direction that -- to be more responsive to some of the needs of the people out there.
These are -- a lot of the people out there protesting are middle-class folks who are looking for a little more access and a little more opportunity.
And the two things we have been saying here, Jim, is that violence isn't appropriate and people have a right to protest. And so -- and we think that -- I hope Mubarak, President Mubarak, will -- is going to respond to some of the legitimate concerns that are being raised.
JIM LEHRER: You know President Mubarak.
JOE BIDEN: I know him fairly well.
JIM LEHRER: Have you talked to him about this?
JOE BIDEN: I haven't talked to him in the last three days.
I -- last time I -- actually, I haven't talked to him in about a month. But I speak to him fairly regularly. And I think that, you know, there's a lot going on across that part of the continent, from Tunisia into -- all the way to Pakistan, actually. And there's -- a lot of these countries are beginning to sort of take stock of where they are and what they have to do.
JIM LEHRER: Some people are suggesting that we may be seeing the beginning of a kind of domino effect, similar to what happened after the Cold War in Eastern Europe. Poland came first, then Hungary, East Germany.
We have got Tunisia, as you say, maybe Egypt, who knows. Do you smell the same thing coming?
JOE BIDEN: No, I don't.
I wouldn't compare the two. And you and I used to talk years ago about what was going on in Eastern Europe.
JIM LEHRER: Yes.
JOE BIDEN: A lot of these nations are very dissimilar. They're similar in the sense that they're Arab nations, dissimilar in the circumstance.
For example, Tunisia has a long history of a more progressive middle class, a different set of circumstances, a different relationship with Europe, for example. And the difference between Tunisia and Egypt is real, beyond the fact that Egypt's the largest Arab country in the world.
So, I don't see any direct relationship, other than there seems -- it might be argued that what is happening in one country sparks whatever concern there is in another country. It may not be the same concern. It may not be even similar, but the idea of speaking out in societies where, in the recent past, there hadn't been much of that occurring.
But I don't -- I think it's a stretch at this point. But I could be proven wrong. But I think it's a stretch to compare it to Eastern Europe.
JIM LEHRER: The word -- the word to describe the leadership of Mubarak and Egypt and also in Tunisia before was dictator. Should Mubarak be seen as a dictator?
JOE BIDEN: Look, Mubarak has been an ally of ours in a number of things and he's been very responsible on, relative to geopolitical interests in the region: Middle East peace efforts, the actions Egypt has taken relative to normalizing the relationship with Israel.
And I think that it would be -- I would not refer to him as a dictator.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Vice President, should we be -- should the United States be encouraging these protesters, whether they're in Tunisia or Egypt or wherever? They want their rights. And should we encourage them to seek them, if it means going to the streets or whatever?
JOE BIDEN: I think we should encourage both those who are, to use your phrase, seeking the rights and the government to talk, to actually sit down and talk with one another, to try to resolve some of what are the -- the interests that are being pursued by those who are protesting.
Now, so far, there seems to be some differences. And, historically, in the past, the concern was in some of these countries that some of the more radical elements of the society, more radicalized were the ones in the streets.
Some could argue, might argue that what's going on in Lebanon was different than what's going on in Egypt, in terms of who is the -- who the protesting forces are. Hezbollah is not, doesn't seem to be what is the nature of the protest that's going on in Egypt right now.
But -- so, not every one of these circumstances is the same, which was my point before.
JIM LEHRER: Sure.
JOE BIDEN: We're encouraging the protesters to, as they assemble, do it peacefully. And we're encouraging the government to act responsibly and to try to engage in a discussion as to what the legitimate claims being made are, if they are, and try to work them out.
JIM LEHRER: Does the U.S. have any role to play in this?
JOE BIDEN: I think the role we have to play is continuing to make it clear to us that we think violence is inappropriate on the part of either party -- either of the parties, the government or the protesters.
JIM LEHRER: But there was something said today. I think the president said or the president's spokesman said the United States is not going to take sides in this dispute in Egypt.
Is that correct? Is that a correct...
JOE BIDEN: Well, look, I don't -- I wouldn't characterize it as taking sides.
I think that what we should continue to do is to encourage reasonable accommodation -- accommodation and discussion, to try to resolve peacefully and amicable the concerns and claims made by those who've taken to the street. And those that are legitimate should be responded to, because the economic well-being and the stability of Egypt rests upon that middle class buying into the future of Egypt.
So, it's very much, I would argue, in the government's interest. But it's also in the interest of those who are seeking those rights. Again, that's different than some protests that occur in that region of the world that are really designed to overthrow a government for the purpose of establishing an autocracy that is more regressive than anything that exists.
#Egypt must handle protests peacefully and create greater political, social and economic opportunity consistent with people's aspirations.
#SecClinton spoke this afternoon with FM Aboul Gheit of #Egypt. She encouraged restraint and dialogue, and offered U.S. support for reforms.
We are closely monitoring the situation in #Egypt. We continue to urge authorities to show restraint and allow peaceful protests to occur.
We are concerned that communication services, including the Internet, social media and even this #tweet, are being blocked in #Egypt.
Whose bright idea was it to send Joe Biden out to talk about Egypt?
The U.S. vice president just made a major faux pas tonight, the Christian Science Monitor's Dan Murphy reports:
Ahead of a day that could prove decisive, NewsHour host Jim Lehrer asked Biden if the time has "come for President Mubarak of Egypt to go?" Biden answered: "No. I think the time has come for President Mubarak to begin to move in the direction that -- to be more responsive to some… of the needs of the people out there."
Asked if he would characterize Mubarak as a dictator Biden responded: "Mubarak has been an ally of ours in a number of things. And he's been very responsible on, relative to geopolitical interest in the region, the Middle East peace efforts; the actions Egypt has taken relative to normalizing relationship with -- with Israel.… I would not refer to him as a dictator.”
He also appeared to make one of the famous Biden gaffes, in comments that could be interpreted as questioning the legitimacy of protesters' demands. Monitor Cairo correspondent Kristen Chick, other reporters in the country, and activists have generally characterized the main calls of demonstrators as focused on freedom, democracy, an end to police torture, and a more committed government effort to address the poverty that aflicts millions of Egyptians.
Biden urged non-violence from both protesters and the government and said: "We're encouraging the protesters to -- as they assemble, do it peacefully. And we're encouraging the government to act responsibly and -- and to try to engage in a discussion as to what the legitimate claims being made are, if they are, and try to work them out." He also said: "I think that what we should continue to do is to encourage reasonable … accommodation and discussion to try to resolve peacefully and amicably the concerns and claims made by those who have taken to the street. And those that are legitimate should be responded to because the economic well-being and the stability of Egypt rests upon that middle class buying into the future of Egypt."
Egypt's protesters, if they're paying attention to Biden at all, will certainly be wondering which of their demands thus far have been illegitimate.
Earlier today, outgoing White House spokesman Robert Gibbs turned some heads when he said of the protests, "This is not about taking sides." But if you look at the full context of his remarks, it's clear the Obama administration is still counting on the Mubarak regime toughening this one out.
This evening, about 10 minutes after the Associated Press posted a video appearing to show a man being shot in the head (unconfirmed reports on Twitter later said he had died), Egyptians began reporting that their Internet access had been cut off, and an Italian company that provides a major backbone confirmed that its ties to Egypt had been severed. Other reports warned that Egyptian mobile companies were cutting off text-messaging services.
Tomorrow, the protesters have called for massive demonstrations after Friday prayers, and many are worried that the Egyptian regime will use the opportunity to launch a major crackdown. Arabist.net reports that plainclothes security goons have been seen "pouring gasoline on vehicles and setting them on fire" and that policemen were "loading vans with clubs, nails, metal bars and other objects."
Egypt has yet to pass the point of no return, but if tomorrow gets even uglier, I hope the Obama administration gets its story straight.
UPDATE: Click here for a full rundown of Obama administration statements on Egypt.
I have a feeling that this exchange, released in Al Jazeera's Palestine Papers, is going to be making the rounds in Ramallah for some time. "SE" is chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, and "YG" is Yossi Gal, then a deputy director general in Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
SE: How have you been?
YG: Not too bad, can't complain, how about you?
SE: I'm lying, I've been lying for the last weeks.
YG: Between jogging?
SE: No, no, lying, lying. I was in Cairo, I was in Jordan, I was in America. Everybody is asking me what is going on Israel, what is Olmert going to do?
YG: And you are telling everyone we are on the verge of success.
SE: And I always tell them this is an internal Israeli matter, a domestic Israeli matter and I keep lying. If somebody sneezes in Tel-Aviv, I get the flu in Jericho, and I have to lie. So that's my last week -- all lies.
YG: As a professor of negotiations, you know that white lies are allowed now and then.
SE: I'm not complaining, I'm admitting -- and sometimes I don't feel like lying.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Passport, FP’s flagship blog, brings you news and hidden angles on the biggest stories of the day, as well as insights and under-the-radar gems from around the world.