As pro-Mubarak demonstrators roam Cairo, Egypt's Internet roars back to life

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.


Mubarak's 9 biggest mistakes

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.