A massive “million march” later today in Cairo looms as a key test for Hosni Mubarak’s tottering regime after the Egyptian Army issued a statement declaring it would not use force against Egyptians.
Mubarak has responded to the planned demonstration by extending his internet shutdown to the last remaining functional ISP, Noor, which is used by Egyptian financial markets and universities, by shutting down mobile phone networks, closing schools and universities and even halting train services in a bid to prevent people from travelling to the demonstration.
Cash machines have long since run out of money and there are now reports of food shortages. Yesterday Mubarak banned Al Jazeera from Egypt in an attempt to keep out the most comprehensive media coverage — although unlike the Bush Administration, Mubarak has resisted the urge to bomb the network for perceived transgressions.
Online activists Telecomix have been racing to circumvent the internet block by establishing external dial-up lines into Egypt, while Anonymous has been circulating information on communication options, including ham radio. A French ISP has offered free internet connections into the country, while Google has jury-rigged a “speak-to-tweet” that Egyptians with working phones can use to keep up Twitter coverage. Others are probing the Egyptian Government’s own internet communication networks to see if they can find a way to keep communication open.
That may or may not make much difference on the ground if Mubarak decides to throw his security forces at the protestors, putting the Army on the spot about what role it will take, after the Army declared “the armed forces will not resort to use of force against our great people.” Egyptian men and women, who have already braved beatings, snipers, tear gas and water cannon, will be on their own against the Egyptian police and their penchant for murder and torture.
And while the revolution has produced policy turmoil in western capitals as the contrast between our rhetoric about democracy and freedom and our support for despots is painfully exposed, it is Tel Aviv that is most mortified by the prospect of a democratic Egypt. Having long traded on its status as the only democracy in the Middle East, the Israeli Government has backed Mubarak and ordered its ambassadors to lobby western governments in favour of backing the aging tyrant. That the uprising appears, to western and Israeli eyes, to have come out of nowhere has made Israel’s reaction all the more agitated.
Bear in mind this is just Egypt. Protests are planned in Sudan, Yemen (where protests have already been underway for several days) and particularly Syria, where big protests are planned for 5 February. Amazingly, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, having watched Tunisia and Egypt explode, pre-emptively moved to acknowledge the need for reform. He told the Wall Street Journal“if you didn’t see the need of reform before what happened in Egypt and Tunisia, it’s too late to do any reform”.
It’s amazing what seeing your fellow dictators in deep trouble can do. Meantime, Western foreign policy — of which Tel Aviv’s is only the most extreme — is still struggling to keep up with what’s happening on the ground.