D-Day in Egypt: one million protesters in the streets ?

Hosni Mubarak...ExitImage by RamyRaoof via Flickr
February 1, 2011 was supposed to be D-Day for the Egyptian protest movement, calling for a general strike and a "one million march" in the streets of Cairo and all the major cities...Did it work out? Has it any chance to ever work out?

Al Jazeera television, which incidentally was blocked by Mubarak's regime along with every other major social network like Facebook and Twitter, is breathlessly reporting that protesters, whose number reportedly exceeded two million, are defying the curfew -  which, by the way, is set at a ridiculously early hour: 2 pm!

The hard core of protesters in Tahrir Square in Cairo have camped there since the protest movement started six days ago, and apparently plan to stay on, as people bring them food and drink to survive the night. They say they won't go away until the government is toppled.

How long can the stand-off last? How long before it turns into a blood bath? A Jazeera says 150 people have been killed so far, others speak of 300 dead. The police has been conspicuously absent and the army is sitting on the side, apparently doing nothing - even claiming that it sees the protest as "legitimate".

Meanwhile, on the international scene, no major country has moved, except for Turkey and Iran that have both expressed support for the protesters. Israel worries about losing a trusted ally, possibly the only one in the region. Americans are calling their citizens to leave the country and China is sending extra planes for evacuation. Moody's downgrade of Egypt's bond ratings has been followed by the other major ratings agencies, all giving Egypt a negative outlook. And the price of oil has been driven up, as everyone wonders whether the Suez canal will stay open.

So the stakes are high, as the Arab world watches with bated breath, wondering whether these protests in Egypt are indeed historic and will mark a turn away from military dictatorship in the whole region.

Our sympathies go to the protesters, there's no doubt about it. Mubarak's rule is deeply unjust, corrupt and repressive and we would all love to see him go.

But there's a counter-scenario, and I fear it has a rather high probability to come to pass. I only hope I'm wrong. It goes something like this: first, Mubarak withdraws the police and tells them to stay put while prisoners are allowed to escape from prisons and looters are free to loot. That happened two days ago, and it had an immediate consequence for the Egyptian bourgeoisie: streets became insecure, especially at night, while daytime, business was brought to a halt because of the continuing demonstrations.

How long can daily economic life stand anarchy? My guess is it can't go on for very long. At some point, particularly if the army continues in its passive role, there will be a call from the majority of the people for a return to normalcy and restoration of security in the streets. And Mubarak will come back in the vest of a saviour, restoring law and order. Because, as always, what we are seeing is (maybe) two million people screaming on our television screens, but we shouldn't forget that this is a country with 80 millions people - in other words, 78 million are at home, either afraid to be looted or angry because they cannot go to work.

I really think that is Mubarak's game. The changes he's brought about so far are all cosmetic: sacking the government and appointing a new cabinet and his trusted friend Omar Suleiman as Vice-president. While he is the head of the dreaded secret police, the appointment signals a change of some sort: Mubarak no longer "pushes" his son Gamal as his successor. Suleiman is seen by Israel and America as a "friend" and has offered to "negotiate with the opposition". And today, the finance minister is offering "an aid package" to relieve poverty and unemployment.

Yes, none of Mubarak's offers are serious and the protesters have clearly understood his duplicity. But what can they do about it? The Muslim Brotherhood has loudly announced it will negotiate with no one in government. Opposition leader and Nobel Prize ElBaradei, welcomed by young protesters, has shown up on Tahrir Square calling for "change". He seems to have rallied a variety of protest movements behind him, including perhaps the Muslim Brotherhood, but it is not clear what may happen next.

In the meantime, Mubarak stays put in his presidential palace, gaining time with spurious offers of change, that if nothing else, help introduce doubt among the rest of the population - those who are not out in the streets to demonstrate.

Let's not forget that this is a military dictatorship and it's been going on for a very long time: since 1952, when Egypt ousted its King. Egypt has never really known any other kind of government. The path to democracy is indeed a long and tortuous one...

So can change come about without a blood bath, just on the strength of ElBaradei's calls for change? How I wish it were so...Al Jazeera rightly sees the army as the key to the situation and reports on people and the military "kissing each other", saying we are witnessing a "new partnerhip with the military".

A new partnership? Mmmmmm...

P.S  In case you're wondering why I'm so fascinated with Egypt, I'll readily admit to having an Egyptian past: as a child, I lived three years in Cairo and witnessed the 1952 riots that marked the end of the monarchy.

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