Walk like an Egyptian

Saturday night, 11pm.

I’ve just listened to this interview on Al Jazeera and moments later this handy little embed popped up on my Twitter feed:

[Flash 9 is required to listen to audio.]

It’s just one of the interviews I’ve heard in the last few hours, since darkness fell and reports began to emerge of armed mobs at large in the Cairo suburbs. The crowd of protesters maintaining a fifth successive night vigil in Tahrir Square (literally translated, ‘Liberty Square’) has already noticeably diminished, as they suspend their protests to address the more urgent concern of protecting their homes and families.

A strong suggestion has emerged that these mobs are actually comprised of members of Egypt’s security services, commanded by President Mubarak and his regime to go home, lose the uniforms (but not, apparently, the firearms) then get back out there and do whatever they can to put the fear of something, anything, into the Egyptian people.

It seems pretty clear that live ammunition has already been used on the protesters, with bullet-ridden bodies building up in the morgues of Cairo, Suez and Alexandria. Even so, Mubarak knows he can’t send uniformed security forces out onto the street cutting a swathe through the crowds – the use of live ammunition in Tunisia was crucial catalyst for the eventual deposition of Ben Ali. Instead he’s digging in and orchestrating his own counter-revolution. For a moment, a little while ago, it sounded like it might even work.

Then reports started to come through of localised militias forming, super-charged Neighbourhood Watch for what one interviewee described as ‘a war zone’. One of Al Jazeera’s reporters appeared at a makeshift roadblock manned by a group of young civilian men, excitedly announcing that ‘the people have become the police’. A moment later yet another report came through suggesting that the armed thugs on the loose around Cairo ‘are members of the security forces, or working for them’.

The people have become the police. The police have become armed thugs. That must be why they call it revolution.

* * *

I’ve had Al Jazeera on in the background for much of the last twenty-four hours, but I think what really switched me onto the situation was news reaching me on Friday morning that Egypt had ‘left the Internet’. Mubarak’s Government had orchestrated a complete communications blackout, disconnecting Egypt almost entirely from the outside world.

I can understand the theory – the role of social networks like Facebook and Twitter in facilitating the Tunisian revolution is well-documented and its clear that they have also been instrumental in galvanising a generation of young, jobless, tech-savvy Egyptians into action. Mubarak may have thought that if he robbed them of the ability to share and co-ordinate their grievances the protest movement would drift apart and ebb away.

I don’t agree with Andrew McLaughlin writing on Huffington Post, that this is an ‘unprecedented human rights violation on a national scale’ – you don’t have to dig very deep to see that Mubarak has been committing far worse violations for much of his thirty-year reign, and McLaughlin’s sounds like the hyperbole of someone who isn’t really in touch with the situation, inasmuch as it is possible for any of us to be.

Whatever your take on the ethics of cutting off all communications, it quickly looked like a massive tactical misjudgment. It soon appeared to have had precisely the opposite effect to that which Mubarak intended, bringing people out onto the streets in even greater numbers, and resulting large-scale running battles between riot-police and protesters like the one shown in the video below:

All of this left me wondering the Internet now represents a path to greater democracy for all of us, all the more directly at the point at which we are robbed of access to it. Rather than thinking in terms of blackouts and kill switches aspiring autocrats may have to work with a more meticulously engineered illusion of digital freedom, gearing themselves to nip any dissent in the bud before it has the chance to get itself organised. Big Brother basically, and not the game-show variety.

If that sounds like the stuff of fiction take a moment to read Tim Karr’s post on Save The Internet about the Boeing-owned software firm Narus, based in Sunnyvale, California, selling ‘Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) equipment’ to brutal regimes all over the world, of which Mubarak’s is just one.

DPI may not have helped Mubarak, but then much of what’s coming out of Cairo at the moment points to a colossal complacency on the part of Egypt’s president and his aging regime. Like so many of his political gambits of the last few days, exemplified by his appointment of the first Vice-President of his thirty-year reign on Saturday afternoon, the Internet blackout smacks of too little, too late.

* * *

Somewhere in the middle of Friday afternoon Wikileaks weighed in, launching a few salvos in the form of cables release via its Facebook feed, each of which offered an insight into Mubarak’s presidency and regime. The world – well, those who cared to read them – learned that:

- Egypt — the broker [of the Middle East peace talks] — has a vested interest in dragging out the talks for as long as possible. Egypt “has no end game; serving as broker of the talks is Egypt’s only business interest with the U.S.” 2010-02

- President Mubarak and military leaders consider the USD 1.3 billion aid Egypt receives each year from the US as “untouchable compensation” for making and maintaining peace with Israel. 2009-03

- Torture and police brutality in Egypt are endemic and widespread. NGO contacts estimate there are literally hundreds of torture incidents every day in Cairo police stations alone. 2009-01

- The Egyptian people blame America now for their plight. The shift in mood on the ground is mostly because of Mubarak and his close ties to the United States. 2009-01

Just as it played its part in igniting the revolution in Tunisia, Wikileaks looks set to become a regular feature of future political unrest and upheaval, as both catalyst and persistent coercive force.

* * *

US Vice-President Joe Biden may be happy to describe Wikileaks founder Julian Assange as ‘a hi-tech terrorist’, but he let us know this week that he ‘would not refer to Mubarak as a dictator’. It’s worth looking at the wording here – Biden is articulating the diplomatic challenge currently faced by Obama’s administration as a whole. They might consider Mubarak the autocrat he so plainly is but can’t afford to go on the record with it.

One of the biggest challenges faced by the West is that the wider world – particularly the Arab world – is much more well-informed these days. Al Jazeera ran a series of vox pops from the streets of Istanbul late on Saturday night and one young Turkish woman offered up the following proint-of-view:

There’s a tendency to stir up conflict in the Middle East. The economies of the bigger countries need another war to recover. I think they want to increase their revenues from arms manufacturing.

Though it bears only an oblique relevance to the current situation in Egypt, here is a voice from one of the region’s more mature sectarian democracies offering a clear-sighted view of why the West has such a fragile moral mandate in the region, while we continue to rely on the military-industrial complex to keep ourselves in luxury goods. We’re seen as warmongers, plain and simple, parading a self-righteousness that must seem utterly absurd in the face of how we behave ‘on the ground’.

A protester holds up a tear gas cannister ‘made in USA’. Credit: Alia Malek

Meanwhile, as we fill the social media airwaves with messages of encouragement and support for the Egyptian people – implicitly congratulating ourselves on our own liberty and enlightenment – our governments remain unable to call for the departure of a man who denies his people the same opportunity.

* * *

It’s Sunday morning, and Al Jazeera’s Cairo office has just had it’s media license revoked. Their people are withdrawing from Suez, reporting that it is no longer safe for them there. Egyptian state television shows a meeting between Mubarak and his military aides, with reports that as the army’s presence on the streets has grown their posture has stiffened.

Over on Global Guerrillas John Robb offers one view of how he believes Mubarak plans to survive this challenge: by realigning his administration to reinforce ties with the military; using the army to restore order to the streets; then hunkering down and playing the waiting game.

It’s starting to feel like a stalemate, with neither side giving any indication that they are prepared to back down. More reports filter in, stories of police leaving the prison doors open and flooding the cities with hardened criminals, an account of students forming a human chain around the Museum of Antiquities to protect it from the looters.

Hard facts are hard to come by, especially in a climate in which the Twittersphere fulfils its usual role of championing palatable soundbites and iconic images without applying quite the same fervour to consideration of their veracity or wider significance. An image like this quickly proliferates…

…tidily encapsulating a romantic Western notion of revolution as something no more threatening than a single striking image. At the same time another from the same sequence is all but ignored…

…offering as it does a less tactile take on proceedings.

More broadly, events like these remind that Twitter, while it has the capacity to be a vital tool for co-ordinating mass protest and an invaluable way of getting first-hand accounts of events on the ground, results in a tendency on many of its users’ parts to ‘wear’ tweets like the CND pin-badge we had on our lapel at University: a fashion statement, fleeting and essentially meaningless.

If the social web has the capacity to skew events through a prism of wishful thinking, where is this definitive, real-time account we should be searching for? While Al Jazeera have their freedom to report the situation systematically eroded the best CNN can do is to stream Egyptian state television. As for Fox News, they don’t even appear to know exactly where Egypt is:

Of course, you could always hold out for some insightful newspaper editorial. Right, it’s a quaint idea, but basically ridiculous. A week used to be a long time in politics. Nowadays twenty-four hours feels like an eternity.

* * *

In a climate of such abject uncertainty here’s one thing we can be sure of: the children of Mubarak’s Egypt are coming of age. They have grown into a generation of determined and increasingly desperate young men and women, turning against a self-appointed surrogate father who has enacted three decades of bad parenthood, and who now grows older and weaker by the day.

In an article in today’s Observer Egyptian-born columnist Mona Eltahawy describes ‘young online dissidents [...] nimbly moving from the “real” to the “virtual” where their blogs and Facebook updates and tweets offered a self-expression that [...] signalled the triumph of “I”. I count, they said again and again.’

Maybe this is the ‘I’ they need to realise before they embrace the ‘we’ of ‘yes we can’. Obama may have thus far under-delivered on the masterful rhetoric of his election campaign, but few could argue that a sense of common purpose marks the path to more effective democracy, whereby each of has the right to disagree but are also able to discern our shared objectives clearly enough to work together in pursuit of them.

Even so, we should not wish America’s brand of democracy upon them, nor anybody else’s. With all the wider risks a self-determined Egypt would present, this may be the beginning of an wider revolution destined to transform the Arab world, ushering in a hard-won alternative to the bellicose, self-aggrandising secularism of the West.

Only the protesters know exactly what it is they’re out there risking their lives for, what future they think they’re fighting for. In the face of such extraordinary resolve and determination, it would be a supreme act of arrogance for us to think we know what’s best for them.

Better that we sit back, in whatever comfort each of us enjoys, and hope to learn from their example.