Thoughts from Cairo (via Istanbul)

Below is an e-mail exchange that I had with Tom Trewinnard, who’s a fellow member of the Saddleworth Mafia and Greenhead College Massive. Tom blogs here and works in Cairo for Meedhan, an organisation that aims to encourage discussion between English and Arabic speakers by, for instance, translating news articles from Arabic into English, and vice-versa. He’s currently in temporary exile in an Istanbul hotel.

First off, how are you? Were you able to get out of Egypt OK? Was there any trouble for you in doing that?

I got out of Egypt without any logistical problems, to my total surprise, although it was a real wrench to leave.

Did you see any of the protests?

I was in the protests in Meedan Tahrir over several days (starting from Tuesday, Jan 25) and also witnessed the violent clashes on Friday, Jan 28, from my flat. Because we live(d) right next to the Ministry of the Interior, we were in many ways “behind enemy lines”.

Our building was surrounded by the central security protesters who were firing rubber bullets, tear gas and in some cases live rounds on protesters. We left the flat on Saturday morning after an intense gun fight took place on the corner of our street lasting into the early hours of Saturday morning.

No plug intended, but a full account of those 24 hours (when internet was completely cut in Egypt) can be found on my blog http://experimenthol.com (People really should read this blog, it’s got some excellent stuff on it – Cory).

For those who haven’t really been keeping up with the news, what exactly has been happening in Egypt?

Inspired by the recent events in Tunisia, anti-government protesters have been demonstrating in streets across Egypt, calling for the ousting of president/dictator Hosni Mubarak. They’ve gained huge momentum, with Al Jazeera (Arabic and English) reporting a turnout of 2 million in central Cairo alone on Tuesday (I was there, 2 million seems high, but 1 million is certainly possible).

As in Tunisia, there is a huge disenfranchised youth population that is extremely pissed off with the lack of opportunities afforded them under the Mubarak regime – until now, though, people have generally been too afraid to speak out. With Tunisia, that fear has evaporated, and the people are finally speaking out about grievances they’ve had for years and years.

Who were the pro-Mubarak protestors who’ve been engaging in violence? There’s talk that some are police officers. Is there anything to support this?

Very tough question, and one that is very difficult to get an honest answer from anybody.

For certain, Mubarak has a track record of using hired hands for intimidation purposes in elections, for example. Some videos have emerged with people “confessing” to having been paid to rough up anti-government protesters, although I’d think they are dubious.

One thing is certain – if anyone is pro-Mubarak, it is the wealthy minority who have thrived over the last 30 years, and who are certainly not the people you see out on the streets throwing rocks and riding camels through Tahrir square.

What happens now? And what should happen? Should Mubarak leave now, or in September?

I don’t believe that the protests will stop until Mubarak leaves.

For the protesters, Mubarak’s word that he will leave is not enough, and nor is his promise that parliament will review various constitutional clauses.

Basically, all those in power right now, including most of parliament after the latest “elections”, are Mubarak cronies. The protesters want wholesale change, and I doubt they will stop until they get it.

What should happen in the event of Mubarak leaving is the hot topic of the hour: I’m for a transitional government led by Amr Moussa or Mohamed ElBaradei (unpopular in Egypt). They are two people who have no real designs on the presidency and who aren’t linked to the NDP. They’re also unpopular amongst protesters though, as they’re seen as opportunists who are trying to grab power.

Are the messages that have been coming from America and Britain suitable, or should they be striking a different tone?

Inside Egypt, people feel the US in particular has been too quiet and reluctant to support its pro-democracy mantra by failing to call for Mubarak to step down.

Personally, I feel like the US is in something of a Catch-22: if it calls for Mubarak to step down, then Mubarak is given an easy win by calling the protests evidence of “foreign meddling” and will also be able to play on a general anti-American sentiment. US support for a Middle East revolution could be the kiss of death.

As it stands, the US is criticised for not backing up its calls for democracy. I actually think they’ve been politically smart here, and there is evidence that they’ve made progress behind the scenes, although it won’t gain them any popularity points.

To be honest, neither I nor anybody else in Egypt has been monitoring the official UK response – I’m sure it’s little different from the US.

Are you optimistic or pessimistic about Egypt’s future?

Still too early to say, but the spirit and courage shown by the people is incredibly inspiring. If the future of Egypt is given over to that youth, then there is certainly hope.

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