February 13, 2011

Mubarak on Twitter

It's Day Two of the post-Hosni Mubarak era in Egypt, and all indications are that life is slowly regaining its normal rhythms here. Traffic on the Kasr El Nil bridge, workers walking purposefully to downtown, business meetings in my hotel lobby.

Taking advantage of a quiet moment, then, to chuckle at Hosni Mubarak's new (fake) Twitter account:

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February 11, 2011

A new day in Egypt

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What a difference 24 hours makes.

Last night I was in Tahrir Square watching a people deflate. Tens of thousands who had gathered for what they thought would be President Hosni Mubarak's farewell address were stunned and saddened when what they heard was an opaque and often rambling message that lacked the words so many Egyptians wanted to hear: "Goodbye."

Tonight, Egyptians heard it, though not from Mubarak himself. He decamped to Sharm El Sheikh, the Red Sea resort town, and left his ashen-faced vice president Omar Suleiman to announce the end of his era. I watched on CNN, and the translator could barely contain himself. When Suleiman said Mubarak was stepping down, the translator's voice jumped an octave.

The streets immediately erupted into a cacophony of car horns, screams, songs and cheers that hasn't stopped for nine hours, and may not stop for days.

After I returned from the square and was working on this story, I called Ahmed Salah, who was among those who organized the first day of protests on Jan. 25. I met Ahmed just a few weeks before the uprising, when he told me, "Something is in the works." I'd be lying if I didn't say that I was skeptical -- how many protests had been quashed by Egyptian security forces before, how many demonstrations where there were more police than demonstrators?

Obviously, I had no idea how big it would be. And Ahmed had no idea either. By the time we saw each other again, in Tahrir Square several days into the revolt, he said that the whole thing had surpassed his wildest expectations.

He suffered a broken nose and received a rubber bullet to the skull during the police crackdown on protesters Jan. 28. He was left with a big bandage on his nose, which made it difficult for him to travel to and from the square. The bandage identified himself as someone involved in the protests, a target for pro-Mubarak thugs or security forces. He stopped coming to Tahrir every day.

He was there Thursday night when many thought Mubarak was leaving. He'd taken the bandage off, and he warned that even if Mubarak were to leave it would be far from over. "We want a transition to a new type of state -- a parliamentary republic," he said.

When I finally reached him Friday night, after we'd both returned from Tahrir, Ahmed was in tears. I could bear to interview him for only a minute. Finally I told him, "Mabrouk." Congratulations. He and millions of Egyptians will wake up tomorrow in a new country, one that they created.

Assuming they go to sleep.

Update: Here's my account of covering the Egyptian uprising, for Playboy magazine.


February 09, 2011

What's next for the Republic of Tahrir?

The latest from Tahrir Square: Early this morning, a popular Egyptian actor and singer, Tamir Hosni, tried to address the crowd. Al Jazeera reported that "people shouted him down and the army had to intervene, firing warning shots in the air."

Hosni was quickly whisked away. Why? Al Jaz's excellent live-blog of the protests explains:

this came after (Hosni) spoke on national television, urging protesters to go home. It is not clear whether he came to the square to say the same thing, or if he had changed his views.

The square hasn't taken kindly to opposing views. I've seen people suspected of being regime supporters dealt with pretty harshly, dragged away by mobs threatening beatings, only to have cooler heads persuade the protesters to spare him. It's youthful exuberance, but also an understandable response to the violence they were subjected to in the early days of the protests, first by police two weeks ago and then by pro-Mubarak gangs last Wednesday.

Still, as Hannah and I reported in Tuesday's stories from Tahrir Square, there's an unmistakable disjunction between the protests in the street, which have transfixed the world, and the halls of Egyptian political power, where establishment figures are negotiating to reshape the old order. Whether the protesters ever see their views represented in those backrooms, where decisions are getting made, will determine the true impact of this uprising.

So far, the protesters are much more concerned with remaining in the street, which they've done enormously well. Responding to claims by the ruling NDP that they're trying to institute reforms, one Tahririte told Hannah:

"They can't be trusted," said Mohamed Zakaria, 47, a civil engineer who was in Tahrir Square. "There's no millionth chance. They've had 30 years and did nothing."

Or, as a young man told me:

"We don't believe in negotiation," said Youssef Hesham, a 25-year-old filmmaker. "When it's a revolution, you're not supposed to negotiate."

Tahrir reached another milestone Tuesday: a massive turnout following the emotional appearance of Wael Ghonim, the Egyptian Google exec who was jailed after he created a Facebook page that helped spark the revolt. Many said that Ghonim's teary TV interview Monday night brought them out to the square Tuesday, reigniting an uprising that seemed in danger of fizzling as Mubarak shows no sign of stepping down.
A 'Woodstock moment,' as we're calling it, to be sure. But what will the Egyptians get out of it? Will their steadfast refusal to negotiate lock them out of having a say in political reforms? (As the excellent Shadi Hamid says, "This is what happens in transitions: opposition elites in smoke-filled rooms strike out compromises while the protesters get shut out.) Will the galvanizing appearance of Ghonim finally give the movement the leader many believe it needs?
As I've said about pretty much every day since this all began, Friday -- when another massive protest is planned following midday prayers -- could be decisive.


February 03, 2011

Vodafone: Egypt forced us to send pro-government texts

In all the chaos of yesterday, I forgot to follow up on the strange texts I received last evening on by Vodafone cellphone here in Egypt. The AP has the story today, quoting Vodafone officials in London as saying that that Egyptian authorities forced them to broadcast pro-government text messages starting a few days ago.

Our McClatchy colleague in Cairo, Miret El Naggar, said her husband also received three messages in quick succession late yesterday afternoon. They read:

"O Egypt's youth, beware of the rumors and listen to the sounds of reason. Egypt is above all, so keep it safe."

"To every mother, father, sister and brother, to every honorable citizen, protect the country because the nation remains forever."

"The armed forces is keen for your safety and will not use force against this great people."

All the texts were addressed from "Vodafone." AP has a statement from Vodafone PLC, saying the messages were drafted by Egyptian authorities and that it couldn't change them:

Vodafone Group has protested to the authorities that the current situation regarding these messages is unacceptable. We have made clear that all messages should be transparent and clearly attributable to the originator.

Another way the Egyptian government has tried to portray the pro-democracy protesters as bent on chaos and destruction.


The battle for Liberation Square

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A supporter of President Mubarak crosses out "Leave" and writes "We love you"

The battle for Liberation Square didn't start out so bad.

I was down on the street when it began, and I saw a young man in glasses, a pro-democracy protester, sitting on the curb having an impassioned discussion with an elderly man in a tattered sportscoat. I could make out just a bit of what they were saying - the younger man was complaining about a lack of money, the older man was railing against opposition figure Mohammed ElBaradei, whom he called "the American." They argued for a few minutes, but when it was over the older man grabbed the other and kissed him on the cheek. Both went their separate ways.

It was one of the rare moments of conciliation today in Tahrir ("Liberation") Square. Moments later, I saw a mob of pro-regime elements set upon two young women and their male friend as they tried to exit the square occupied by pro-democracy protesters. I went up to one of the women to ask her name and for an interview, but then she returned an insult shouted to her by an angry Mubarak supporter and the mob turned on them, chasing them down one of the side streets near the Egyptian Museum.

Sweat poured off the man's face; the women had real fear in their eyes. They pounded on the door of a hotel before someone let them in, but the crowd continued to bang on the door for several minutes, shouting, "Get out!" and "God is great!"

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The fighting devolved quickly from there, of course. At midnight, after writing and watching the clashes for hours from my hotel balcony, I walked back down to the square, to the overpass where dozens of people were standing. Down below the pro-democracy group had set two cars ablaze and lined themselves up in a human barricade near the Egyptian Museum. They were holding some sort of makeshift shields, looking like citizen riot police.

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I walked up to the bridge, trying to keep my head down, knowing these guys didn't like journalists, and saw some young guys carrying rocks bigger than their heads. One had a machete, several had sticks. They were perched on the overpass and exchanging petrol bombs with the pro-democracy group down below. The two sides were barely 100 yards apart, the guys on the bridge egging their opponents on. The mood seemed almost playful, like a bloody game of Capture the Flag. Suddenly the guys on the bridge turned and ran in my direction, back down the bridge. A petrol bomb had landed near them and something had caught fire. Suddenly well aware of my camera and American passport in my pocket, I turned and ran too, down the bridge and back toward my hotel.

At 5:30 a.m. I awoke to a call from my editor in Washington and went back onto my balcony to see the vehicles still smoldering, the protesters still banging on metal barriers, defiantly holding their ground. Bursts of automatic gunfire could be heard, and the occasional single shot. It was hard to tell where they were coming from, but wires were reporting that snipers were firing from rooftops. I suddenly decided the balcony was not the place to be.

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This was the scene at about 9 a.m. this morning - the protesters holding onto corrugated tin shields, tanks having moved in to separate them from pro-Mubarak forces. You can hear the chants, they seem louder today. Friends in other parts of Cairo say that both sides are busing in reinforcements.


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Middle East Diary is written by McClatchy journalists covering the Middle East.

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