The unrest in Egypt continue with reports of at least 25 dead and thousands wounded in the Guardian. People from ‘all walks of life, old and young, the middle classes and the urban poor’ have joined the protests. Opposition activist Mohamed ElBaradei, the former United Nations weapons chief who may stand in Egypt’s presidential elections next year, was placed under house arrest ‘”for his own protection.”‘ Late on Friday—with tanks moving into the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, and Suez—President Hosni Mubarak announced on NileTV that he was ordering his ministers to resign and promised a new administration that will tackle unemployment and promote democracy. But he did not offer to step down himself and, according to the New York Times, has backed the armed response to the protests.
Sky News producer Yael Livie, standing above Tahrir Square in Cairo, was quoted in the Guardian:
“It was a very ambivalent speech. It was almost as if he was taking some sort of responsibility off himself – asking the government to resign – but not saying anything about him doing anything different. It’s very clear he’s staying in power. It seems to be a bit of a deadlock.”
At a press conference on Friday evening, President Obama said that he had spoken to Mubarak immediately after his televised comments and called on the government to respect the rights of the people and not use violence. More from Obama’s statement (from Politico):
As the situation continues to unfold, our first concern is preventing injury and loss of life, so I want to be very clear in calling upon the Egyptian authorities to refrain from any violence against peaceful protesters. The people of Egypt have rights that are universal. That includes the right to peaceful assembly and association. The right to free speech. And the ability to determine their own destiny. These are human rights, and the United States will stand by them everywhere.
“We’ve also been clear that there must be reform. … In the absence of these reforms, grievances have built up over time.”
Obama also stated that “violence will not address the grievances. The future of Egypt will be determined by the Egyptian people” and called for free speech, noting that “suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away.” While he noted that there will be “difficult days to come, the President stated that the US “will continue to stand by the rights of the Egyptian people.”
Egypt has been an important U.S. ally in the Middle East; it is, in the words of Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, the ‘linchpin to peace in the Middle East.’ Gelb points that, in her statement about Egypt, Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton requested that Mubarak not use ‘brute power and force to stop the protesters’ and refrain from ‘[interfering] with the protesters doing their protesting.’ Such a message is, Gelb points out ‘flat contrary to the position of the Mubarak government, which has outlawed such protests’ and is also blocking and social media tools such as Twitter and Facebook:
In other words, the Obama team is urging conciliation and, de facto, concessions to those who may well end up advocating far more than simple political and economic reforms.
The stakes are sky high. Egypt is the linchpin to peace in the Middle East. So long as Egypt refrains from warring against Israel, other Arab states cannot take military action by themselves. So long as Cairo remains pro-Western, it serves as an anchor for other such friendly governments. It occupies a central economic position in the region and a vital transportation hub through the Suez Canal. Most certainly, most Arab governments friendly to Washington need to make reforms. But to do so at a moment of weakness, to be seen as bending to mobs, however peaceful and moderate they look now, could open up the floodgates—in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere.
The US is ‘looking for reform that will keep the present power structure in place,’ according to the Guardian, and is reviewing its $1.5 billion in aid to Egypt.
As I was walking through Journal Square in Jersey City, NJ, on Friday afternoon, I saw 40-plus people protesting Mubarak’s 30-year rule. Wiih Port Authority police looking on, protesters set a photograph of Mubarak on fire. Present at the protest was Said Afifi who, according to NJ.com, is originally from Egypt and sought asylum in the United States ten years ago after Egyptian police arrested him for speaking out against Mubarak. He says:
‘”For 30 years he’s supported a small group of businessmen only….I think the United States will support the revolution in Egypt.”‘
Ahmed Lotfy of Little Ferry helped organize the protest, which was one of 26 sponsored by the Egyptian Association for Change throughout the US. Due to the Egyptian government’s shut down of Internet and phone service, Egyptians living in the US are worried about family members whom they have not been able to contact, the Bergen Record reports. Said Lofty in NJ.com:
“There has been a lot of attempts to tell this regime to reform … it never goes anywhere.”
Egypt has been a “police state” under Mubarak according to Lofty and has become ‘so corrupt’ that it can ‘no longer function.’
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Photo of the Jersey City protest calling for the end of President Hosni Mubarak's 30-year-old rule is by the author.