Rage against the Regime

By Dehghanpisheh, Christopher Dickey Babak; Giglio, Mike | Newsweek, February 7, 2011 | Go to article overview

Rage against the Regime


Dehghanpisheh, Christopher Dickey Babak, Giglio, Mike, Newsweek


Byline: Babak Dehghanpisheh, Christopher Dickey and Mike Giglio

From Tunisia to Egypt to Yemen, a youthful uprising is challenging the Arab world's rulers. But if the old order falls, what will take its place?

One by one, the lines of communication that connected Egypt to the 21st century shut down. Twitter, Facebook, and eventually all Internet access were cut off; text messaging became impossible, and then millions of mobile phones went silent across the country. But the protests and riots continued, as they had for most of the week, with thousands of young Egyptians trying to take down the regime of octogenarian President Hosni Mubarak. They set last Friday for their "day of rage," drawing in supporters from all over the country, including the outlawed but powerfully organized Muslim Brotherhood. In the hours leading up to the demonstrations, the government did everything it could to cut them off from each other--and from the rest of the world.

At the appointed hour, just after noon prayers, tens of thousands of marchers flooded into the streets all over Egypt, only to be met with truncheons, rubber bullets, and tear gas floating thicker in the air than morning mist on the Nile. But the protesters kept coming. In Cairo, security forces turned a water cannon on Mohamed ElBaradei, the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize winner who has tried to inspire a peaceful transition to a more democratic regime. Besieged by police, he and a group of supporters holed up in a mosque for more than an hour before the government reportedly put him under house arrest.

Other demonstrators in Cairo played cat-and-mouse with the cops, hurling taunts and rocks and sometimes Molotov cocktails. The police struck back with an artillery barrage of tear-gas canisters, some landing amid the crowd, some landing in the river, bubbling and spewing as they sank beneath the surface. Late in the day, two large groups surged into Tahrir Square, the heart of the city, near the Egyptian Museum, the InterContinental Hotel and the American Embassy. Suddenly the police pulled out--and the Army moved in. As a nationwide 6 p.m. curfew descended, there seemed little likelihood that the protesters would be able to hold their turf through the night. But the arrival of the soldiers, who command much more respect than the police and security forces, opened the possibility that both sides could retreat a little.

The Obama administration looked on as if caught between the police lines and the protesters, unsure which side to join. "My main hope right now is that violence is not the answer in solving these problems in Egypt," President Barack Obama said in a YouTube interview Thursday. "The government has to be careful about not resorting to violence. And the people on the streets need to be careful about not resorting to violence. And I think that it is very important that people have mechanisms in order to express legitimate grievances."

It may be too late for that. From the high-rise hotels around Tahrir Square, tourists and journalists saw the National Democratic Party headquarters, the party of the president, in flames after curfew on Friday night. Worse, fires appeared near the Egyptian Museum, with its priceless artifacts dating back to pharaonic times 5,000 years ago. The Army moved in to secure the site, but the history of one of the oldest civilizations on earth was in danger, the future of modern Egypt completely unknown.

Late that night, Mubarak went on national television to tell his people he was listening and would change his cabinet, but with no hint that he might step down himself. Obama phoned Mubarak, then read his own statement at the White House, calling on Egypt to lift restrictions on the Internet and take more meaningful steps toward political reform. "Going forward, this moment of volatility has to be turned into a moment of promise," said Obama. But there was no real question that volatility remained the order of the day.

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