February 3, 2011

Friday of Departure: Egypt's Revolution Will Be Televised

After watching about seven straight hours of news coverage, we’ve tried to distill the mass of information into a concentrated form.

Yesterday’s burst of violence has done everything possible to initiate a final judgment on Hosni Mubarak. After Egypt’s president left the masses at Tahrir Square even angrier than before by refusing to step down immediately, thousands of pro-government forces descended on the square and its vicinity to wreck havoc. Forget firebombs - police officers trampled anti-government protesters on horses and camels.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs admitted the obvious by warning, "If any of the violence is instigated by the government, it should stop immediately."

President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton found themselves “shocked” by Cairo’s images, but it must have come as a greater shock when pro-government protesters were reportedly flown and bussed into Tahrir Square. Anti-government protesters managed to capture several of them and steal the government ID of another, suggesting a wider trend. Pro-government protesters can also be differentiated by targeting foreign media and roaming Cairo’s desolate streets at night.

Where would Mubarak find a ready supply of forceful individuals, if not off-duty police officers?

Counterinsurgency theory maintains that the government and insurgent possess minority support, and must secure the majority in order achieve victory. This situation is similar to Egypt’s. The duration of protesting and its massive hit to Egypt’s economy have turned away the majority, many of which aren’t entirely sure of what’s happening. Food and oil prices are skyrocketing, while money markets have frozen up. Some anti-government protesters admit enough has been done to bring about reform, and that Mubarak needs to breathe in order to resign.

And with the odds of new violence rising by the hour, many Egyptians not directly involved with the opposition believe that the situation has gone too far. The state-controlled media is broadcasting a message opposite of the international version, and Al Jazeera reports that state media has effectively portrayed Mubarak as conceding to the opposition - and thus should return home.

Yet the last 24 hours of violence have pushed the majority of the opposition, still millions of people in Egypt, further past the point of return. They wanted Mubarak gone before Wednesday and have now made his end their goal in life. They also hold him directly accountable for yesterday, and hold the military accountable for watching on the side-lines. Although the anti-government movement has vowed a non-violent disobedience, no one seems to believe the violence is over.

The upshot from yesterday is a potential change in the opposition’s strategy. Initially gathering for a Friday march on the presidential palace, a day of street warfare has forced them to readdress their positioning. Having seized lost ground over the night and barricaded themselves inside the square, organizers are now calling for a sit-in until Mubarak resigns. The diehards will have to be dragged out.

It’s a no-win situation between forcefully evicting non-violent protesters from Tahrir and blocking them from occupying or storming the Heliopolis Palace. The Egyptian army realizes the foolishness of broadcasting a massacre internationally, but new reports mention a curfew in Tahrir Square. This is unverified information.

With Internet providers resuming their operations and anti-government forces stocking up for Friday, Thursday could witness a calm before the storm. Tahrir Square is coming to life as of 8 AM - people are reportedly passing out food and beverages - while online protesters have organized for Friday. And some of the main social organizers have been arrested, according to human rights officials.

The atmosphere is said to be somber compared to Tuesday and Wednesday’s intensity.

Then again, Egypt’s escalating tension could prematurely boil over into new street battles. Protesters still pelt each other with rocks at this moment, with army tanks positioned around the square. Pro-Mubarak supporters (on the payroll) are reportedly planning their own march on Tahrir, and many anti-government protesters told Al Jazeera that they would rather die than see Mubarak’s face again. Failing to heed their demand to resign and promising to serve out his term, which ends in September, Mubarak then deployed his "supporters" to do his dirty work - a vicious double-blow to protesters.

Spinning the revolution against them on state TV, Mubarak insists that anti-government forces must cease their activity before he can begin to negotiate. He wants “life to return to normal.”

Such an obvious ploy will convince few of his opponents. They would lose momentum if they stop now, giving Mubarak an opportunity to reorganize the government on his terms. It’s highly unlikely, if not impossible, that protesters will return home with no guarantees. Although many activists in Tahrir Square speak of a leadership vacuum (ElBaradei is still questionable on the streets and MB may be waiting for Friday), most everyone is united in the belief of finishing what they’ve started. A political breakthrough is always possible, however most of Egypt’s factors point towards a wider confrontation, whether it occurs in a flash or drags on indefinitely.

Given Friday’s looming showdown in Tahrir square, the White House has one more day to avert what could be the biggest battle yet. While declaring support for the opposition and calling for a transitional president, Mubarak has failed to heed Obama and Clinton’s words, going so far as to escalate his violence after their warning. This defiance is partially due to Washington’s refusal to sever ties, fearful that a transitional phase and near-term election would bring the Muslim Brotherhood to a position of power. But if the Obama administration truly wants to be on the right side of history, it needs to get on the opposition’s side before Mubarak topples over.

Whether that happens Friday or not, the White House shouldn’t wait to find out. As it should know by now, revolution can occur at any moment.

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