- 18 Days That Shook The World
How People Power Worked
By Charles Levinson And Margaret Coker
Hosni Mubarak was thrust by violence into the leadership of the Arab world’s most populous country, and has been forced out by a wave of popular protest. Stability had been the watchword of his presidency, with emergency law — which prevented gatherings of more than five people — lasting throughout the 30 years of his rule. But in January 2011, inspired by the revolution in Tunisia, Egypt erupted in unprecedented protest. The country saw weeks of sustained demonstrations by protesters frustrated by poverty, corruption, unemployment and autocratic rule. In a televised address on February 1, Mubarak announced he had decided not to stand for re-election in September. But protesters were demanding nothing less than the resignation of one of the Arab world’s longest-serving rulers. And they got their way on Friday. In an announcement on state TV, Vice-President Omar Suleiman said Mubarak had handed power to the military. It came as thousands massed in Cairo and other Egyptian cities for an 18th day of protest to demand Mubarak’s resignation. Protesters responded by cheering, waving flags, embracing and sounding car horns. “The people have brought down the regime,” they chanted. Suleiman said Mubarak had handed power to the high command of the armed forces.
CAIRO — The Egyptian opposition’s takeover of the area around the parliament this week began with a trick — the latest example of how, for more than two weeks, young activists have outwitted Egypt’s feared security forces to spur an uprising many here had long thought impossible.
A boy shouts antigovernment slogans Thursday at Egypt’s parliament building. Protesters used a feint to gain territory there this week, the latest attempt to outflank security forces.
On Tuesday, young opposition organisers called for a march on the state television building a few blocks north of their encampment in central Tahrir Square. Then, while the army deployed to that sensitive communications hub, protesters expanded southward into the lightly defended area around Egypt’s parliament building.
As Egypt’s antigovernment protests reached their 17th day on Thursday, President Hosni Mubarak’s regime was deep in turmoil. The head of the ruling National Democratic Party said he advised Mubarak to step down. The country’s army moved to take control of the streets. But Mubarak, to the rage of demonstrators, didn’t step aside.
The demonstrations that now bedevil Mubarak across Cairo and Egypt took seed in part thanks to one trick play, interviews with several protest planners show.
On Jan. 25, the first day of protests, the organisers from the youth wings of Egypt’s opposition movements created what appeared to be a spontaneous massing of residents of the slum of Bulaq al-Dakrour, on Cairo’s western edge. These demonstrators weren’t, as the popular narrative has held, educated youth who learned about protests on the Internet. They were instead poor residents who filled a maze of muddy, narrow alleyways, massed in front of a neighborhood candy store and caught security forces flatfooted.
That protest was anything but spontaneous. How the organisers pulled it off, when so many past efforts had failed, has had people scratching their heads since.
After his release from detention Sunday, Google Inc. Executive Wael Ghonim recounted his meeting with Egypt’s newly appointed interior minister. “No one understood how you did it,” Ghonim said the minister told him. He said his interrogators concluded that outside forces had to have been involved.
Officials at the Interior Ministry, which oversees the police, couldn’t be reached to comment.
The plotters, who now form the leadership core of the Revolutionary Youth Movement, which has stepped to the fore as representatives of protesters in Tahrir Square, in interviews over recent days revealed how they did it.
In early January, this core of planners decided they would try to replicate the accomplishments of the protesters in Tunisia who ultimately ousted President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. Their immediate concern was how to foil the Ministry of Interior, whose legions of riot police had contained and quashed protests for years. The police were expert at preventing demonstrations from growing or moving through the streets, and at keeping ordinary Egyptians away.
“We had to find a way to prevent security from making their cordon and stopping us,” said 41-year-old architect Basem Kamel, a member of Mohamed El Baradei’s youth wing and one of the dozen or so plotters.
A succession of rallies and demonstrations, in Egypt, Jordan, Yemen and Algeria have been inspired directly by the popular outpouring of anger that toppled Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.
Clashes in Cairo
Since late January, anti-government demonstrators have swarmed the streets of Cairo, calling for President Hosni Mubarak to step down and at times clashing with the President’s supporters.
They met daily for two weeks in the cramped living room of the mother of Ziad al-Alimi. Alimi is a leading youth organizer for El Baradei’s campaign group. His mother, a former activist who served six months in prison for her role leading protests during the bread riots in 1977, lives in the middle-class neighbourhood of Agouza on the west bank of the Nile.
Those present included representatives from six youth movements connected to opposition political parties, groups advocating labour rights and the Muslim Brotherhood.
They chose 20 protest sites, usually connected to mosques, in densely populated working-class neighbourhoods around Cairo. They hoped that such a large number of scattered rallies would strain security forces, draw larger numbers and increase the likelihood that some protesters would be able to break out and link up in Tahrir Square.
The group publicly called for protests at those sites for Jan. 25, a national holiday celebrating the country’s widely reviled police force. They announced the sites of the demonstrations on the Internet and called for protests to begin at each one after prayers at about 2 p.m.
But that wasn’t all
“The 21st site, no one knew about,” Kamel said.
To be sure, these activists weren’t the only ones calling for protests that day, other influential groups rallied their resources to the cause. The Facebook page for Khaled Said, the young man beaten to death by police in Alexandria, had emerged months earlier as an online gathering place for activists in Egypt.
There was an Arabic page and an English page, and each had its own administrators. Ghonim, the Google executive, has now been identified as one. The pages’ other administrators remain anonymous.
An administrator for the English-language page, who uses the online moniker El-Shaheed, or The Martyr, recounted the administrators’ role in the protests in an interview with The Wall Street Journal via Gmail Chat.
El-Shaheed recalled exchanging messages with the site’s Arabic-language administrator on Jan. 14, just as news broke of the Tunisian president’s flight from his country. Kamel and his cohorts, who had already begun plotting their protest, now had another powerful recruiting force.
“I was talking with Arabic admin and we were watching Tunisia and the moment we heard Ben Ali ran away, he said, ‘We have to do something,’” said El-Shaheed, whose true identity couldn’t be determined.
The Arabic administrator posted on the Arabic page an open question to readers: “What do you think we should give as a gift to the brutal Egyptian police on their day?”
“The answer came from everyone: Tunisia Tunisia :),” wrote El-Shaheed.
For the final three days before the protest, Kamel and his fellow plotters say they slept away from home, fearing police would come to arrest them in the middle of the night. Worrying their cellphones would be monitored, they used those of family members or friends.
They sent small teams to do reconnaissance on the secret 21st site. It was the Bulaq al-Dakrour neighborhood’s Hayiss Sweet Shop, whose storefront and tiled sidewalk plaza — meant to accommodate outdoor tables in warmer months — would make an easy-to-find rallying point in an otherwise tangled neighbourhood no different from countless others around the city.
The plotters say they knew that the demonstrations’ success would depend on the participation of ordinary Egyptians in working-class districts like this one, where the Internet and Facebook aren’t as widely used. They distributed fliers around the city in the days leading up to the demonstration, concentrating efforts on Bulaq al-Dakrour.
“It gave people the idea that a revolution would start on Jan. 25,” Mr. Kamel said.
In the days leading up to the demonstration, organisers sent small teams of plotters to walk the protest routes at various speeds, to synchronize how separate protests would link up.
On Jan. 25, security forces predictably deployed by the thousands at each of the announced demonstration sites. Meanwhile, four field commanders chosen from the organisers’ committee began dispatching activists in cells of 10. To boost secrecy, only one person per cell knew their destination.
In these small groups, the protesters advanced toward the Hayiss Sweet Shop, massing into a crowd of 300 demonstrators free from police control. The lack of security prompted neighborhood residents to stream by the hundreds out of the neighborhood’s cramped alleyways, swelling the crowd into the thousands, say sweet-shop employees who watched the scene unfold.
At 1:15 p.m., they began marching toward downtown Cairo. By the time police redeployed a small contingent to block their path, the protesters’ ranks had grown enough to easily overpower them.
The other marches organised at mosques around the city failed to reach Tahrir Square, their efforts foiled by riot-police cordons. The Bulaq al-Dakrour marchers, the only group to reach their objective, occupied Tahrir Square for several hours until after midnight, when police attacked demonstrators with tear gas and rubber bullets.
It was the first time Egyptians had seen such a demonstration in their streets, and it provided a spark credited with emboldening tens of thousands of people to come out to protest the following Friday. On Jan. 28, they seized Tahrir Square again. They have stayed there since.
Thugs-for-Hire Leave Mark On Protests
CAIRO — As popular anger against the Egyptian regime swelled last month, Saeed was locked up in a prison at a Cairo police station. The station’s chief approached him with a bargain: Saeed would attack and help disperse the protesters that were converging on Cairo’s Tahrir Square — and in return, Saeed recalled, the chief would erase the drug and illegal-arms-possession charges pending against him.
Saeed, a scrawny and bearded 30-something man who would give only his first name, is what most Egyptians commonly refer to as a baltagi — a part-time thug for hire. Saeed said he didn’t go to Tahrir Square but that several fellow detainees did.
In key moments of Egypt’s upheaval, in particular last Wednesday, pro-government forces massed to beat back protesters. Eyewitnesses in several places around Cairo say they believe it was this class of paid criminals who fueled and at times led this push to intimidate demonstrators around the city.
The baltagiya — the plural of a word of Turkish origin meaning the ax-wielding one — have long been used by members of Egypt’s ruling party to intimidate opposition candidates and voters during elections. Critics of the regime say security forces have employed them to help disrupt protests and target opponents. Average Egyptians sometimes commission them to settle scores when legal channels are exhausted.
In an apparent effort to distance himself from the practices of some members of his own party, President Mubarak issued a decree Tuesday to form a committee to investigate the clashes between his supporters and the protesters in Tahrir last week.
An Interior Ministry official said no one at the ministry was in a position to comment on the accusations.
It is ultimately unclear the degree to which the pro-Mubarak crowds that formed in recent days were made up of baltagiya, as opposed to plainclothes security police or, in many cases, Egyptians who say they have grown weary of upheaval.
At an NPD-organized pro-government rally on Friday in the city’s central Mustafa Mahmoud Square, families were brought in by minibus from Ezbet Khairallah, a downtrodden area outside Cairo that several residents of the capital say is known for its thugs for hire. A group of them — mostly young and middle-age men but including a black-trenchcoated woman — identified themselves as from the neighborhood shortly before they attacked a journalist.
Nearby that day, a driver was dragged out of his car by about a half-dozen baton-wielding men who asked him whether he was “with the regime or against it.” Residents say the man was pummeled when he hesitated to answer.
Several Egyptian intellectuals and journalists have said they believe the regime gave free rein to the baltagiya at the start of the protests to highlight the instability that could set in should Mubarak leave office. But thug-fueled chaos instead appear to have undermined Mubarak’s credibility.
Saeed, the recent detainee, said he took to crime in his teens to support his family. During 2005 elections, he said, he rounded up neighborhood men who he said NDP candidates would pay to beat up and intimidate rivals and their supporters. He said he received 2,000 to 5,000 Egyptian pounds ($340 to $860) per job.