Interview with The Real News Network on February 2, 2011
Press here to listen to the interview
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. In Cairo today, President Mubarak made his next move. Hundreds if not thousands of thugs suspected to be on the payroll of either the police or the internal security in some form or another attacked peaceful protesters in Tahrir Square and other parts of Cairo. Now joining us from Cairo to describe today’s events and what’s happening now is Khaled Fahmy. He’s professor and chair of the Department of History at the American University in Cairo. Khaled, describe what’s been happening.
KHALED FAHMY, CHAIR, HISTORY DEPT., AMER. UNIV. IN CAIRO: Right now, the Square is still in the hands of the pro-democracy, anti-Mubarak demonstrators. Their numbers have been radically diminished, however. It’s very difficult to estimate the numbers, but it is a very, very small fraction of the numbers that used to occupy the Square yesterday and the previous day. At the outskirts of the Square and in the–all of its entrances are pro-Mubarak supporters. These are basically thugs armed with machetes and knives and clubs. There are skirmishes and attacks on other streets leading through the Square. There is a call for a big anti-Mubarak demonstration on Friday. That’s basically the situation on the ground. Obviously, the pro-democracy movement is very demoralized by this dramatic turn of events, but they are not giving up, and they are determined to stand up for another round of fighting.
JAY: What is the army role at the moment? What are they doing?
FAHMY: The army is standing still. I think this has been a very clever tactic on the part of the Mubarak regime. Mubarak is a–he’s a very astute politician. He has been in power for 30 years, not for nothing. I think what we have seen today is vintage Mubarak. With regards to the army in particular, obviously the army did not want to disperse the crowds itself. This would have tarnished its reputation and ended its credibility. Mubarak, however, has cleverly decided to rely not on the army and not on the uniformed policemen but on the hundreds and hundreds of thugs in his pay. We have seen these thugs and criminals in previous demonstrations. They usually occupy the rear lines of the uniformed police force. We have seen them repeatedly–when the police attack the demonstrators, either with tear gas or with clubs or with water cannons, after this first assault, usually, the police unleash these thugs who are in the pay of the Ministry of Interior; they unleash them onto the crowd. These are either ex-convicts or drug traffickers or criminals or people who have some kind of dubious links with the Ministry of Interior. This is what we’ve seen today. Some people say they are not Ministry of Interior officials or in the pay of the Ministry of Interior as much as of the National Democratic Party. In either case, I’ve seen them–early today, before the attack, I’ve seen them being organized in the northern part of the city. I was in the airport. I was driving back. I parked my car. I marched with them for a long distance, because I was delivering a friend to the Ramses Hilton Hotel. Then I went back to pick up my car. This process took about three hours. In these three hours I saw and overheard many conversations between these people, and it was clear to me, an Egyptian–I know the city well–it was very clear to me that these are not the usual people who are demonstrating, for very good reason, for the restoration of the services of the city, because the city has basically come to a standstill about a week ago and people are tired of this. These are legitimate concerns. But these are people who are not airing these concerns. These are people who were very clear they did not come from the city itself, because some of them were asking for directions for some very famous landmarks in the city, like the TV building. So it was very clear to me that they are not from the city. They were being organized and put on trucks, or semi-trucks, to be moved in truckloads to specific positions. They were also carrying banners and leaflets that had been preorganized and orchestrated from before–they were not spontaneous–either slogans being shouted or slogans being written. It was something very orchestrated from the start. So it was very clear that this was an attempt to take back the Square. This is an Egyptian Tiananmen Square. This is vintage Mubarak, in the sense that rather than moving the army and having a head-on confrontation with the peaceful demonstrators, he unleashed these thugs, some of them on horseback, some on camelback. We have been hearing these very strange, unconfirmed rumors–now they are confirmed–of these animals being moved from very early in the day. From the Pyramids Plateau, where they are used for the tourist industry, they have been moved overnight to the eastern part of the Square, only to be used by these thugs when they have amassed and then unleashed on the demonstrators with batons and clubs and machetes.
JAY: Can you talk a bit about the political moment that you’re in? There was this, I guess you could say, moment of truth. If Mubarak manages the transition, I guess the fear is that by the time the elections come, there’ll be an organized Mubarak without Mubarak, versus some kind of transition to a real government of national salvation now, which would be more or less regime change now. Can you talk a bit about what this moment is and why you think all this is happening?
FAHMY: Well, the political movement now is in deep crisis. Egypt has been thrown, because of the events of today, into deep, deep crisis. Whatever possibility that existed yesterday, as slim as it was, for a dialog between the Mubarak people and the opposition has been eradicated now. This is exactly the kind of tactics that was in the opposition’s minds when they say, we do not trust this regime, we do not trust Mubarak to stay and finish his term of office till September. This is why the people yesterday said that Mubarak’s speech yesterday, in which he said that he is not going to run again for office in September, they thought this was not enough. They wanted him to abdicate and resign today, because staying in power from now till September will only polarize the situation. This is what people were saying yesterday. Now things escalated much more, because now he has burned all bridges with the opposition. No one, obviously, in their right minds will ever trust this regime or will ever have the credibility to sit and negotiate with them. That is the situation we find ourselves in. This country is utterly volatile, and it’s really on the brink of collapse.
JAY: Do the protesters have the capacity to fight back if this–against the thugs if this becomes an issue of arms?
FAHMY: The protesters have been peaceful throughout. We have–they have occupied the Square for nine days without a single skirmish. The skirmishes happened today because of the government forces being unleashed on them. Now there are calls for a big anti-government demonstration next Friday. I suspect, however, that if this demonstration goes on, the same tactics will be employed on them, even if this conversation doesn’t take place in Tahrir. In other words, if it’s not simply a sit-in but an actual marching demonstration, leading from various parts of the city, as was the case last Friday, I have very little doubt that in this case it will be peaceful. I think if the regime’s started using these tactics, I think it will go to the very end. This is a regime that is trying to maintain power by all means possible. I for one will definitely march in that anti-Mubarak demonstration on Friday, and I know many of my friends will.
JAY: Is there any possibility or any sign that ordinary soldiers may help protect the protesters? There was all this, you know, talk about how the army was there to protect the people.
FAHMY: No. The army now has–there are big question marks being raised about the position of the army. The army, for the past nine days, has maintained its neutrality and has protected the peaceful demonstration in Tahrir Square. They were checking not only the IDs of people entering the Square from all entrances, but also their physical bodies. They were making sure that they were not carrying any weapons. Today they led them through, and they led them through only a couple of hours after the army has issued a communique telling the demonstrators, your message has been heard loud and clear; now is the time to go back home and wait at home. So if you–it doesn’t take a genius to connect the dots and discover that there is a connection between these two gestures. Now, whether this was a decision taken by the high brass of the Egyptian army or whether it was taken by people on the spot or whether there were no orders given whatsoever, we don’t know. It’s not clear. But there are now a precarious security situation in the city at large. The police have been withdrawn. There’s no presence of the Egyptian police, except the very minimal presence in the city. More than half the police stations in the city have been burned down. There is a very suspicious withdrawal of the police force from the city in the past nine days. And the army is not doing anything to keep the protesters away from each other. This can very easily escalate into a much deeper crisis, a much deeper chaos.
JAY: Is there any possibility or indication that ordinary soldiers won’t follow orders?
FAHMY: I think it’s very difficult, because these are not anti-riot policemen. These are soldiers arming tanks. How can you protect demonstrators with tanks? They’re not trained to deal with urban riots. So the city is very volatile. The people who are supposed to maintain its security have been withdrawn in a very suspicious and cynical move by the Ministry of Interior.
JAY: Talk about the bigger political picture. Would it be correct to say that what’s happening here is that anti-Mubarak, pro-democracy forces are looking for a real transformation, a real regime change, whereas the regime is trying to create Mubarak without Mubarak?
FAHMY: The regime depends on Mubarak. And I think he’s the one who’s calling the shots. It’s difficult to imagine what kind of–we’re not, obviously, privy to any kind of conversation taking place between Mubarak and his top generals, top army generals, so we don’t know what it is that they are planning or how it is they’re planning to maintain the regime without him at the helm. The anti-Mubarak, pro-democracy movement is also suffering from a serious problem, which is lack of coordination and a lack of a clear figure around whom people could coalesce as a potential leader. The only solution to the crisis now is for Mubarak to step aside and for a transitional government to be put in place with clear, new, clean rules for the game, to prepare for free and fair elections in September.
JAY: So that’s–Mubarak’s–clearly seems not willing to do this. Talk a bit about [Mohamed] ElBaradei. Does–can he play this role or not?
FAHMY: Yeah, ElBaradei can play this role. Baradei may or may not be a potential president, he may or may not run for the elections, but Baradei is a credible opposition leader, because he in fact has been insisting all the way along of different rules of the game. We need specific measures to be put in place in order to start negotiating, in order to start talking, because right now–he has always maintained that right now the situation is just not tenable. So I think Baradei is a credible figure in that sense. He may be a good transitional leader, he may occupy a position of prime minister or an interim president, preparing the grounds for the coming elections. There is no way that Mubarak can stay in power after what he has done today.
JAY: On the other hand, it looks like he plans to stay in power. And when you say there’s no way he can stay in power, if the army stays loyal to Mubarak, why can’t he stay in power?
FAHMY: No, I mean this can only trigger a much bigger anti-Mubarak movement. People are enraged by his tactics. So, yes, the army is with him, but he has lost all credibility.
JAY: How long can people last in terms of the unraveling of the economy? We understand there’s a lack of food, lack of all kinds of basic necessities.
FAHMY: People are suffering very deeply. Yesterday was the beginning of the new month and people were expecting their pay. They queued for long time in front of the ATMs, and there was no money in the ATMs. Long lines for gas, long lines for bread. And that is causing a lot of frustration and anger in–and anxiety, obviously, in the street. This cannot go on for a long time. It has–there needs to be a resolution for this crisis in a matter of hours, not days.
JAY: What do people think of the role President Obama has been playing? And what do they want him to do?
FAHMY: People want Mubarak to come down with a much clearer stance, telling Mubarak that his time is over and that he should leave, in clear, unambiguous terms. The tear gas canisters have “Made in the USA” written clearly on them. The tanks that Mubarak uses are all made in the USA. Egypt is a large recipient of annual foreign aid from the US. This is a regime that depends in very important and crucial ways on US. Without US support, this regime would collapse. And this is what he’s counting on for many, many years. For decades now, Mubarak has been selling himself as the pillar of stability in the region. Now we have seen what this stability is. Stability that is based on dictatorship and oppression and injustice and poverty cannot be stability. It can only grow instability and violence the way we have seen today. So Mubarak, in my mind, is really the main cause for the instability of the country and indeed the region, and it is time for him to go, in the name of stability.
JAY: So what would you like to hear from President Obama? What should he say?
FAHMY: President Obama should tell Mubarak, your time is over. You–it is not enough that you say to your people that you’re not going to run for elections, for reelection in September. You have to step down immediately and to hand over the government to a credible government that includes members of the opposition, and to put in place credible, immediate measures to have free and fair elections for the coming few weeks.
JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Khaled. And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.