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From Stalemate to Checkmate

Meet Egypt’s Future Leaders

by ESAM AL-AMIN

O Youth, today is your day so shout  
No more slumber or deep sleep
This is your time and your place            
Bestow on us your talents and efforts
We want Egypt’s youth to hold fast      
As they resist the aggressor and outsider

Egyptian Poet Ibrahim Nagi (1898-1953)

On June 6, 2010, soft-spoken businessman Khaled Said, 28, had his dinner before retreating to his room and embarking on his daily routine of surfing the Internet, blogging, and chatting with his friends on different social websites. Several days earlier, he had posted a seven-minute online video of Alexandria police officers dividing up confiscated drugs among themselves.

When his Internet service suddenly was disrupted that evening, he left his middle class apartment in the coastal city of Alexandria and headed to his neighborhood Internet café. As he resumed blogging, two plain-clothes secret police officers demanded that he be searched. When he inquired as to why or on whose authority, they scoffed at him while blurting out: emergency law. He refused to be touched and demanded to see a uniformed officer or be taken to a police station.

According to eyewitnesses, within minutes they dragged him to a nearby vacant building and began to severely beat up his tiny body, eventually smashing his head on a marble tabletop. His body was subsequently dumped in the street to be retrieved later by an ambulance that declared him dead. According to his mother, Leila Marzouq, his body was totally bruised, teeth broken, and skull fractured.

Immediately, the Interior Ministry started the cover-up campaign. The official report claimed that Said was a drug dealer who tried to escape arrest. They claimed that when he was busted he died by asphyxia as he tried to swallow the narcotics. The authorities backed up this incredible account with two medical reports from the state’s medical examiner. The government print and TV media recycled the official version by painting the reclusive and shy blogger as a reckless drug addict and dealer.

However, when graphic images of Said’s body began to circulate online, other political bloggers and human rights activists were enraged and the nascent youth movement to rescind the 29-year old emergency law started to transform itself from online group discussions to popular protests in the streets of Alexandria, which were predictably met with more police repression and brutality.

Since he became president in 1981, Hosni Mubarak has been utilizing the emergency law as a club to beat down political activity and civil liberties, as well as a means to sanction abuse and torture. According to human rights groups including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Egyptian human rights groups, no less than 30,000 Egyptians have been imprisoned under the law, which allows the police to arrest people without charge, permits the government to ban political organizations, and makes it illegal for more than five people to gather without a permit from the government.

Even the U.S. government confirmed the regime’s atrocious record when the 2009 State Department Human Rights Report submitted to Congress in March 2010 stated, “Police, security personnel, and prison guards often tortured and abused prisoners and detainees, sometimes in cases of detentions under the Emergency Law, which authorizes incommunicado detention indefinitely.”

Said’s case is hardly unique. A recent report published by the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights documented 46 torture cases and 17 cases of death by government secret police between June 2008 and February 2009.

Since his murder the case of Khaled Said has become the cause célèbre for Egypt’s youth. Hundreds of thousands of young people across Egypt have watched related online videos, songs, raps, sketches, or participated in group chat room discussions. A simple Google search of his name yields millions of results, almost all anti-government.

One of the groups that embraced this cause was the April 6 Youth Movement.  It started as an Egyptian Facebook group founded by Human Resources specialist Isra’a Abdel Fattah, 29, and civil engineer Ahmed Maher, 30, in spring 2008 to support the April 6 workers strike in el-Mahalla el-Kobra, an industrial town along the Nile Delta.

On their Facebook page, they encouraged thousands to protest and join the labor strike. Within weeks, over 100,000 members joined the group, who were predominantly young, educated, and politically inexperienced or inactive. Moreover, by making extensive use of online networking tools, they urged their members to demonstrate their support for the workers by wearing black, staying at home, or boycotting products on the day of the strike.

As the secret police cracked down on the April 6 labor strikers, both Abdel Fattah and Maher were arrested, tortured (in the case of Maher, threatened with rape), and detained for a few weeks. Both came out of the prison experience more committed to the cause of freedom and democracy, as well as more determined than ever to carry on with their program of political reforms.

Asma’a Mahfouz, 26, a petite Business Administration graduate, is another prominent figure in the April 6 Youth Movement. By her account she did not have any political training or ideology before joining the group in March 2008. With her two colleagues she immediately helped set up the Facebook page urging Egyptians to support and join the strikes.

More significantly, Mahfouz played a critical role in the mobilization efforts for the current popular revolution. She posted passionate daily online videos imploring her countrymen and women to participate in the protests. In a recent interview, she elucidated her role when she stated, “I was printing and distributing leaflets in popular areas, and calling for citizens to participate. In those areas, I also talked to young people about their rights, and the need for their participation.”

She continued, “At the time when many people were setting themselves on fire, I went into Tahrir Square with several members of the movement, and we tried a spontaneous demonstration to protest against the recurrence of these incidents. However, the security forces prevented us and removed us from the Square. This prompted me to film a video clip, featuring my voice and image, calling for a protest.”

“I said that on the 25th of January, I would be an Egyptian girl defending her dignity and her rights. I broadcasted the video on the Internet, via Facebook, and was surprised by its unprecedented distribution over websites and mobile phones. Subsequently, I made four further videos prior to the date of the protest,” she added.

If Maher is the movement’s national coordinator, Muhammad Adel, 22, a college junior majoring in computer science, is its technology wizard and media coordinator. Online he jokingly calls himself “The dead Dean,” in a reference to his young age and what could be in store for him from the secret police.

In November 2008, he was arrested at the age of twenty, detained and placed in solitary confinement for over 100 days because of his political activities on the Internet. He was denied any means of communications with his family during the whole period. His interrogators pleaded with him to stop blogging so he could be freed. He refused to give them any commitment until he was freed in March 2009.

According to the “April 6 Youth” movement’s platform, its main concerns include promoting political reforms and democratic governance through a strategy of non-violence; constitutional reforms in the areas of civil rights, political freedoms, and judicial independence; and economically addressing poverty, unemployment, social justice and fighting corruption. Their focus is primarily the youth and students. Their means of communications, education and mobilization relies on the extensive use of technology and the Internet.

Wael Ghoneim, 30, a brilliant communications engineer, has been working for several years in Dubai, U.A.E, as Google marketing director for the Middle East and North Africa. As a consequence of the murder of Khaled Said by Mubarak’s regime, he was enraged and created the popular Facebook page “We are all Khaled Said.” A few days before the current uprising he left Dubai to Cairo so he could be part of the historical events.

As the administrator of the popular webpage, Ghoneim was instrumental in the online mobilization efforts of the Jan. 25 uprising. So on the evening of Jan. 27, four plain-clothes secret police officers kidnapped him during the protest, an event that was captured on tape. For the next twelve days the government refused to acknowledge that he was arrested until the newly appointed Prime Minister announced his release on Feb. 7 as a gesture to the demonstrators because of his popularity and prominence in the youth movement.

Upon his release, Ghoneim said that he was kept blindfolded and in isolation the entire time he was in detention as he was interrogated about his role in the uprising. After his release he gave an emotional TV interview calling the three hundred people that have lost their lives during the popular revolution the real heroes of Egypt.

Furthermore, one of the most articulate voices of Egypt’s revolution is thirty-seven year old Nawwara Nagm. Since her graduation as an English literature major, she has been a well-known political activist as well as a severe critic of Mubarak’s regime working as a journalist and blogger for opposition newspapers. In 1995 she was first arrested and sent to prison at the age of twenty-two because she protested the inclusion of Israel in Cairo’s annual Book Fair.

Both of her parents are also well known in Egyptian society. Her father, Ahmad Fuad Nagm, 81, is perhaps the most popular poet in Egypt today. He has been in and out of prison during most of the past five decades (during the reigns of Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak) because of his political and satirical poems that directly attack not only the regime but also its head. Her mother is Safinaz Kazem who broke many barriers as a female journalist. Educated in the U.S. in the 1960’s, she became one of the most respected literary and film critics and political analysts publishing in major Egyptian newspapers and magazines.

Since the uprising began on Jan. 25, Nawwara has been an eloquent spokesperson expressing the steadfast political demands of the organizers and protesters, and in the process mobilizing the support of millions of Egyptians and Arabs who are constantly following the revolution on Al-Jazeera and other satellite networks.

On Sunday Feb. 6, the youth groups that spearheaded Egypt’s revolution formed a coalition called the “Unified Leadership of the Youth of the Rage Revolution.” It consisted of five groups with a grassroots base and are considered the backbone of the organized activities of the revolution.

The coalition includes two representatives from each of the April 6 Youth Movement, the Justice and Freedom Group, the Popular Campaign to Support El-Baradei, the Democratic Front Party, and the popular Muslim Brotherhood Movement. In addition four independent members were also added to the leadership for a total of fourteen members. Maher, the coordinator of the April 6 movement, and Ghoneim, an independent, were elected to the leadership. All members are from the youth in their late 20s or early 30s.

Ahmed Naguib, 33, a key protest organizer, has explained how the leadership was formed. He said, “There are people from the April 6 and Khaled Said movement,” referring to groups that worked non-stop to set off the uprising. Speaking of some opposition parties that want to hijack the revolution or negotiate on its behalf, he said,  “They talk a lot about what the youth has done, but they continue on the same path as the government, marginalizing young people – except for the Muslim Brotherhood and El-Baradei group."

Coalition spokesperson is attorney Ziad Al-Olaimai, 32, from the Popular Campaign to Support El-Baradei. He read a statement on behalf of the coalition at a news conference that laid out their seven demands, namely: the resignation of Mubarak, the immediate lifting of emergency law, release of all political prisoners, the dissolution of both upper and lower chambers of parliament, the formation of a national unity government to manage the transitional period, investigation by the judiciary of the abuses of the security forces during the revolution, and the protection of the protesters by the military.

Muhammad Abbas, 26, is another leader of the coalition representing the youth of the Muslim Brotherhood movement (MB). After initial hesitation at the beginning of the uprising, the MB has brought since Jan. 28 tens of thousands of its supporters to join and help organize the efforts in Tahrir Square as well as in other demonstrations across the country.

On Feb. 2, government goons were beating up, throwing Molotov cocktails, and shooting at the demonstrators. Some of the female demonstrators under siege called Muslim Brotherhood leaders Mohammad El-Biltagi and Esam El-Erian pleading for help. Both leaders rushed to Tahrir Square after midnight leading over five thousand MB members to break the siege.

Dr. Sally Tooma Moore, 32, a Christian Copt and an independent member of the coalition’s leadership, is an Egyptian-British medical doctor. Under gunfire, she helped save hundreds of lives using a makeshift hospital in a Cairo mosque during the violent attacks of the security forces and the outlaws sponsored by the ruling party.

In a recent interview she demonstrated the unity of all Egyptians, Muslims and Copts when she said, “It’s totally beyond description how the mosque has been transformed into a working hospital. It is a mosque but there are no religious divisions.” Her answer to a question by Al-Jazeera about the regime’s assertion regarding the lack of stability in the country was, “What is stability without freedom?”

Revolution and counter-revolution: A test of two wills

Since the inception of the popular revolution on Jan. 25, the regime’s reaction has gone through many typical stages. The first phase was the customary use of security crackdown and utilization of police brutality, which yielded over three hundred people killed and five thousand injured.

A list of the people killed by the regime since Jan. 25 was published on the opposition’s magazine website, Al-Dustoor. It shows that over seventy per cent of those killed were under the age of 32, including children as young as ten, with female casualties constituting about ten percent of the total.

During this stage, the regime cut off all Internet, mobile phone, and instant messaging services in a frantic attempt to disrupt communications and information exchange between the organizers of the revolution. But the genie was already out of the bottle.

When that failed miserably, and in a desperate attempt to end the uprising, the regime created a state of chaos by withdrawing the police and security forces from the streets including from neighborhood police stations, while releasing thousands of criminals from prisons around the country hoping to spread terror and fear as a substitute to stability and order as the beleaguered president warned in his first address. 

The formation of popular committees to protect the neighborhoods coupled with the arrest of the thugs roaming the streets was able to defeat this deplorable scheme. The thugs that were arrested by these committees were handed over to army units deployed throughout the country.

The next stage was a tactical retreat by the government, occurring as the embattled president tried to deflect the popular call for his immediate resignation. Four days after the commencement of the uprising and the subsequent crackdown, he gave an address dismissing his cabinet; mainly sacking his Interior minister as well as other corrupt businessmen who were doubling as ministers of major industrial sectors of the economy.

He appointed his old Air Force colleague, Gen. Ahmad Shafiq, as the new Prime Minister while still incredibly retaining eighteen ministers in the cabinet. He also appointed his long-serving intelligence chief, Gen. Omar Suleiman, as his first ever Vice President so he could be the face of the regime in leading a “dialogue” with the opposition to enact “political reforms.” But these acts were considered too little too late by the revolutionaries, and were rejected outright. In their eyes, he had lost his legitimacy when the first protester was shot dead on Jan. 25.

Within days, the regime offered many sacrificial lambs in the hope that public anger would subside. The ruling party that Mubarak has headed for decades, the National Democratic Party (NDP), was overhauled. All senior leaders, including his son Gamal, were purged. Many corrupt businessmen, who were considered influential party members just before the revolution, were now under investigation by the state prosecutor and prohibited from travel. A few were put under house arrest. Still the angry public was not satisfied, continuing to call on Mubarak to leave.

Moreover, throughout the popular protests the regime used all means to taint the main organizers of the revolution. First, they claimed that the protesters were members of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. This claim while parroted by American Islamophobes and right-wing media, was never taken seriously in Egypt. It was clear to all that the main organizers did not belong to any political party or ideology. In fact, the MB did not join the protests until the Day of Rage on Friday, Jan. 28.

Then the state media repeated the claims that the organizers were agents of foreign powers, financed and manipulated by a foreign hidden agenda. The accusers could not make up their mind. They accused them of working for Iran, Qatar, Hezbollah, Hamas, the U.S. and Israel.

In one instance, state media falsely claimed to have obtained seven Wikileaks documents that showed a conspiracy between Qatar (read Al-Jazeera), the U.S. and Israel to de-stabilize Egypt. Why the U.S. and Israel would undermine a staunch ally like Mubarak was never addressed.

Najat Abdul-Rahman, a journalist in a state-owned magazine called 24 Hours, admitted to her boss that she was pressured by the regime to call a pro-government TV station and falsely claim to be one of the organizers of the protests. She then claimed on air that she and other fellow organizers were trained in the U.S. and Qatar by the Israeli Mossad to spread chaos in Egypt. Although she tried to change her appearance and mask her voice while on camera, her colleagues at the magazine were able to identify her and reveal her identity. She has been suspended without pay pending an investigation.

The regime then turned its fury against the media. It stripped the broadcasting license of Al-Jazeera and withdrew the accreditation of all its correspondents. It also started arresting, harassing, and beating up foreign journalists including CNN’s Anderson Cooper, ABC’s Christiane Amanpour, and CBS’s Katie Couric. This prompted Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to declare, “This is a violation of international norms that guarantee freedom of the press. And it is unacceptable under any circumstances.” Egyptian journalist Ahmad Mahmoud was killed after being shot point blank while taking a photograph.

With intense international pressure mounting, Mubarak gave a second address in which he promised not to seek re-election for a sixth six-year term this September, but nonetheless he refused to bow out and resign. Throughout the crisis, he tried to portray a false image of being confidant and in charge. But clearly the ego of this dictator was bruised as he was denounced daily by millions of his people.

By the end of the first week, it was clear that the stubborn president would not listen to anyone. He was able to at least secure the neutrality of the army, which was not prepared to turn against the people. But it was still loyal to its long-serving commander-in-chief, and would not depose him.

Meanwhile, Vice President Suleiman moved quickly to contain the political fallout of the revolution, and invited the opposition parties for a dialogue including the regime’s nemesis, the MB. Although all opposition groups initially echoed the street demand of Mubarak’s ouster, some groups, which had very little public following, gladly joined Suleiman hoping to have a seat at the table and to get some attention.

But everyone knew that without the participation of the youth movement or the MB, any dialogue with the regime would be meaningless. While the youth steadfastly maintained their position of “no dialogue unless Mubarak is out,” the MB fell into the trap of the regime and participated, along with many other opposition groups, in a dialogue with Suleiman.

It was a classic trap. More than forty opposition members entered a room where a huge portrait of Mubarak hung on the wall, a slap across the face of millions of Egyptians who were chanting for his ouster in the past ten days. It was clear that Suleiman was in charge of the meeting as he chaired the session and dictated the agenda. The groups were guests in his house. Not a great start.

At any rate, the regime did not give an inch. Suleiman even refused to entertain discussing the idea of Mubarak’s ouster. He simply reiterated all the “concessions” given by Mubarak in his earlier speeches including cosmetic changes to the constitution, and pledging that Mubarak would not run in the next presidential elections.

It is not clear why the MB participated, but most observers believe that the group sought legitimacy after being outlawed since 1954. It is ironic that the group would seek legitimacy from a regime that has just been de-legitimized by its people.

Upon the end of the meeting, the regime immediately issued a communiqué that thanked Mubarak, and reiterated the regime’s perspective and interpretation of events. It claimed inaccurately that all participants agreed on the road map towards finding a solution to the “crisis,” which was based on limited reforms to the constitution and elections, while maintaining all state institutions and characters including the fraudulent parliament. It did not promise the immediate lifting of the emergency law. Ironically, a day after the dialogue Suleiman declared on national TV that “Egypt is not ready for democracy.” So much for a reform agenda.

The MB leaders who attended the meeting held a press conference afterwards that not only contradicted Suleiman’s assertions, but also previous statements given by other MB leaders such as Abdul Monem Abu-el-Futooh, who maintained the original stand of no negotiations until Mubarak’s ouster. It seems that for a perceived short-term gain, the MB was looking weak and confused. A day later the MB rejected Suleiman’s characterization of the talks and renewed its demand for Mubarak’s ouster.

Meanwhile, the Youth leadership in Tahrir Square immediately rejected Suleiman’s offer and proclamations. They declared that they were neither party to any agreement nor willing to consider any proposals until Mubarak is removed. For the previous twelve days they have been able to mobilize over ten million Egyptians in the streets, why should they compromise on their first demand? They asked rhetorically. The will of the people shall be respected, and must defeat the stubbornness of Mubarak and his regime, they declared. After fifteen days the crowds have been sharply on the rise all over the country. Daily they number in the millions from all walks of life.

Checkmate: Revolution legitimacy trumps an archaic constitution

For a day, the declared results of the so-called dialogue by the regime created breathing space for the feeble regime to recover. On Monday Feb. 7, the U.S. and its European allies, which for days had been hinting and pushing for Mubarak’s resignation, suddenly changed their stand and accepted for Mubarak to stay until September in order to allow for “a constitutional transfer of power.”

On Feb. 8, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowly stated, “if President Mubarak stepped down today, under the existing constitution, … there would have to be an election within 60 days. A question that that would pose is whether Egypt today is prepared to have a competitive, open election.”

In effect, supporters of the revolution feared that its momentum might slow down, a stalemate may come to pass.

Since the uprising began, Mubarak has been hiding behind the new face of the regime, Gen. Suleiman. The U.S, Israel and other Western countries strongly prefer him over any other candidates to maintain the status quo and “stability,” in order to keep the current balance of power in the region, which is hugely in favor of Israel.

Newly released Wikileaks documents reveal that Suleiman has been a long-standing favorite by the U.S. and Israel to succeed Mubarak for many years. The London Daily Telegraph recently published leaked cables from American embassies in Cairo and Tel Aviv showing the close cooperation between the Egyptian Vice President and the U.S. and Israeli governments.

The newspaper described that “One cable in August 2008, stated that “Hacham was full of praise for Suleiman, and noted that a ‘hot line’ set up between the MOD and Egyptian General Intelligence Service is now in daily use,” in reference to David Hacham, a senior adviser from the Israeli Ministry of Defense.

In another cable, Tel Aviv diplomats added: “We defer to Embassy Cairo for analysis of Egyptian succession scenarios, but there is no question that Israel is most comfortable with the prospect of Omar Suleiman.” Moreover, the paper stated that “the files suggest that Mr. Suleiman wanted Hamas isolated, and thought Gaza should go hungry but not starve.”

Regardless, the organizers of the revolution declared that they have no trust in the regime. They asked rhetorically how could they trust a Vice President whose loyalty is to a discredited and illegitimate president. Thus they firmly rejected not only Suleiman and his parameters for a way forward, but also the premise that any real change would come from adhering to a constitution that has been shredded many time by an illegitimate regime. They advocated a position that called for the legitimacy of the revolution over any outdated constitutional legitimacy.

The youth leaders maintain that all institutions of state power, except the army, which on the surface declared its neutrality, have lost their legitimacy in lieu of the will of the people to support the revolution. They insisted that the people have already spoken and called for Mubarak’s ouster, the dissolution of parliament, the replacement of the government, and the formation of constitutional experts to re-write a new constitution. Therefore, all efforts by the regime to re-constitute itself through promised reforms to maintain its grip on power are illegitimate and rejected. This is a popular revolution not a protest, they maintained.

As the government attempts to weather the storm and deal with Tahrir Square as a Hyde Park phenomenon, a place where people vent their frustrations, the leadership of the revolution has devised new tactics to force the regime to accept their demands.

They have called for massive demonstrations not only in public squares but also called for similar protests around strategic governmental buildings. For example, on Feb. 8 in addition to a million demonstrators in Tahrir Square, hundreds of thousands held huge demonstrations around the Prime Minster’s building, preventing him from reaching his office. They also blocked the parliament, preventing any member from going in or out. They vowed that soon the presidential palace would be surrounded.

The protesters were also joined this week with professional syndicates and labor unions. Hundreds of judges stood in Tahrir Square on Tuesday wearing their judicial robes in support of the revolution. Similarly, hundreds of journalists chased away the pro-government head of their union declaring the union independent and free. Likewise, hundreds of university professors from colleges across Egypt showed up at Tahrir Square declaring their full support for the goals of the revolution.

Next week schools and universities will be back from the Spring break. The organizers plan to call on hundreds of thousands of students to participate in the demonstrations that could paralyze the whole education system. Meanwhile, they have also reached out to labor unions calling for massive strikes across the nation, especially in state factories and public industries. When this is fully implemented, Egypt’s export business could come to a screeching halt.

Slowly but surely selected major industries such as transportation, oil, or navigation through the Suez Canal could also be severely hindered. Sports activities have already ceased. The film industry has stopped all productions. There is no end to what activities the revolutionaries could advocate or call for. The initiatives are in their hands. They believe that they have the legitimacy and the support of the people.

In short, the revolution has adapted to the maneuvering of the regime and has adopted a comprehensive program of activities that are creative and extensive. Time is no longer on the regime’s side. With the passing of each week more Egyptians are joining the revolution. A culture of freedom and empowerment is on the rise.

Meanwhile, the international community could speed up the inevitable, which is the collapse of the corrupt and repressive regime. Last week the Guardian and several financial publications including the Wall Street Journal and MSNBC, showed that Mubarak’s family might be worth between $40 to $70 Billion. Most of this wealth is believed to be in the U.S, the U.K, Switzerland, France, Germany, Italy and Spain. In short, Western governments have access to ill-gotten money that belong to the Egyptian people. They can start investigations to determine the legality of these assets.

Similarly, they can encourage Mr. Mubarak to go to Germany for his annual (extended) medical check-up, after which he could render his resignation. The people of Egypt would not forget who stood with them during their revolution, who stood against them, and who was on the sideline.

When Mahfouz, the revolution’s video blogger was asked what her expectations are now after the massive demonstrations, she answered, “All Egyptians, not only the protestors, have broken through the fear barrier. I expect only one outcome – protests will continue until Mubarak steps down from power.”

Mubarak and his Western backers better take notice. Checkmate.

ESAM AL-AMIN can be reached at alamin1919@gmail.com