by David Malone
The headquarters of the ruling Egyptian National Democratic party is on fire. There is no more powerful icon of popular disgust with Mubarak’s rule than this.
So far there has been no word from Mubarak. He has been deafening in his silence and invisibility. Is he still there? Will those countries in the West who have sustained him in power over his people, leave him in the country as a sacrifice or will they spirit him away?
And they may have to do one or the other soon because the government curfew has failed. In Cairo, Suez and Alexandria the army and its tanks are on the streets, while the protesters have set fire to cars and army vehicles.
The government has now brought the army in to try to do the job the riot police have been unable to do. But as I type an angry crowd of protesters have stopped and set fire to an army troop carrier. They are now trying to push another off the bridge in to the Nile.
All day the protesters have faced down the riot police despite their use of tear gas and stun grenades. The question is how far will the army escalate their response. Right now, for the moment at least, the answer appears to be all the way. The leaders of the army will be watching and weighing their options.
In Cairo there are now sounds of both small arms fire and large explosions. And as the crowd closes in to the Ministry of Information they will come face to face with units of Egyptian special forces. What those special forces do will determine what happens next and whether the hardliners are going to fight it out.
Make no mistake, Egypt is the key to the whole region. It is the gateway between Arabia and North Africa. It has the crossings with Gaza and Israel. It has Al-Azhar University in Cairo which has been and still is one of if not the intellectual centres of radical Islamic thought. What role Wahhabism comes to have in this popular uprising will be key to the nest few weeks and Al-Azhar will be the key to that.
Egypt has been central to US foreign policy for decades as America’s model for a modern secular, democratic, business and Western oriented Arab nation. That model was always a lie since Mubarak was a familiar western supported, president for life in all but name. That model, America’s model, is now on fire. Hillary Clinton has just been wheeled out to say the usual things about peaceful protest and the need for the government to play nicer with its people. The usual empty Washington blah, blah, blah. But just because the public statements are anodyne doesn’t mean that America’s intelligence and military aren’t worried. Egypt is America’s second most important ally in the Middle East after Israel. America gives Egypt about 1.5 billion dollars annually.
The question worrying Washington is whether Iran’s influence will seep into any vacuum.
None of the western intelligence agencies has good human intelligence on the ground in Egypt, and certainly not in Al-Azhar. The Americans have by far the least clue and the fewest human resources. The Israelis have the most intelligence sources but they are at the moment not cooperating with their American colleagues they way they have done in the past. Which blinds the Americans even more than usual.
What everyone is listening out for is what the Shia are going to do. If Shia names start to come to the fore that will signal that the uprising has become part of something much wider.
The unrest has already spread from Algeria to Egypt but now to Syria as well. Today the Syrian government shut down Internet access. Israel is surrounded by Muslim unrest and regimes being rocked. Don’t expect Mr Netanyahu to be a force for peace.
The riots in Egypt are intensifying as I write. The protesters are setting more police vehicles on fire and stoning the police who are shooting back.
Hovering uneasily in the background to all this is the questions which no one wants to talk about, will Israel, Iran and America let this remain a matter for Egypt and its people or will they make it a regional and strategic conflict.
So far no one has been burning flags in front of the cameras and no one has reported the crowds chanting death to America or death to Israel. So far this uprising has been about chronic poverty, massive disparity between rich and poor and a president who has been trying to position his son to succeed him in another of Egypt’s ‘free and fair elections’.
So far this has been about ordinary Egyptions wanting a better life for their children and some substance to the charade of democracy we in the West have been content to pay lip service to. My worry is that America, Israel and Iran won’t let it stay that way but will each contribute to making it another bloody battleground of their ideologies.
And lastly – watch out for what happens to the canal. Who will secure it and under what pretext.
David Malone is the author of the book Debt Generation. You can read and listen to excerpts from his book here: http://www.debtgeneration.org/index.php