Sunday, 13 February 2011

Counter-revolutionaries in Tahrir Square?

Who would organise a demonstration demanding that a group of revolutionaries abandon the site of their victory, just two days after the revolutionaries thought they had triumphed? The young people who brought down Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak have already been hailed as heros by the old state media, by the military council now ruling Egypt and by several of the ministers left over from Mubarak's time. With understandable logic the protesters argued that a contingent should stay on in Tahrir Square to ensure that the military council meets their outstanding demands -- specifically a timetable for a transition to civilian government, the release of all political prisoners , the dissolution of both houses of parliament, an end to the state of emergency and a national salvation government to replace the one appointed by Mubarak two weeks ago. But in the early hours of Saturday soldiers and military policemen arrived at their encampment and started to evict them, saying they wanted to clear the square so that life in Cairo could return to normal. At about the same time the army was detaining some 40 of the protest organisers, all of whom were still missing two hours ago. So far one could give the army the benefit of the doubt and trust in its good intentions. After all, the army is not accustomed to dealing with large numbers of civilians, especially in a crowded urban context. Maybe the order came down the chain of command that they should clear the square, without specifying how they should go about the task or suggesting that the best way might be to negotiate some compromise arrangement with the organisers.
    Those would be the most generous interpretations of the army's conduct in Tahrir Square this morning. In fact, as has been common over the past few weeks, the army went about its task without great resolve. By noon on Saturday military policemen had formed a cordon around a hard core of protesters but other protesters and onlookers were milling around on the roadway, thwarting the army's attempts to ease the flow of traffic. But then a strange thing happened. A group of 200 counter-protesters appeared from across the square, chanting "The people want to clear the square" - a parody of the uprising's most common slogan: "The people want to overthrow the regime". They also chanted one of the slogans which protesters had chanted earlier when they wanted to win the sympathy of the army against Mubarak: "The army, the people, hand in hand." I went to speak to some of them to find out who they were and why they felt so strongly about what might appear to be a rather trivial matter compared to the political future of the country. One of them said he worked in the prime minister's office down the road and the protesters were obstructing the way to the office. Another said he was a businessman and the protesters were giving people abroad the impression that the country was still unstable, deterring tourists and investors. What was especially strange was the vehemence with which they expressed their views, which seemed out of all proportion with their grievance. The counter-demonstration certainly added to the apprehensions of the revolutionaries, who say they are losing trust in the army and in its readiness to bring about radical change in Egypt. "They want to thwart the revolution," one member of the organising committee told a news conference. " "We want to keep a presence in the square to monitor the process of change," added Shadi Atia, another organiser who had rushed from his home in the southern suburb of Maadi on news that the army has trying to clear the square. "We are a bit worried now. What if the army is not being straight with us? What's the problem with people staying in Tahrir?" he added. I asked one of the counter-protesters if anyone had paid them to take part, as was common practice in Mubarak's time if the regime wanted to organise a loyal demonstration. "Mubarak's gone," he said, "so who would pay people now? Go ask the others who's paying them." Many of the onlookers also said they opposed the idea of continued protests, and they at least appeared to be speaking on their own behalf. Maybe the protest movement is being unnecessarily suspicious about the army's intentions, but the counter-demonstration was strangely reminiscent of the pro-Mubarak demonstrations which died away about 10 days ago.    

No comments:

Post a Comment