Whoever comes out on top after the dust settles in Egypt, one thing’s for certain: the political equation in the Middle East — characterized for decades by Israeli regional hegemony — will never be the same again.
Along with being the Arab world’s most populous country, with a majority-Muslim population of more than 80 million, Egypt represents a strategic bridge between Asia and Africa. What’s more, Egypt — Washington’s best friend in the region after Israel — also controls the Suez Canal, a vital means of transit both for international commerce and US naval forces in the Middle East.
And, perhaps most importantly for neoconservative policymakers in Washington, Egypt shares a 260-kilometer border with Israel and a 14-kilometer border with the Hamas-governed Gaza Strip. While Cairo has had official relations with Tel Aviv since 1979 under the terms of the Camp David peace agreement, the peace is a cold one, and the agreement deeply unpopular with broad swathes of the Egyptian public.
Under the 30-year-old rule of President Hosni Mubarak, Egypt has gradually become a de facto ally of the self-proclaimed Jewish state, despite deep-rooted pubic opposition — opposition driven largely by Israel’s litany of crimes committed at the expense of the Palestinian people. This alliance has culminated in the almost four-year-old siege of the Gaza Strip, initiated by Tel Aviv and abetted by Cairo, which has effectively made prisoners of the strip’s 1.5 million inhabitants.
If Egypt were allowed to hold democratic elections and produce a truly representative leadership, Cairo’s foreign policy orientations would no doubt be subject to dramatic change. The looming battle for control of Egypt, therefore, will largely determine the shape of the region’s future geopolitical landscape.
Tuesday, Jan. 25: ‘The Day of Anger’ A “day of anger,” originally organized by online activists to protest police abuses and official corruption, quickly snowballed beyond anyone’s expectations. Thousands of protesters — tens of thousands in some areas — turned out across the country to demand relief from skyrocketing inflation and rampant unemployment, twin features of the Mubarak regime’s “neo-liberal” economic policies. In addition to these economic grievances, demonstrators also demanded free elections and the termination of Egypt’s draconian Emergency Law.
In Cairo, protesters gathered in the centrally-located Tahrir Square, where demands for economic and political reform soon gave way to calls for Mubarak’s ouster. “The people — want — the fall of the regime!” they shouted, in what would become the uprising’s rallying cry.
The demonstrations in Egypt came quick on the heels of a popular uprising in Tunisia in mid-January. Tunisia’s “Jasmine Revolution” ended with the fall of the regime of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who had ruled the country with an iron fist for 23 years.
Wednesday, Thursday; Jan. 26, 27
By Wednesday morning, police had managed — with the use of teargas, water cannons and rubber bullets — to flush protestors from Tahrir Square. Unbeknownst to most observers, however, the wave of demonstrations — destined to become a nationwide popular rebellion — had only just begun.
Despite warnings from the Egypt’s interior ministry that police would adopt a zero-tolerance policy against further protests, demonstrations continued in most Egyptian cities for the next two days, with the biggest taking place in Cairo, Alexandria and the northern canal city of Suez.
Police, meanwhile, used increasingly heavy-handed tactics to disperse the rapidly swelling crowds. By Thursday evening, at least six protesters had been killed and hundreds more injured in mounting violence. Thousands more were said to have been arrested by police.
Wednesday and Thursday also saw the arrest of hundreds of leading members of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest — if unlicensed — opposition movement. The government justified the move by claiming falsely that the group stood behind the growing wave of demonstrations.
Meanwhile, calls circulated online for countrywide protests, dubbed a “Friday of Rage,” to be staged the next day following Friday noon prayers.
Late Thursday night, in anticipation of the planned Friday protests, Internet access and mobile-phone communications in Cairo, Alexandria and Suez were abruptly cut. Land-line communications, however, remained intact.
Friday, January 28: ‘The Friday of Rage’
Demonstrations climaxed following noon prayers, when more than a million Egyptians poured out of the nation’s mosques to hold protests in city centers and public squares in cities throughout the country. In Cairo, more than one hundred thousand people, coming from all over the capital, gathered again in Tahrir Square, where they vowed to remain until Mubarak’s ouster.
Clashes of unprecedented violence soon erupted between protesters and police, who fought vainly to quell the escalating unrest. At 5:00 PM, Mubarak decreed that a curfew — from 6:00 PM to 7:00 AM the next morning — be applied in Cairo, Alexandria and Suez. Demonstrators, however, their numbers swelling by the hour, ignored the curfew and continued to roam the three cities’ streets.
In the early afternoon, it was reported that Israel’s embassy staff in Cairo had hastily departed the country due to the mounting unrest.
At about 6:00 PM, dozens of unidentified gunmen attempted to break into Egypt’s national museum in Tahrir Square, home to one of the world’s most extensive collections of archaeological artifacts. Following a violent confrontation between gunmen and protesters, in which several of the latter were killed, the armed men were found to be carrying police identification cards.
At about 7:00 PM, the Egyptian Army, in an effort to secure important symbols of governance, deployed on the streets of Cairo, Alexandria and Suez. Protesters welcomed the appearance of the Egyptian armed forces, which — unlike the police — are widely respected by much of the public for the role they played in past wars with Israel.
To the cheers of demonstrators, who called on the army to save them from police aggression, tanks and armored personnel carriers rolled through the streets of the capital for the first time in decades. Meanwhile, the police — which, unlike the army, are broadly disliked due to their reputation for abuse and corruption — were completely withdrawn from the capital only hours earlier.
Offices of Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), along with numerous local police stations, were burnt down in several provinces. Twenty-six police stations were torched in Cairo alone immediately following the withdrawal of police. Evidence would later emerge strongly suggesting that elements of the police themselves were behind much of the arson.
By the end of the day, hundreds of protesters had been killed in clashes with police, while thousands more were injured. Satellite news channels began airing images of dead protesters sprawled in hospital morgues.
Saturday, January 29: ‘The Day of Terror’
In a televised address shortly after midnight, Mubarak — in his first appearance since the uprising began — announced the dismissal of his government, which had been dominated largely by wealthy busy tycoons.
At about 10:00 AM, mobile-phone services were restored in Cairo, Alexandria and Suez.
In the early afternoon, state television reported that Mubarak had, for the first time since becoming president in 1981, appointed a vice-president — General intelligence chief Omar Suleiman — meeting a longstanding demand of the Egyptian opposition. About two hours later, Mubarak appointed a new prime minister, Ahmed Shafik, a former air-force commander and civil aviation minister.
The concessions, however, failed to satisfy protesters, who vowed to maintain nationwide demonstrations until Mubarak’s unconditional ouster. Tens of thousands of demonstrators in Tahrir Square also demanded the release of arrested protesters, the formulation of a new constitution, and democratically-held parliamentary and presidential elections.
Since the early morning, reports had circulated about rooftop snipers picking off protesters near the Interior Ministry building, not far from Tahrir Square. By the end of the day, 13 demonstrators were said to have been killed by the as-yet unidentified shooters.
In the late afternoon, Mubarak again imposed a curfew on the three most volatile cities, from 4:00 PM to 8:00 AM the next morning. For the second night in a row, however, the curfew was largely ignored, as protesters continued to spill out on the streets in force.
In the early evening, it was reported on several news channels that prominent regime figures, along with their families, had fled the country. These included Mubarak’s son, Gamal, an influential member of the ruling party who many had believed was being groomed to succeed his 82-year-old father.
Shortly after sunset, rumors spread that major commercial streets in Cairo, Alexandria and Suez were being looted and torched by roving gangs of armed criminals. Word had it that the looters were going house to house, robbing and killing local residents. There were even scattered reports of rape. Most if not all of these rumors later proved unfounded.
Unconfirmed reports also spread quickly that large numbers of convicted convicts had escaped from prisons in and around Cairo. While most of these reports originated from state television, the rumors spread like wildfire, fueling panic among the already-terrified population.
The chaos and confusion — which were largely orchestrated by elements of the police and government — had its desired effect, as large numbers of terrorized demonstrators ran back to their homes to protect their families and property.
Throughout the night, gunfire could be heard in most neighborhoods throughout the three cities. As fear mounted, local residents organized neighborhood patrols to deter would-be looters. Throughout the night, local residents could be seen on almost every street corner brandishing cleavers, crowbars and tire irons.
Sunday, January 30
“We are anxiously monitoring what is happening in Egypt and in our region,” Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu was quoted as saying at a morning meeting with his cabinet. “Peace between Israel and Egypt has endured for over three decades and our goal is to ensure these relations continue.”
It was also reported that Tel Aviv had allowed the Egyptian army to deploy two army battalions in the Sinai Peninsula. Under the terms of the Camp David peace agreement, Egypt is prohibited from making military deployments in Sinai without Tel Aviv’s consent.
At noon, Egyptian authorities abruptly closed the Cairo offices of Qatar-based satellite news channel Al Jazeera. Up until that point, Al Jazeera — both its Arabic- and Engish-language channels — had provided the closest coverage of the ongoing uprising.
Countrywide demonstrations, meanwhile, continued to gather momentum. At about 2:00 PM, hundreds of university professors and reformist judges — the latter of whom had long demanded an independent judiciary — joined the hundreds of thousands of protesters already arrayed in Tahrir Square.
Shortly afterward, thousands of demonstrators attempted to storm the now-evacuated Israeli embassy in central Cairo. But the army, whose presence on the streets was now pervasive, quickly intervened to stop them.
At about 3:00 PM, a neighborhood patrol in the Nile Delta city of Mansoura announced that it had detained 78 men caught looting shops in the area. According to reports, the men were later found to be members of the government’s secret police.
At about 4:00 PM, F-16 warplanes began making sorties over the skies over Cairo.
At about 4:30, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared that Washington wanted “to see an orderly transition [of power in Egypt], so that no one fills a void.” She called for “a well thought out plan that will bring about a democratic participatory government.”
Clinton’s statements were met with derision by Egyptian political figures and commentators, who opined that Clinton was “the last person who should be talking about democracy in Egypt.”
At about 5:30 PM, Internet services were fully restored countrywide.
At this point, reports began to emerge that elements of the police had in fact been behind much of the reported looting and vandalism — an apparent attempt to promote the false impression that the withdrawal of police would inevitably lead to security breakdowns. It was also to emerge later that elements of the police had intentionally released thousands of convicted criminals from police stations in and around Cairo.
Meanwhile, anti-regime demonstrations continued to rage across the country, despite the extension of the curfew from 3:00 PM to 8:00 AM. Along with Cairo, Alexandria and Suez, massive protests were also staged in Mansoura, Mahalla, Ismailia, Fayoum, Port Said and Aswan, along with numerous other Egyptian cities and towns. In the city of Menoufiya, Mubarak’s home town, thousands turned out to demand Mubarak’s ouster.
As the death toll continued to climb, calls at Tahrir Square for Mubarak’s resignation turned into calls for putting regime leaders on trial for murder.
At about 10:00 PM, a White House spokesman announced that US President Barack Obama had told the leaders of Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the UK that the US supported “an orderly transition to a government that is responsive to the aspirations of the Egyptian people.”
Monday, January 31
At about 10:30 AM, as demonstrations continued nationwide, Mubarak announced on state television that he had instructed the new government to begin talks with protest leaders.
At noon, Al Jazeera reported that Suez Canal traffic was functioning normally, if behind schedule. One hour later, Arabic-language news channel Al-Arabiya reported that the Alexandria seaport had been indefinitely closed.
Shortly after 1:00 PM, it was reported that Mubarak had appointed a new interior minister, Mahmoud Wagdi, to replace the highly unpopular Habib al-Adli. State television broadcast images of other new government ministers being sworn in by the president.
At about the same time, Israeli President Shimon Peres was quoted by the press as saying: “We always have had and still have a great respect for Mubarak. I don’t say everything that he did was right, but he did one thing for which all of us are thankful to him: he kept the peace in the Middle East.”
Roughly one hour later, Mubarak appointed former North Sinai governor Murad Muwafi to replace Omar Suleiman, now the vice-president, as Egypt’s chief of general intelligence.
The hundreds of thousands of protesters still in Tahrir Square, along with hundreds of thousands more in Alexandria, rejected the new appointments, reiterating their demand for Mubarak’s ouster. Activists began issuing calls for a million-man protest in the square the following day.
Netanyahu, meanwhile, warned that the ongoing uprising could lead to an Iran-style Islamic revolution in Egypt. “Our real fear is of a situation that could develop… and which has already developed in several countries including Iran itself — repressive regimes of radical Islam,” he was quoted as saying.
At about 8:30 PM, Reuters reported that international oil prices had jumped to $101 on the back of ongoing political turmoil in Egypt.
Shortly afterward, an army spokesman announced on state television that the Egyptian Armed Forces “recognized the legitimate demands of the people.” He went on to vow that that the army “had not and would not use force against the people.”
At about 10:30, as roads into Cairo were closed in an effort to stop the would-be protesters now pouring into the capital, newly-appointed VP Suleiman announced his readiness to hold talks with the opposition and carry out “political and economic reforms.” Protesters, however, simply reiterated their demand for Mubarak’s removal.
Shortly before midnight, it was reported that Washington had dispatched former US ambassador to Egypt Frank Wisner to Cairo to consult with the embattled Egyptian president. “As someone with deep experience in the region, [Wisner] is meeting with Egyptian officials and providing his assessment,” said a White House spokesman.