31 Jan 2011

Egypt revolt: thousands defy curfew as pressure mounts

As Egypt’s army pledges not to use force against thousands of protesters defying the curfew, Channel 4 News correspondents report from throughout the country.

Tens of thousands of people gathered in the Egyptian capital Cairo on a seventh day of unprecedented protests in the Arab world’s most populous nation.

Protesters poured into Cairo’s Tahrir Square in defiance of a curfew calling for an end to President Hosni Mubarak‘s 30-year rule.

The army was out in force – but issued a statement saying it would never use force against the protesters.

Jonathan Rugman, Channel 4 News Foreign Affairs Correspondent, who’s in Cairo, witnessed thousands gathering, chanting “leave, leave” and “get out…we want you out” as military helicopters flew overhead.

Police who abandoned their posts on Friday have retuned to some parts of the capital. In an attempt to quell unrest a new Egyptian Government was sworn in today, with new Finance, Trade and Interior Ministers appointed.

Other key positions such as the Defence Minister stayed the same, state television reported.

Egypt graphic - who has the power?

It was unclear whether the shake-up would defuse the demonstrations, with many still calling for President Mubarak to stand down.

“The nature of revolutions is that you don’t know who will emerge. We don’t know – and we won’t know.” Former EU mediator Alastair Crooke

Anti-Government demonstrations broke out across Egypt last week following unrest in Tunisia, which triggered the overthrow of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.

More than 100 people have died and scores more have been wounded in Egypt in clashes with security forces, while the authorities have cracked down on internet and mobile communications.

A number of journalists have also been arrested. Six Al Jazeera correspondents were arrested in Egypt following a decision by the authorities to shutdown the broadcaster’s bureau in Cairo. They were later released without their camera equipment.

The biggest demonstration yet is expected tomorrow, a week after the unrest began.

Here, the Foreign Office has advised against all but essential travel to Cairo, Alexandria, Luxor and Suez. British nationals in other areas of Egypt, where there have been demonstrations, are advised to avoid public gatherings and disturbances and stay indoors wherever possible.

Downing Street said the Government was not currently chartering planes to evacuate Britons, as the US authorities have done for their nationals.

What happens next?

In the early days of the uprising no clear political opposition grouping was evident. But on Monday the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist opposition group, said it was seeking to form a broad political committee with Mohamed ElBaradei to talk to the army.

ElBaradei, a Nobel peace laureate and former head of the UN nuclear agency, has urged Mubarak to go, lending his international stature to a movement that has lacked a leader.

The former British Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Sir Andrew Green, told Channel 4 News that it was “crucial” that the army had said it would not use force against the demonstrators.

“That is now the end of the Mubarak regime and it is only a matter of time,” he said. “We can only hope that the army can organise it and manage it in a reasonable way, but you can’t be sure of that.

“To hope that we will avoid chaos is perhaps the best hope that we can have.”

As pressure builds against President Mubarak, the iconic Egyptian film star Omar Sharif voiced his opposition to the President, saying he should step down.

Egypt revolt: Thousands defy curfew as pressure mounts

“Given that the entire Egyptian people don’t want him and he’s been in power for 30 years, that’s enough,” he told French radio. “He should have resigned”.

Alastair Crooke, former EU mediator with Islamist movements in the Middle East and director of Conflicts Forum, told Channel 4 News Mr Mubarak’s “regime is over”.

“The fact is that he is not in control of the country,” he said.

“It’s quite clear that unless there’s a massive change with the military, they are not taking action against people.

“At the moment, the army high command may be thinking differently, but down in the streets the junior officers are telling everyone: we’re not opening fire, whether we’re ordered to or not. Maybe Mubarak will try to send the police back, but that could end up with a clash between the police and the army.”

In terms of who might emerge as a successor, Alastair Crooke told Channel 4 News the outcomes would be unexpected.

“Long-term, the nature of revolutions is that you don’t know who will emerge. We don’t know – and we won’t know.

“Maybe it will be a younger member of the military, maybe a civilian person. But the nature of revolutions is that the person may be there, but we don’t know for some time. But for sure it’s going to be unexpected.”

World response

World leaders have struggled to respond to the crisis in a country which is a close US ally and a stalwart in Western policy towards the Middle East.

In what experts have described as a “critical factor for the American calculation”, Egypt is also a key player in maintaining a relationship with neighbouring Israel.

Prime Minister David Cameron said today any attempt to repress the continuing protests would “end badly“.

“It’s very important that if it’s President Obama or whether it’s me, we’re not saying who should run this country or that country,” he said.

“It’s sensible to say that you do have a choice here. This repression, if you opt for that, that will end badly for Egypt, badly for the world. It’s the wrong choice to make,” he added.

The United States, which has poured billions of dollars of aid into Egypt since President Mubarak came to power, stopped short of saying openly that it wanted him to step down.

“Western governments should be much more supportive for democratic change. They are rather cowards not too, but they are trying to have it both ways.” Former British diplomat Carne Ross

President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton instead urged reform and spoke about “an orderly transition”. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said on Monday: “Obviously there is more work to be done…The way Egypt looks and operates must change.”

Diplomatic game

Middle East peace envoy Tony Blair said President Mubarak needed to engage in a process of “managed change”.

“People want change but they don’t want chaos. There’s going to be change – there’s no doubt about that. And there will be a move, I think, to free and fair elections,” Blair said.

Carne Ross – a former British diplomat and director of the advisory group Independent Diplomat – told Channel 4 News that Western governments were choosing their words carefully while trying to keep pace with what was happening on the ground.

“People on the streets, people are listening very carefully to what Obama and Clinton are saying,” he said.

“There has been great disappointment that there hasn’t been public support for the overthrow of Mubarak’s regime. Tied hands have prevented [Western governments] saying what they should be saying: that we support democracy and human rights and the only way to end the turmoil is for free and fair elections,” he said.

“Western governments should be much more supportive for democratic change. They are rather cowards not to, but they are trying to have it both ways. As protests develop and Mubarak’s position becomes more shaky, the pre-transition rhetoric goes up. The theme at the moment is to talk about a democratic transition, which is a euphemism for free and fair elections.

“If they start shooting people en masse, Mubarak’s position becomes indefensible.”