Saturday, February 12, 2011

Egypt News Update: An Arduous Road to Freedom; Profiles of Military Leaders

Egypt's arduous road to freedom

More than 300 people were killed in a treacherous, 18-day journey toward ending Hosni Mubarak's 30-year autocratic rule

Al Jazeera online producer
Last Modified: 12 Feb 2011 00:12 GMT

Pro-democracy protesters withstood deadly assault by Mubarak loyalists, but they have the last smile

CAIRO - Nine days ago, Egypt’s revolution dangled on a precipice.

Peaceful and unarmed pro-democracy protesters who had shed blood to occupy central Cairo’s Tahrir Square less than a week before, fled from armed assailants on horse and camelback. They huddled behind makeshift barricades under a hail of rocks and Molotov cocktails thrown by loyalists of longtime president Hosni Mubarak.

From a distance, the embattled protesters looked like medieval villagers, outnumbered, outgunned and besieged by an angry horde.

Twelve hours later, almost impossibly, they emerged victorious. Through a smoke screen billowed from the rear of a speeding tank, and with high-calibre automatic gunfire ringing out in Cairo’s darkened streets, the Mubarak supporters fled into the night.

From then on, Tahrir (liberation) Square’s protesters have held their ground, and on Friday, the 18th day of nationwide demonstrations demanding the complete ouster of Mubarak’s regime, they won again.

Uncertainty reigns

If Friday came to close with a city-wide street party in Egypt’s capital, it dawned with uncertainty and worry.

Many wondered: What was Mubarak playing at on Thursday night, when he made a rambling, patronising speech – his third since the protests began – that failed to offer even the slightest new concession?

Was he running a clever game, hoping to chip off Egyptians who might be on the fence about his rule, or was he scrambling for survival? Did anyone in Cairo, Washington DC, or elsewhere have any idea? Would the army – stiff armed by Mubarak – go straight for a coup d’etat?

What was certain was this: The protests would continue, and they would only get bigger.

As we woke up on Friday, the crowd in Tahrir Square was already enormous. A sit-in protest at the heavily guarded state television building was swelling, preventing staff there from coming or going, the station’s anchors stated on air.

At the Noor mosque in Abbasia, a middle-class neighbourhood east of central Cairo, worshippers spilled down the steps from midday prayers and immediately launched into a protest. Half of the crowd stood watching from the other side of the street, some uncertain, some angry.

A man grabbed my arm forcefully.

“Where are you from, why are you here?” he asked.

By now, after days of state television fear-mongering about foreign and Al Jazeera interference in Egypt, such aggressive questioning had become commonplace. I told him I was from Canada. He again asked why I wanted to film such a protest. It’s not a good thing, he said.

I yanked my arm away.

“Go,” he spat.

From the mosque, hundreds of protesters marched down a main street toward Tahrir Square, preceded by a car with two men sitting on the trunk, holding up a giant poster showing one of the revolution’s “martyrs,” a young man named Mahmoud Tariq.

Under a clear, blue sky, men linked arms to keep our procession orderly and allow traffic to flow to the right. Families leaned over their balconies many floors above us to gaze at the protest. Others watched from side alleys; some smiled and waved, most stared vacantly. The familiar chants echoed off the brick: “Revolution, revolution until victory!” “Egypt! Egypt!” “He goes, we’re not going!” “The people want the regime to fall!”

As we reached Ramses Square, the site of Cairo’s central train station, a larger march approached heading in the opposite direction. Thousands of protesters mingled briefly and then, as has happened throughout the revolution, a snap, collective decision was made. Technically leaderless, the march turned around and headed toward the presidential palace.

High hopes

As we marched, the crowd grew. From time to time, those in front would call for a halt so stragglers could rejoin the main body. At such moments, and every time we passed underneath a bridge or overpass, the protesters would shout in unison for the onlookers to come join them.

The closer the march got to Heliopolis, the upper-class neighbourhood home to the presidential compound, the larger it became. We wound slowly past numerous buildings belonging to Egypt’s armed forces, which collective form a massive business entity and will play a crucial role in the coming weeks and months, now that Mubarak has delegated his power to a high-ranking council of military officers.

Atop and outside each compound – the defence ministry, the armed forces hospital, the armed forces technology institute – soldiers watched us cautiously, cradling their AK-47s. Often, the crowd would stop to issue another familiar, hopeful chant: “The people and the army, hand in hand!”

Finally, we rounded a corner onto the road toward Mubarak’s compound. By that point, reports on Twitter had informed us that the man himself had left earlier for the Red Sea resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh, presumably with his family in tow. Still, a statement from the presidency was expected, and now hopes were high.

Against a sky that had grown dark and cloudy, occasionally releasing a drop of rain onto the protesters, two military helicopters circled. Barbed wire army barricades backed by tanks with their barrels facing the protesters prevented the crowd from approaching anywhere near even the entrance to the presidential compound, so we waited outside the gate of the posh Heliopolis Sporting Club.

A friend held a radio to his ear, antenna fully extended. Protesters set up a small, curbside medical clinic; an even more makeshift version of the field hospitals arranged in Tahrir Square. Others sat on the edge.

Occasional cheers went up from the barricades: First, the tanks turned their barrels away from the crowd. Then, an officer stood to grab and hang an Egyptian flag to a lamppost.

The moment of freedom

Suddenly, a louder cheer spread through the crowd. The presidential statement had come across the radio. Mubarak was resigning. The noise grew, and the crowd separated into cheering camps. Men screamed at the sky in jubilation, others cried or checked their mobile phones for confirmation, a few prayed. High up on a balcony, a man lit fire to an aerosol spray, sending a flash of yellow light out over the street.

Suddenly, the crowd of thousands began to move, heading back the way we came, toward Tahrir, the natural meeting point for Cairo’s revolutionary celebration.

Down a side street, where army barricades had suddenly been removed, two armoured personnel carriers sped back in the direction of the palace. Dozens of soldiers sitting on top waved, their hands in peace signs.

A woman driving alone with her baby stopped to pick us up and drive us toward Tahrir. As we approached the 6th of October bridge, the site of deadly clashes between pro- and anti-government demonstrators just a week before, traffic slowed to a crawl. Men driving cars held their babies on their laps. Taxi drivers stopped and jumped out of their cars to take in the scene. Children sold Egyptian flags, and motorcycles and buses sped down the wrong side of the road. Below, the sounds of a jubilant crowd echoed off the pavement. Between towering, decrepit apartment buildings, all the crowds streamed toward Tahrir.

At the square, the barricades, so essential to the defence of the revolution, had gone down.

Visitors streamed in, stepping atop the fallen metal construction barriers with a racket. The line of civilian guards checking identification and patting down visitors at the Egyptian museum had disappeared. Atop piles of broken rocks – the armouries of the revolution, where dead protesters had been carried days before –men and women carried their children to a sight unlike anything Egypt has ever witnessed before.

A press of celebrating Egyptians crowded every street in the square. A flare lit by one of them threw a red glow onto the buildings where the international press has struggled to keep a spotlight trained on the protests. Fireworks blew multi-coloured explosions into the night; it took a few before the crowd was confident that it wasn’t gunfire.

At the entrances to the square, army officers crowded atop their vehicles to watch the celebrations. Some were kissed by protesters, others shook hands; One took a toddler from a man and held it for a photo, before waving my camera away.

Egypt’s military now holds the reins of government. It has been praised by, among others, the Obama administration for its restraint, but nobody can predict how it will act in such an unprecedented scenario.

Tomorrow, the worrying begins, but for now, Egypt celebrates

Source: Al Jazeera

Post-Mubarak era dawns on Egypt

People power has spoken in the biggest Arab nation just four weeks after Tunisians toppled their own ageing ruler

Last Modified: 12 Feb 2011 05:56 GMT

Egyptians have woken to a new dawn after 30 years of rule under Hosni Mubarak.

As the Muslim call to prayer reverberated across Cairo on Saturday, the sound of horns honking in jubilation grew louder after a night when millions celebrated the fall of the former president, who has handed over power to the armed forces.

After 18 days of rallies on Cairo's Tahrir Square, resisting police assaults and a last-ditch assault by Mubarak supporters, people packed not just the epicentre but, it seemed, every street and neighbourhood in the capital, in Alexandria and other cities and towns across the country.

Through the night, fireworks cracked, cars honked under swathes of red, white and black Egyptian flags, people hoisted their children above their heads. Some took souvenir snaps with smiling soldiers on their tanks on city streets.

All laughed and embraced in the hope of a new era.

It all began when Omar Suleiman, the vice-president, said on Friday in a televised address that the president was "waiving" his office, and had handed over authority to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

Suleiman's short statement was received with a roar of approval and by celebratory chanting and flag-waving from a crowd of hundreds of thousands in Cairo's Tahrir Square, as well as by other pro-democracy campaigners who were attending protests across the country.

The top figure in Egypt is now Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, the country's defence minister and of the supreme council.

In its third statement to the nation since Thursday, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces said it was examining the situation "in order to materialise the aspirations of our great nation".

The statement said that "resolutions and statements regarding the ... actions to be followed" in order to achieve the demands of the people will be handed down later.

In the televised address, the spokesman also extended "greetings and appreciation" to Mubarak for his service to the country, and saluted the "martyrs and those who have fallen" during the protests.

'Dream come true'

The crowd in Tahrir responded to Suleiman's statement by chanting "we have brought down the regime", while many were seen crying, cheering and embracing one another.

Mohamed ElBaradei, a prominent opposition leader, hailed the moment as being "a dream come true" while speaking to Al Jazeera.

"I can't tell you how every Egyptian feels today," he said. "We have been able to restore our humanity ... to be free and independent".

ElBaradei reiterated that Egypt now needs to return to stability, and proposed that a transition government be put in place for the next year.

The government, he said, would include figures from the army, from the opposition and from other circles.

"We need to go on ... our priority is to make sure the country is restored as a socially cohesive, economically vibrant and ... democratic country," he said.

Ayman Nour, another opposition figure and a former presidential candidate, told Al Jazeera that he would consider running for the presidency again if there was consensus on his candidacy.

He called Friday "the greatest day in Egyptian history".

"This nation has been born again. These people have been born again, and this is a new Egypt."

Amr Moussa, the secretary-general of the Arab league, said on Friday that he would resign from his post, one that he has headed for about ten years, "within weeks". Some analysts say he may well run for the Egyptian presidency when elections are held.

Following Mubarak's announcement, our correspondent in Tahrir Square, said: "Tonight, after all of these weeks of frustration, of violence, of intimidation ... today the people of Egypt undoubtedly [feel they] have been heard, not only by the president, but by people all around the world."

'Explosion of emotion'

Al Jazeera's correspondents across the country reported scenes of jubilation and celebration on the streets of major cities.

Our online producer in Tahrir Square describes scenes of celebration
"The sense of euphoria is simply indescribable," our correspondent at Mubarak's Heliopolis presidential palace, where at least ten thousand pro-democracy activists had gathered, said.

"I have waited, I have worked all my adult life to see the power of the people come to the fore and show itself. I am speechless," Dina Magdi, a pro-democracy campaigner in Tahrir Square told Al Jazeera.

"The moment is not only about Mubarak stepping down, it is also about people's power to bring about the change that no-one ... thought possible."

In Alexandria, Egypt's second city, our correspondent described an "explosion of emotion". He said that hundreds of thousands were celebrating in the streets.

'Farewell Friday'

Suleiman's announcement came after hundreds of thousands of Egyptians took the streets for the 18th consecutive day, marching on presidential palaces, state television buildings and other government installations.

Pro-democracy activists had dubbed the day 'Farewell Friday', and had called for "millions" to turn out and demand that Mubarak resign.

Hundreds of thousands were seen to have gathered at Cairo's Tahrir Square, which has been the focal point of protests, chanting slogans against the government.

Similar numbers were also reported in Alexandria, where some protesters marched to a presidential palace there.

Protests were also reported from the cities of Mansoura, Mahalla, Suez, Tanta and Ismailia with thousands in attendance.

Violence was reported in the north Sinai town of el-Arish, where protesters attempted to storm a police station.

At least one person was killed, and 20 wounded in that attack, our correspondent said.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies

Egypt's military leadership

Brief profiles of members of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces as it assumes power from Hosni Mubarak.

Last Modified: 11 Feb 2011 17:53 GMT

Hosni Mubarak has resigned as Egypt's president and transferred his powers to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

General Omar Suleiman, vice-president and former intelligence chief, is among the key retired or serving military officers on the council.

Others include Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, defence minister; Lt Gen Sami Anan, chief of staff of the Egyptian army; Air Marshal Ahmed Shafiq, the new prime minister.

Here are brief profiles of some of the men that make up the council:

Mohamed Hussein Tantawi

Field Marshal Tantawi became minister of defence and commander-in-chief of the Egyptian Armed Forces in 1991. In so doing, he became the first Egyptian to hold the rank of field marshal after 1989.

Some reports suggest that Tantawi, 75, has been seen as a possible contender for the Egyptian presidency.

During the 2011 Egyptian protests, Tantawi was promoted to the ministerial rank of deputy prime minister, while retaining the defence portfolio.

Tantawi famously became the first member of government to visit Tahrir Square on February 4. He is said to have engaged military officers as well as protesters during his brief visit.

Tantawi served in three wars against Israel, starting with the 1956 Suez Crisis and the 1967 and 1973 Middle East wars.

Reda Mahmoud Hafez Mohamed

Air Marshal Reda Mahmoud Hafez Mohamed, the air force chief, became commander of the Eastern Air Zone and then the Southern Air Zone in 2005.

On 1 July 2007 he became chief of the operations department and towards the end of the year he was appointed Air Force Chief of Staff.

Within three months he replaced Magdy Galal Sharawi as air force chief, taking up his post on 20 March 2008.

Sami Hafez Anan

Lieutenant-General Sami Anan is the commander of 468,000 troops, and is seen as having a crucial role in co-ordinating interim arrangements for the government in Egypt.

Anan was in Washington when the uprising began and he cut short his visit to return. It was reported that the United States was pushing Anan for a key mediating role, though it was speculated that he was far too close to Mubarak to retain any role in a new government.

Some of the other members in attendance at Friday's supreme council meeting were:

Lieutenant-General Abd El Aziz Seif-Eldeen, commander of air defence and Vice-Admiral Mohab Mamish, chief of navy.

Source: Agencies

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