Sunday, January 30, 2011

Vigilantes on streets as Egypt unrest grows

Vigilantes have taken to the streets of the Egyptian capital Cairo as the country descends further into chaos. Police are said to have completely disappeared and while a military presence remains most units have been deployed to protect key government buildings.

Looting has been widespread across the capital and many people have armed themselves with knives, sticks and clubs in order to protect their property. Some of the vigilantes have also set up road blocks, stopping vehicles to check for stolen items. BBC correspondent Jeremy Bowen, speaking on the World Service, said the country was "sliding into anarchy" and that there appeared to be no end in sight to the unrest.

President Hosni Mubarak has refused to give in to the protesters demands to resign and remains in office. As he maintained his grip on power he sacked his entire cabinet and appointed Aviation Minister Ahmed Shafiq to the post of prime minister.

But the change in government has failed to appease the crowds. "Our people say to Mubarak: Mubarak, get out, get out and get away! We want to change you. We don't want new ministers. We want a new president," one demonstrator told the BBC.

Tanks and troops were last night seen deployed around Cairo's central Tahrir (Liberation) Square which was once again filled with protesters well into the night. However there was none of the bloodshed seen in previous days.

Clashes between the protesters and the riot police have left at least 74 people dead since rallies began on Tuesday, though some reports suggest the death toll could be much higher. In addition, around 2,000 people have been injured.

Some correspondents have suggested that the pull back by the police and military may be due to outside pressure. Writing on the BBC website, International Correspondent John Simpson said, "In spite of the turmoil, one or two things are becoming clearer here. It looks pretty likely that President Mubarak and his military leaders have been told in no uncertain fashion by the Americans that the Tiananmen Square option, by which the authorities restore order by shooting the protesters down by the hundred, is simply not acceptable."

There has certainly been strong condemnation of the blacking out of Egypt's Internet and mobile telecommunications network with President Barack Obama's press secretary Robert Gibbs calling for the restrictions to be lifted immediately.

Many of Egypt's citizens were still managing to connect to the outside world though a series of low-tech initiatives however. Some were using dial-up connections to ISPs outside the country, though for many people this is difficult as few have an international calling service [WSJ].

Yesterday a small French ISP, NDF opened up a dial-up line to allow access to anyone with a modem [FDN blog - French]. Anyone in Egypt with an analogue phone line capable of phoning France could connect to the network by the following number: +33 1 72 89 01 50 . (Login: foo password: foo).

Some people have published comprehensive guides on how to use the mobile phone network to connect to international dial-up Internet providers. One couple wrote details on their blog, though the irony is that without access to the Internet in the first place such instructions were unlikely to prove useful to many.

But the inaccessibility of the Internet has not stopped people's resourcefulness. One self styled group of "net activists" have built a website of information resources on We Rebuild.

Those that have managed to connect to the web continue to tweet ongoing developments in the city. Some messages spoke of those still having access to the Internet of dropping their WEP encryption, making their WiFi access points freely available to all.

However, while there are many signs of solidarity, there has also been an ugly side to the disturbances. Security forces have been brutal in the cracking down on protesters. As well as the shooting of some, others have been severely beaten and there are calls for blood donations to aid the many hundreds injured. Journalists have also been targeted. A BBC correspondent was beaten on Friday and a cameraman working for CNN was also attacked.

Many of those protesting have resorted to wanton destruction too. There has been widespread looting and in one incident Cairo's museum was broken into and several exhibits were damaged.

"They were able, these two people to enter the Cairo museum from the top and they destroyed two mummies and they opened one case," said Zahi Hawass, secretary general of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities. Some reports say the mummies were beheaded while others suggest they had been completely destroyed [LA Times / NPR / MSNBC].

Pictures on Al Jazeera [YouTube] showed many exhibits, some dating back more than 4000 years, had been wrecked or stolen. Margaret Maitland, an Egyptologist at Oxford University in England, matched up shots of the damage with pictures of artifacts from Tut's tomb and said that three gilded wooden statuettes of the boy-king may have been broken off their pedestals []. While the damage is significant, it could have been much worse. Some citizens had tried to protect the museum before the military eventually arrived and the famous gold mask of Tutankhamun is said to be undamaged.

The unrest in Egypt follows an uprising in Tunisia in early January which toppled President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali after 23 years in power. The Tunisian upheaval began with anger over rising food prices, high unemployment and anger at official corruption. Similar issues have created resentment amongst Egypt's citizens prompting the recent protests.

Dubbed 'the Pharaoh' for his 30-year iron rule, President Hosni Mubarak is said to have amassed a fortune of £25 billion [$40 billion] for his family. Mubarak, 82, his half-Welsh wife Suzanne and sons Gamal and Alaa are seen in Egypt as symbols of nepotism and corruption with properties and business interests worldwide, including London. As Mubarak sought retreat at his home in Sharm el Sheikh there were reports that his two sons had fled to London [BNO].

The turmoil in Egypt is also worrying leaders in others despots and dictatorships. In China for instance, Sina Weibo, the biggest Twitter clone in China has banned searches for the word Egypt [埃及]. Attempts to search for the country returned the message: "According to relevant laws, regulations and policies, the search results are not shown". The block is only in Chinese however and some users are circumventing the ban by writing their messages in English [AFP / CBS / Penn Olson].

While the Chinese state news agency has reported on the ongoing unrest there was only scant mention of the Internet restrictions imposed in the last few days [Xinhua]. China heavily censors the Internet and many social networks, such as Twitter, Facebook and Foursquare are blocked by authorities.

China is a loyal supporter of the Mubarak regime. On 28th of January, when commenting on the political situation in Egypt, the spokesperson from the Chinese foreign ministry stated that the Chinese government would continue to support the Egyptian government in maintaining social stability and oppose any foreign intervention in Egypt [Sohu - Chinese]. But as the unrest has grown Chinese language websites have played down the reporting [Global Voices Online].

As for Egypt itself, the situation remains volatile and there looks to be no swift resolution, at least in the minds of the protesters.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

1 comment:

rhein-main said...

The poor people of Egypt. Why can not such power transitions occur peacefully. In the violent nationwide protests against the government in Egypt on Friday after information from the health ministry 38 people have been killed. As representatives of the Ministry announced on Saturday in Cairo, twelve people died in the capital and killed in the city of Suez. About 1,900 people were injured, including 500 police officers. Since the protests began on Tuesday it has thus nearly 50 deaths and 2500 injuries given. The people I feel really sorry.