By Polly Johnson
Impunity Watch Reporter, Africa
CAIRO, Egypt – In anticipation of Tuesday’s “March of Millions” in Cairo and Alexandria, the Egyptian government has restricted travel and communications, shut down the rail service and increased the military presence around the city.
A spokesman on state television addressed the people of Egypt on Monday, saying, “The presence of the armed forces in the Egyptian streets is for your benefit to protect your safety and peace. Your armed forces will not use violence against this great people, who have always played a significant role in every moment of Egypt’s great history.”
Demonstrations erupted in Egypt on January 14, when anti-government activists took to the streets to protest President Hosni Mubarak’s nearly thirty-year rule. On Monday, Mubarak appointed a new government, including Vice President Omar Suleiman, who promised to engage in constitutional and legislative reform discussions with the protest’s leaders. It was the first time since 1981 that Mubarak has filled the post of vice president.
Mubarak named General Mahmoud Wagdy as the new interior minister and former air force commander Ahmed Shafiq as prime minister. Mubarak’s new appointments, made in an attempt to defuse the uprising, have been deemed by some to be, “too little, too late.” Angry demonstrators are continuing to call for Mubarak to surrender power.
Though Mubarak has not indicated any plans to step down, protestors have tossed around names of possible future leaders, including Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel laureate and former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
The scenes in Cairo and Alexandria remained chaotic all day Monday, even after a curfew order was imposed at 3 p.m. (8 a.m. ET). Protestors continued to gather in Tahrir Square, one of the focal points of the protests.
Human Rights Watch confirmed eighty deaths from two hospitals in Cairo, thirty-six deaths in Alexandria, and thirteen deaths in Suez.
The toll on Egypt’s economy has been staggering. Essential supplies are running low and gas stations are closing because they have run out of fuel. State television reported that the crisis had cost the country an estimated sixty-nine billion Egyptian pounds (nearly twelve billion dollars), setting its economy back six months.
On a broader level, the crisis has exposed the defects in Egypt’s strong, yet fragile, economy. Such problems as debt, poverty and soaring unemployment have become exposed amidst the uprising.
Moreover, much of Egypt’s economic stability hinges on foreign investors, tourists and overseas companies, all of which have retreated in the wake of the protests.
Most devastating could be the closure of the Suez Canal, which would drastically drive up oil prices. On Monday, world oil prices topped one hundred dollars a barrel.
IMPACT ON ISRAEL
World leaders have been careful to refrain from calls for Mubarak to step down, focusing instead on calls for stability and an orderly transition to democracy.
This is in part because Egypt has long been considered a stable region in an often unstable Middle East. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he feared a radical Islamist takeover in Cairo. British Foreign Minister William Hague said, “We certainly don’t want Egypt to fall into the hands of extremists. We want an orderly transition to free and fair elections.”
Israeli officials have been in strategy sessions since the protests started, as the country’s military and economy rely heavily on its relationship with Egypt. Netanyahu has ordered his government to remain silent on the events in Egypt while the protests continue.
Egypt is Israel’s strongest ally in the region, and Mubarak has been a staunch supporter of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Officials have stated that a breakdown in Egypt could effectively end the peace talks between Israel and Palestine.
Dan Schueftan, director of the National Security Studies Center at the University of Haifa, said that were Israel to lose Egypt as its ally, “the threats become much more realistic than before.”
As countries scrambled to fly their citizens out of Egypt, chaos erupted at Cairo’s main airport. The airport was poorly staffed, as curfews and traffic deterioration made it nearly impossible for employees to get to work. At one point on Monday, the airport departure board stopped announcing flight times, which only further agitated the crowd. When it was announced that the Danish, German, Chinese, British and Canadian governments had sent planes to evacuate their citizens, passengers stampeded to the gates. Shouting matches and even fistfights were commonplace, as thousands of stranded passengers piled into the airport to await a flight out.
The State Department said that more than five hundred Americans had departed on five flights.
The European Union foreign ministers urged a peaceful transition to democracy, while President Barack Obama called officials in Britain, Turkey, Israel and Saudi Arabia over the weekend to express the White House’s desire for restraint and an orderly transition.
Finnish foreign minister Alex Stubb said, “It is values versus interests. On the values side we want democracy, freedom and human rights. On the interest side we don’t know what we will get. We want stability – we don’t know what is stable – is it the current regime? The E.U.’s current answer is ‘no.’”
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tread lightly when asked whether the current administration still backs Mubarak.
“We have been very clear that we want to see a transition to democracy. And we want to see the kind of steps taken that will bring that about. We also want to see an orderly transition,” Clinton said.
“I also believe that this is in Egypt’s long-term interests. It’s in the interest of the partnership that the United States has had with Egypt.”
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said it was not Washington’s place to support or oppose the possible removal of Mubarak.
Daniel Korski, from the European Council on Foreign Relations, explained the serious predicament that the E.U. and U.S. face.
“Should they back the protests, support what has been a friendly regime or sit uncomfortably on the fence, talking about the need to show restraint and start reforms but stand back from actually supporting regime change in case the transition becomes violent or the outcome problematic?”
For more information, please see:
BBC – Egypt protesters step up pressure – 31 January 2011
BBC – Cracks in Egypt’s fragile economy have been exposed – 31 January 2011
CNN – Mubarak’s VP promises swift reform; military won’t fire on protests – 31 January 2011
Independent – Egypt’s opposition calls for one million on streets – 31 January 2011
Independent – Cairo airport a scene of chaos as foreigners flee – 31 January 2011
New York Times – E.U. Calls for Orderly Transition in Egypt – 31 January 2011
New York Times – Government Offers Talks With Protesters After Army Says It Will Not Fire – 31 January 2011
Reuters – Mubarak shuffles cabinet but protesters say “Go!” – 31 January 2011
New York Times – Clinton Calls for ‘Orderly Transition’ in Egypt – 30 January 2011
New York Times – Israel Shaken as Turbulence Rocks an Ally – 30 January 2011