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Taking stock in Egypt

Taking stock in Egypt

Today, here in Cairo, the action began shifting outside Tahrir Square, which remains occupied by thousands of prostesters who insist they won’t leave until their demands — above all the removal of President Hosni Mubarak — are met.

Vice President Omar Suleiman met with an array of youth activists and opposition figures, among them top members of the Muslim Brotherhood. There are a lot of conflicting reports flying around about the talks, and former IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei wasn’t invited to what he called an "opaque" gathering. (His brother Ali emails: "[Omar Suleiman] said he would not talk to Dr. ElBaradei according to the Washington Post because he is not part of the opposition. It just shows how fake and futile this whole process is.")

Suleiman released a carefully crafted statement afterwards that fell well short of meeting the protesters’ bottom line, and once again blamed "foreign elements" for stirring up all this trouble. I haven’t watched state TV today, but foreign journalists are still being harrassed by plainclothes police types going in and out of Tahrir Square, and Al Jazeera English superstar Ayman Mohyeldin was detained for a few hours today with his hands behind his back, according to fellow journalist Ashraf Khalil.

There’s a lot of wiggle room in Suleiman’s words, notably in his insistence that "the state of emergency will be lifted based on the security situation and an end to the threats to the security of society" — the same kind of thing the regime has been saying for the last three decades. Under Egypt’s emergency laws, the police can pretty much grab anyone anytime they want, without any real accountability. (For a spot-on description of how the system really works on the ground, read this excellent account by Frederick Bowie.) 

Another item, "Media and communications will be liberalized and no extra-legal constraints will be imposed on them," provides no mechanism for ensuring that the commanding heights of the media here — state television — will be able to evolve into something resembling objective journalism rather than propaganda. And in an ominous sign of new restrictions yet to come, Internet watchers reported today that Egypt had dramatically data uploads, presumbly to choke off the posting of damning videos from the last few weeks and preserve the ability to do so in the future.

There’s no talk of any oversight of the police and security services  — the so-called deep state that has been brutalizing Egyptians for more than 50 years. Perhaps such issues will be addressed by the committee being set up to "study and recommend constitutional amendments, and legislative amendments of laws complimentary to the constitution," but again — there are no guarantees that the government will take up these "recommendations," or that the committee will include real democrats instead of the usual toadies and hacks.

It’s also worth noting that Suleiman has already violated one of the pledges he made, to "immediately release prisoners of conscience of all persuasions." Google executive Wael Ghonim, who has been missing for well over a week now, is mysteriously to be released tomorrow at 4 p.m., according to Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq. Why not now? And without a complete overhaul of the legal system — the emergency laws especially — there’s nothing to stop him and others from being arbitrarily detained once again.

No question, the protesters have won some important victories: Mubarak and his son are finished in Egyptian politics, and a number of the most corrupt party figures have been cashiered. Tens of thousands of young Egyptians have risked their lives and their livelihoods and inspired the entire world with their courage (this incredible footage of last Friday’s epic battle on Qasr el-Nil bridge leading into the square gives you a taste of it). One of the most common phrases you hear in Tahrir Square is "we’ve regained our dignity" — the protesters are enormously proud of what they’ve done, and rightly so.

But there are no signs that the regime is willing to concede any fundamental authority, and plenty of signs that it is trying to tire and isolate the protesters politically, divide opposition movements and groups in order to weaken them, and stall for time in the hopes of going back to business as usual.

Meanwhile, the United States — perhaps due to inflated fears of an Islamist takeover — seems willing to preside over the installation of yet another military strongman in Egypt, proving that the cynicism about America that is widely shared on the Egyptian street isn’t too far from the mark.