The henchmen

A strange peculiarity about the Egyptian regime is its insistence on attempting to retain a veneer of legitimacy – even after 30 years of flagrantly falsified elections, torture, corruption and, most recently, an ill-advised Internet blackout that succeeded in making Egypt a trending topic on Twitter.

It’s a habit they clearly find difficult to shake off. We woke up today to the news that thousands of “pro-Mubarak supporters” had gathered in the Mostafa Mahmoud Square, Cairo (incidentally the scene of the 2005 massacre of over 30 protesting Sudanese refugees by security bodies). I arrived at Tahrir Square around 3 p.m. The atmosphere in the area around the central grassy area was peaceful and positive, as it had been on Tuesday when tens of thousands congregated.

Down the road however in Abdel Meneim Reyad Square, next to the Cairo Museum, just beyond a couple of tanks stood a dense crowd of people, clearly separated from the Tahrir protestors. I stood on top of a building and watched as suddenly the pro-Mubarak protestors burst through the tanks and towards Tahrir Square. There was something incredibly unsettling about this assault, conducted as it was on camels, and on the short-tailed skinny horses tourists ride around the pyramids. The brutality of it all, as the terrified animals mowed down protestors and their riders hit out with their whips at anyone who crossed their path and people were crushed underfoot.

The use of hired thugs is classic Mubarak. The regime’s relationship with its people has always depended on intimidation and violence, which proved problematic with the wave of demonstrations and labour protests that have been a growing phenomenon since 2003 – acts of public police rage tend to put the tourists off. In 2005 elections young men were paid to sexually assault female protestors. Last year during the trial of two policemen accused of involvement in the death of Khaled Said a rowdy group of teenagers stood outside the courtroom and accused anti-torture protestors of being Israeli spies, before launching missiles at them. During the elections boys in matching t-shirts danced in front of polling stations while burly colleagues intimated voters on behalf of National Democratic Party candidates.

The idea is that these groups of men – who receive a modest daily stipend for their services – can execute regime orders without their actions being directly attributable to them. In the current scenario we are meant to believe that after four days of absolute silence peaceful pro-Mubarak protestors so irrevocably moved by the president’s speech and his promise not to stand for another term decided to organise mass counter protests. And attend these protests on camels and horses. And launch rocks and Molotov cocktails at camping Tahrir protestors whose only act of physical aggression has been against litter in the camp.

Purely coincidentally, the Internet was turned back on in Egypt on the day these millions of Mubarak “loyalists” decided to take to the streets, so the whole world can see the love and respect he commands.

They are a sad, troubled knot of poverty, miseducation and anger, these hired fists, some of them reportedly recruited today for LE 50 (according to activists speaking to thugs detained by anti-government protestors).

More than anything they are a reminder why, no matter what the cost to protestors and to Egyptians struggling to accept the interruption to daily life, the Tahrir occupation must continue. An NDP promise cannot be trusted, and if every last bit of the NDP is not removed Egypt will never heal.

Mubarak’s regime is a cancer that has metastasized and spread to every part of Egyptian society. It has stripped the act of earning a living of its nobility and cheapened the currency of dreams; on our way home we talked to a taxi driver who expressed support for Mubarak. We asked him how exactly he had benefited from Mubarak’s rule and he said “stability”- not opened up new horizons for his children, not given him the opportunity to consider a life of doing something other than taxi-driving. Mubarak has simply ensured that Egypt does not enter into external conflict while declaring a war of never-ending grinding attrition on his own people.

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10 Responses to The henchmen

  1. Sarah,
    I am a columnist from The New Zealand Herald. I have used excerpts from some of your wonderful entries in my latest column running today. Here’s the link:
    Was particularly gratified to hear my editor comment that he never gets to hear Egyptian voices directly. There is some small success in that. Your words have very much resonated for me. When things settle down, would enjoy further email correspondence [my Twitter: @TraceyBarnett] You can also contact me through my website [where the piece is also linked] at:
    Be safe and keep writing. At least, know from this reader, a fellow journo, your perspective is clear and so welcomed.

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  4. Your writing is fantastic, elucidating. If I can try to offer an insight at the risk of the accusation of orientalism, it’s that the peculiar insistence on the attempt to maintain the veneer of legitimacy you mention seems in my experience to be a particularly Arab-Muslim trait – in fact *the* Arab-Muslim trait. The problem with this is that it fools the masses of men leading lives of quiet desperation, which you have in every country. The problem is that in most countries, the evil power seeks are upfront about their evil power seeking, whether they are Hitler, Stalin, or Mussolini. They may try to justify their evil power seeking across a different set of moral values, but then it’s a battle of ideas and *eventually* the good ideas seem to win out. But the problem is that when the good and the evil are both justifying their acts according to the same moral code (in this case, Islam, but I think I would be true – and probably has been in different historical periods – of other moral codes as well. It just so happens that at the moment, Islam – and in particular the Arabs, who feel the burden of choseness b/c of the great miracle of the revelation of the Quran to the prophet in flawless fuscha that he could possibly have known such erudite language if Allah were not talking to him, are the ones obfuscating internally about which moral code they subscribe to

  5. Iman Bibars says:

    The Egyptian revolution of 2011

    Sunday 30th January 2011 from 12pm till 3:00pm
    Today is the sixth day of the revolution. What started as a peaceful demonstration by young educated and angry youth of Egypt has evolved into a big thing. As a man said on al jazeera the quake in the minds of the Egyptians had taken place, there is no more fear of Mubarak and his hooligans. The youth of Egypt were very good, women, young women, educated and some uneducated people went to the streets from Tuesday till Friday and on Friday they were great. The police had to give in after brutally shooting at and killing more than 100 in different areas of Egypt. The most reported on areas are Cairo, Alexandria and Suez. In Suez they defeated the police before others and took over the city. During first day there were no looting and everyone in Suez was very organized and disciplined. But on Friday the government of Egypt cut the internet and the phones and the police after failing to control the streets of Cairo and other areas disappeared. I believe and there are rumors that they intentionally left the country to burn and that Adly and the president wanted to teach us a lesson that we could not survive without their protection. The hooligans and criminals were allowed to go out of the jails and prisons and given weapons. We believe and there are some reports that not only did the police allow them to do that, but that some of them were police or security elements. My friend Nihad whose nephews are police officers told me that habib al Adly told the officers to leave the prisons and not to get involved in the in defending anyone.
    I wish I had access to the TV channels or the web or internet because I want to call that Adly and his people should be subjected to martial court and should not be left like that. Today also although there is no cabinet and Mubarak had sacked the cabinet yesterday, Anas el Fekry as minister of information or media has decreed that al jazeera not to work in Egypt. If there is no cabinet how can he give such an order?
    Also there is a curfew yet the army is asking the people to defend themselves, we have no weapons and the government hooligans have guns and then we are left to defend ourselves. Last night I was scared and more so for my mother who lives in outskirts of maadi and the buildings there were attacked by organized gangs. Also last night two banks facing the other side of the Nile in front of us were looted and guns were used. Some men were protecting our street and we heard gun shots all night. Also a woman who passed through our street at the end of the street by the side of al manial youth center was asked by a gang to leave her car and they took her car away from her.
    We are paralyzed I cannot work nor think and now we have no access to information except the jazeera international. The nerves in the house are quite strung as we are all cooped inside and unable to move. My son who is nearly 14 is happy that he is not going to school but he is unable to work on the internet or see his friends. So he has taken over the TV in order to play with play station. We have to fight over the TV to watch the news. We sent to buy bread and other needed food supplies and there was no bread in any of the shops around us in manial nor in metro shop.

  6. Iman Bibars says:

    I love this article and it makes me also very happy because you can see through the regimes games. What is sad is that he managed to confuse a lot of Egyptians and now we have young people who are supporting not him but a truce. the young here have been socialized to be voiceless and afraid and so all this change and turmoil scares them. he had positioned himself as the rock for stability and thus they are scared. The state TV has also portrayed foreigners as evil forces trying to ruin Egypt. someone has to come and clarify that. god knows i try but more is needed

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