By Eric Frenkil
When street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi lit himself on fire in protest of the Tunisian government, he was not the first. Little did he know that his act of defiance would lead to the ousting of the president and to an Egyptian uprising more than 1,300 miles away.
It started on Jan. 25 with a Day of Anger organized on Facebook. Bouazizi had died, the streets of Tunisia were in an uproar, and Egyptians wanted to demonstrate and show solidarity with the Tunisians who — like the Egyptians — knew well what it meant to live under an authoritarian regime. Fifteen thousand protesters, some even carrying Tunisian flags, crowded Cairo’s Liberation Square.
Their chants targeted the Egyptian government, calling for “Bread, freedom, human dignity!” They protested against the rising cost of food and housing, against decades of oppression under Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and against corruption in all levels of government. Soon enough, their protests turned into an uprising. They began calling for Mubarak, who has been in office since 1981, to step down.
The demonstrators threw stones, overpowering the riot police that came with tear gas and water cannons. Large protests were seen in at least six other cities. Since, the number of protesters has risen to at least two million.
The situation is tense. An unknown number of police and protesters have died. The party headquarters of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party have been burned down. Larger rallies are planned in the coming days. News agencies are reporting that Mubarak has been using the police to incite violence, discrediting the protesters. The protesters, in contrast, have taken it upon themselves to clean the streets and ensure that weapons are kept away from the rallies.
Mubarak promised to sack his cabinet. He appointed a vice president for the first time, selecting powerful Egyptian intelligence head Omar Suleiman. He disconnected all telephone and Internet lines, calling in the military. Even some military personnel are now chanting atop tanks in solidarity with the crowds.
The Obama administration has asked Mubarak to transition power immediately and has called repeatedly for nonviolence. American diplomats are reportedly speaking with opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel laureate who was previously director of the UN atomic agency. He is currently under house arrest for participating in the protests.
Other governments in the region are affected. Public outrage against the Yemeni government is unprecedented. The Jordanian king has fired his entire cabinet. Even the Zapatistas in Mexico are waiting to see if Egypt will fall, as there is some potential for a domino effect worldwide. There may, in fact, be a new president in Egypt by the time you read this article. Stay tuned next week for more updates and analysis.
Below is a timeline of the events as they have unfolded:
Tues. 1/25 – Fifteen thousand protesters clash with security forces in Liberation Square (Cairo). Government disrupts communications. Clashes in Alexandria. Two protesters dead in Suez.
Wed. 1/26 – Tear gas used near Egypt’s high court. Plainclothes officers are seen dragging prominent journalists away. Beatings and shootings of protesters in Cairo.
Thurs. 1/27 – Protesters hurl rocks and petrol bombs at police lines in Suez. Hundreds protest in Ismailia. Nobel laureate and political rival Mohamed ElBaradei (former head of IAEA) joins protesters, offers to lead any transitional government.
Fri. 1/28 – ElBaradei placed under house arrest. Internet, telephone shut off. Beatings of journalists. Human Rights Watch warns government may call out army. Armored vans in use. Twenty thousand take over Nile Palace Bridge near Liberation Sq. U.S. calls for nonviolence, reviews aid, does not back Mubarak. Army called out for first time in 25 years. Crowd cheers them on. Mubarak’s party HQ in flames, damaging historic Egypt Museum. Mogamma government building on fire. WikiLeaks releases 46 Egypt cables. Mubarak announces cabinet reshuffle. London journalist writes, “Something changed today. This became a full blown uprising against Mubarak rule cutting across social divides.”
Sat. 1/29 – Troops calling for Mubarak to resign. Mubarak appoints vice president (18-year intelligence chief Omar Suleiman). Women and elderly join protests in Alexandria. Live rounds fired on protesters outside Interior Ministry. Fifty thousand protesters at Liberation Sq. Some Internet access. Looting pervasive, residents defend shops, homes, landmarks. Mubarak’s family reportedly in London.
Sun. 1/30 – Two military fighter jets circling over protesters, deafening sound. Government tries to shut down Al Jazeera, fails. Vacuum of power in Suez. Thousands of prisoners break from Alexandria jail, army deployed.
Mon. 1/31 – Protestors call for a ‘March of Millions’ on Tuesday, demand that military pick a side by Thursday, call for march to presidential palace on ‘Friday of Departure.’ U.S. begins voluntary evacuation. Military standoff at Cairo prisons. Suleiman sworn in. Protesters cleaning streets to show civility. Army pledges not to fire on protesters. U.S. calls for “free and fair elections in September.” Tues.
2/1 –U.S. orders evacuation of all non-essential persons, calls for Mubarak to step down (and not to appoint son Gamal). Turkish PM calls for Mubarak to step down. Food shortages beginning. Two million protesters in Cairo. Judges, sheikhs, politicians, celebrities join crowd. Massive protests in Alexandria. Secularity of protest questioned as Muslim Brotherhood chants “Allahu Akbar.” U.S. diplomats in talks with ElBaradei. Mubarak says he will stay until election, not run again. Protesters organize to enforce weapons-free zones. Small groups of Mubarak supporters march, clash with protesters, army fires into air, no casualties.
Wed. 2/2 – Thousands of regime supporters mounted on horses, camels charge protesters in Liberation Sq, throw stones, block entrances and exits. Uniformed police officers seen driving them to the scene. Some have police ID cards. Gunshots fired. Molotov cocktails and tear gas thrown. Protesters call for army protection. Protesters push back regime supporters using improvised metal shields in phalanx, set up makeshift clinics. Automatic weapon fire heard near Egypt Museum. Fears of massacre. Anderson Cooper among journalists attacked, Swedish journalists held as Mossad spies. Some Internet restored.
Thurs. 2/3 – Protesters still control Liberation Sq., set up barricades and makeshift jail. Arab League calls for investigation into violence. Regime sends texts to Egyptians, calling on them to “confront the traitors and criminals.” At least ten reported cases of detained journalists, BBC equipment seized, Human Rights Watch researcher detained. Barricades hold despite attacks. Mubarak says he must stay to prevent chaos. Canada Globe reporter tweets: “What’s worse about being detained three hours by Egyptian army? Watching a four-year-old girl being detained with you even longer.”
Guest writer Eric Frenkil ’11 took off a semester in Fall 2009 to work for an Egyptian NGO. He will return to Cairo this October after the September elections.