Egypt: protesters defy push for "normality"

Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators flooded Cairo's iconic Tahrir Square and towns across Egypt Feb. 8, in the biggest show of defiance to President Hosni Mubarak since the protests began. The immense crowd hailed as a hero Google executive Wael Ghonim whose Facebook site helped launch the protest movement on Jan. 25, and who was released the previous day after having been detained and held blindfolded for 12 days. Many protesters carried the symbols of the Internet social networks Facebook and Twitter, which have been vital mobilizing tools for the opposition. While larger crowds gather daily to protest, several thousand occupy Tahrir Square around the clock, sleeping under plastic sheets or under army tanks. (AFP, BBC News, Feb. 8)

Despite the unprecedented numbers in Tahrir Square, the regime tried hard to create a sense that "normality" has returned to Egypt, and succeeded in making that a norm in the day's world media coverage. The Internet is back up, and banks were open for the first time in several days. In an undisguised effort to buy off protesters, Egypt's new cabinet approved a 15% increase in monthly salaries and pensions for government employees. Authorities also began releasing detained protesters for the first time—although beginning slowly with the most prominent 34 (out of an estimated 1,000). (RFE/RL, LAT, Aug. 8; Xinhua, Feb. 7)

World media accounts are also now emphasizing legalisms that supposedly preclude the immediate fall of Mubarak. If the president leaves office, the constitution requires new elections within 60 days—but its candidacy limits would virtually guarantee the presidency to a chosen successor from within Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party. "It would be a disaster to have presidential elections under the current constitution," said Hossam Bahgat, executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. Bahgat calls for keeping Mubarak on temporarily so he can initiate constitutional reform. Such compromise measures are increasingly being aired in Egypt's media by members of the country's elite. (Middle East Online, Feb. 8)

Mubarak has issued a decree forming a committee to oversee constitutional changes ahead of elections later this year, Vice President Omar Suleiman announced, saying the body would "implement decisions taken by parties to the national dialogue." (Middle East Online, Feb. 8)

The White House is now clearly tilting towards Mubarak leaving later rather than sooner. "Obviously, Egypt has to negotiate a path, and they're making progress," President Obama said Feb. 7, in his last public comment on the Egyptian crisis. Hillary Clinton on Feb. 6 hailed as "significant actions" Mubarak's naming of a vice president, and his announcements that he and his son Gamal wouldn't run for election and would resign from the ruling party. "They have to be viewed as a very important set of steps being taken to keep the movement going in the direction that we seek," Clinton said. "They are working on it, and they are making their own decisions, and we have to respect that." (USA Today, Feb. 8)

A group of Middle East experts calling themselves the Working Group on Egypt wrote an open letter to Obama Feb. 7 expressing fears that the White House might "acquiesce to an inadequate and possibly fraudulent transition process in Egypt." The letter warned: "The process that is unfolding now has many of the attributes of a smoke screen. Without significant changes, it will lead to preservation of the current regime in all but name and ensure radicalization and instability in the future. Throwing the weight of the US behind the proposals of President Mubarak and Vice President Suleiman, rather than the legitimate demands of the opposition, would be a serious error." (LAT, Feb. 8)

Egyptian commentator Sherif Younis wrote Feb. 6 on the website Al-Masry al-Youm, in a piece entitled "Ending Egy