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'U' Experts: Outcome in Egypt is still questionable

BY JOSEPH LICHTERMAN
Daily News Editor
Published February 2, 2011

Protests in Egypt continued for a ninth day yesterday as supporters of President Hosni Mubarak attacked demonstrators who continue to denounce the regime.

Yesterday’s conflict came after Mubarak announced he would not immediately resign. Instead, he said he will not run in the country’s upcoming September elections.

University experts say the ultimate outcome of the conflict is ambiguous at this point and that the protests in Cairo could prove to have greater effects by possibly sparking riots in other countries in the region.

Mark Tessler, the University’s vice provost of international affairs, said in an interview last night that the gangs attacking the protesters were likely being paid by the Mubarak regime. However, he added, the anti-government protesters also could have initiated the violence.

“The general take of people who seem to know what they’re talking about is that this has been a deliberate strategy on the part of the government to sow violence, to try and discredit the protesters, to try and make people think that there’ll be chaos if Mubarak isn’t in power,” Tessler said.

He added that he doesn’t think the violence would deter protesters from insisting that Mubarak resigns. Ultimately, he said, the uprising’s success depends on whether the Egyptian Army decides to align with the government or with the protesters.

“Right now the army has apparently just been standing back,” Tessler said. “They could go in and suppress the violence, they could go in and increase the violence and try to suppress the protesters. They haven’t done either of those things so far. They haven’t protected the protesters. They claim they have a right to demonstrate and express their views, but so far they’ve just been standing aside.”

Yesterday, soldiers encircled Cairo’s Tahrir Square, sporadically firing bullets into the air, but not getting involved in the battle. The violence has been fatal, leaving three people dead and more than 600 injured in the Tahrir Square protests yesterday.

The protests began on Jan. 25 as protesters, inspired by the overthrow of the Tunisian government last month, organized demonstrations on Facebook and Twitter, according to Michael Dobbs, Communications Studies lecturer at the University.

Egyptians used social media sites and the blogosphere to express dissenting opinions and build resentment against the government before the protests began, Dobbs, a former Washington Post foreign correspondent, said in an interview last night.

“For a long time, Egyptian bloggers have been writing about police brutality,” Dobbs said. “Police have been pretty indiscriminate in beating people up.”

Dobbs discussed the instance of an Egyptian man, Khalid Said, who drew support from people via the Internet after the public found out that the police beat him last year.

“(Said) died as a result of his injuries, and in the Egyptian blogosphere, this became a huge controversy," Dobbs said. "The slogan ‘We are all Khalid Said’ was one of the slogans that brought the people into the streets recently.”

The Egyptian government partially shut down Internet service and limited mobile communication last week in an effort to suppress the protests. Dobbs said by the time the Internet was cut off, it was already too late to quell the protests.

“Friday is a day of prayer in the Muslim world, and of course people were coming out of their mosques," Dobbs said. "There are other ways of keeping people informed — just going to your mosque and talking to people. Even if the Internet was shut down, it didn’t mean that everything relied on the Internet.”

After yesterday’s violent episodes, it is uncertain whether the protesters will succeed or whether Mubarak will regain control. Tessler said the Cairo protests could have ramifications throughout the Middle East, as the uprising could inspire other countries in the region to stage similar protests.

In the past week, in order to prevent revolts in their respective countries, King Abdullah II of Jordan dismissed the government, and Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh announced that he wouldn’t seek re-election. The leaders were trying to demonstrate to the nations’ people that they are trying to embrace democratic reform, Tessler said.

“The conditions that prompted (what happened in Egypt) exist in all these other places,” Tessler said. “It’s a little different from place to place, but as a general proposition, they exist in most of the counties in the region. That was the case in Tunisia as well.”

— The Associated Press contributed to this report.