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Friday, 11 February 2011

11 February 2011

You’ll understand, I hope, why this week’s newsletter is later than usual – it seemed to me it would be better to wait until we knew what happened today in Cairo. And it was.

No, I’m not psychic. I couldn’t be sure that President Mubarak would finally choose to resign today – but when I went home after last night’s programme, it was clear that today would bring fresh drama.

Did I say Mubarak “chose to resign”? I wonder. We will learn more over the coming days about exactly what happened behind the scenes in Cairo over the past 48 hours – but it’s already possible to look at the available evidence and draw some tentative conclusions.

Question 1: Was it a victory for a popular revolution, or a military coup d’etat? Answer: almost certainly, a bit of both.

Question 2: Is Egypt now set on a path towards genuine democracy and free and fair elections? Answer: it’s far too soon to say, but personally, I wouldn’t bet on it.

Question 3: Will today’s events have an impact elsewhere in the Arab world? Answer: categorically yes, a massive impact. Tunisia could perhaps be written off as a small and relatively insignificant country. But Egypt? The most populous nation in the Arab world? The acknowledged Arab super-power?

So what might have happened yesterday and today? I have no inside knowledge, but here’s my best guess. Yesterday, when the army high command issued their “Communique No. 1”, they thought they had secured Mubarak’s agreement to resign and hand over power to them.

That’s why they told the hundreds of thousands of protesters in Tahrir Square: “All your demands will be met.”

But Vice-President Omar Suleiman, perhaps with the support of the presidential guard and other elements of the security apparatus, faced the military chiefs down. There were even rumours that Mubarak had already recorded a resignation announcement but that the vice-president ordered that it should not be broadcast.

Instead, in what everyone seems to agree was a disastrous miscalculation, Mubarak went on TV and said he was not resigning after all but would hand over powers to – guess who? – vice-president Suleiman.

In other words, what happened yesterday was in effect an attempted coup d’etat by the military – and it failed.

Today, on the other hand, it seems to have succeeded. Mubarak has gone, and now the military are in charge. Where that leaves the vice-president isn’t clear. Not best pleased, is my guess.

But do today’s events mark, in the words of the Nobel peace prize winner and leading opposition figure Mohammed el Baradei: “the liberation of the Egyptian people”?

Is military rule compatible with liberation? It depends, doesn’t it, on what happens next.

For now, though, the message being echoed right across the Arab world is simply this: No matter how long a leader has been in power, no matter how pervasive his security apparatus, no matter how terrifying his dungeons, if enough people take to the streets, he can be toppled.

The coming weeks will give us some idea of whether there are likely to be more Tunisias, more Egypts. They will also begin to clarify whether the Egyptian people really are about to be given a genuine opportunity to choose how, and by whom, they wish to be ruled.

I know that the parallels with Europe in 1989 can be overdone and that they are far from exact. But I have a strong suspicion that the over-riding emotion in Cairo tonight is very similar to what people felt in Berlin, Prague, Bucharest and the other capitals of eastern and central Europe as the Moscow-backed Communist regimes crumbled one after another.

Live for the moment. Celebrate the achievement. We’ll worry about the future tomorrow. There may be trouble ahead; some of them may even live to regret what happened today. But I don’t think many of the protesters are bothering with that now.

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