The protests in Egypt against the rule of President Hosni Mubarak have been reignited following the release from police custody of Wael Ghonim, an online activist and key organiser of the demonstrations.
Ghonim, who is also Google’s head of marketing for the Middle East and North Africa, wept openly on Dream TV and gave an emotional interview that has reinvigorated anti-government protests in Cairo.
The search giant had earlier appealed for public help in locating the missing executive, who disappeared on January 27 and was adopted by many protesters as a symbolic leader.
When he was told about the deaths of 300 people who died during the demonstrations, he cried – “We didn’t do anything wrong. We did what our consciences dictated to us”, he said.
Yesterday, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators filled the central square of Cairo while marches erupted in cities across the country.
“I like to call it the Facebook Revolution, but after seeing the people right now, I would say this is the Egyptian people’s revolution. It’s amazing,” Ghonim was reported as saying, after he was mobbed by galvanised supporters.
“Egyptians deserve a better life. Today one of those dreams has actually come true, which is actually putting all of us together and as one hand believing in something,” he said.
Prior to Ghonim’s release foreign media present in Egypt had reported a drop in momentum following 12 days of unprecedented demonstrations, with the UK’s Independent newspaper writing that Mubarak was using “all the guile that has kept him in power for so long to produce a series of sweeteners – including a 15 per cent pay rise for state employees – to widen his public support.”
The United States meanwhile backed Mubarak’s perferred successor, recently appointed Vice-President Omar Suleiman, as the country’s transitional leader in a bid to encourage President Hosni Mubarak to step aside.
Suleiman was appointed to the position by Mubarak following the sacking of his entire cabinet. Columnist Lisa Hajjar writes for Al-Jazeera that Egypt’s intelligence has CIA links and has “long been favoured by the US government for his ardent anti-Islamism [and] his willingness to talk and act tough on Iran.”
“There are forces in any society, particularly one facing these kind of challenges, that will try to derail or overtake the process to pursue their own agenda,” said US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, “which is why I think it’s important to follow the transition process announced by the Egyptian government, actually headed by vice-president Omar Suleiman.”
The US appears anxious that Egypt avoid the fate of Iran, which replaced a US-backed dictatorial regime with an unpredictable Islamic republic under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini during the Iranian revolution in 1979. Egypt is central to the region and an unstable Egypt would have a knock-on effect on world oil prices.
Media in Egypt have reported that one group likely to benefit from the fall of Mubarak is the Muslim Brotherhood, founded by Hassan al-Banna 1928 in opposition to the British presence in Egypt.
“Six Egyptian workers employed in the military camps of Ismailiyya in the Suez Canal Zone visited Banna, a young teacher who they had heard preaching in mosques and cafes on the need for ‘Islamic renewal’,” writes the Guardian’s Jack Shenker, in a rare interview with the group.
“‘Arabs and Muslims have no status and no dignity,’ they complained, according to the brotherhood’s official history. ‘They are no more than mere hirelings belonging to the foreigners… We are unable to perceive the road to action as you perceive it…’
Banna later wrote that the Europeans had expropriated the resources of Muslim lands and corrupted them with ‘murderous germs’: ‘They imported their half-naked women into these regions, together with their liquors, their theatres, their dance halls, their amusements, their stories, their newspapers, their novels, their whims, their silly games, and their vices… The day must come when the castles of this materialistic civilisation will be laid low upon the heads of their inhabitants.’
Banna argued that Islam provided a complete solution, with divine guidance on everything from worship and spiritual matters to the law, politics and social organisation. He established an evening school for the working classes which impressed the general inspector of education and by 1931 the brotherhood had constructed its first mosque – for which the Suez Canal Company is said to have provided some of the funds.”
The BBC reported that a senior Hamas commander from Gaza, Ayman Nofel, used the chaos to escape his three year detention in Egypt on unspecified charges.
“I shouted to other prisoners to break down the doors and gates,” Nofel told the BBC, who used smuggled mobile phones to mobilise local residents outside the jail to storm the prison gates and allow him to fight his way through guards to freedom.
Mubarak’s position continues to weaken, after the state-controlled Al-Ahram newspaper, Egypt’s second oldest, abandoned its support for his regime with a front page lead hailing the “nobility” of the “revolution”.
The state and all its denizens, the elder generation, the politicians and all other powers on the political stage must humble themselves and rein themselves in to understand the ambitions of the young and the dreams of this nation,” wrote editor Osama Saraya.
Even if Mubarak were to be ousted in similar fashion to his Tunisian counterpart Ben Ali, he is unlikely to go hungry – an analysis by Middle East experts published by the Guardian pegs the Egyptian President’s private wealth at US$70 billion, making him among the wealthiest people on the planet. Much of this money is reported to stashed in British and Swiss bank accounts or tied up in real estate in London, New York, Los Angeles and acres of Red Sea coast.
Meanwhile, the effect of Egyptian unrest has been felt across the region. Last week Yemeni leader of 30 years Ali Abdullah Saleh promised he would halt constitutional changes that would allow him to be president for life promised not to seek reelection, after civil society groups promised “a day of rage”.
“I will not extend my mandate and I am against hereditary rule,” Saleh said during an emergency session of parliament.
Libyan President of 42 years, Muammar al-Gaddafi, is said to be moving towards transitioning his country back to the monarchy he overthrew in a 1969 coup.
“He’s started to return property, which belonged to the late King Idris, back to the designated heirs of the king,” noted president of the International Strategic Studies Association, Greg Copley.
Tunisia, which started the domino trend after protests forced Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to flee, has been forced to call up army reservists to confront growing unrest and meet demand for democratic reforms.
Former conscripts and retired soldiers were ordered to report to military posts according to the local news agency TAP.
Gaza is meanwhile facing acute shortages of fuel and supplies as the traffic of goods through underground tunnels crossing the border to Egypt has dried up. Petrol and diesel brought in from Israel costs three times as much as that smuggled into the country, which relies on it for power during extend cuts.
The Maldives is unlikely to escape unscathed either – the country spends 25 percent of its GDP on fuel and its economy, one of the most sensitive in the world, is likely to be susceptible to even minor price fluctuations.