The revolution will be televised
15 February 2011
On Friday morning, 11 February, it was still before midnight, Cairo time, when the Brushtail Café opened. Joadja had set up a big flatscreen TV tuned to ABC 24, for those who wanted to watch the unfolding of the Egyptian revolution in Tahrir Square.
Twenty-four hour news TV is mostly about repetition rather than news. Endlessly recycled reports from the two Marks – Willacy and Corcoran – were followed by a blond teenage business commentator who didn’t have a clue what would happen, economically speaking, and said so in as many words as possible.
And then, a sensation. Barak Obama had led everyone to believe that a deal had been done and Mubarak was going, but the US had been blindsided. Lisa Miller in Washington was telling us that CIA Director Leon Panneta had even told a senate committee that Mubarak would step down but then here was Omar Suleiman – the hated secret police chief, and the man who supervised the torture of Mamdouh Habib – saying that Mubarak wasn’t going anywhere.
Suleiman, who doesn’t look like he’d be a fun guy, spoke a lot of nationalist fluff and weasel words but the take-home was clear enough “Go back to work” and “Do not watch satellite TV, it is evil and will lead you into sedition”. The irony of the fact that he was going out live on al Jazeera escaped him. But he also threatened his young adversaries that the outcome of a victory by them would not be what they expected … a clear reference to the fate of the secular opposition after the fall of the Shah of Iran … which was a fair enough warning, but flew in the face of the fact that Iran, today, is certainly more democratic (although less liberal) than Egypt and had, in the Ayatollah Komeini, a major leader in exile around whom the islamists could unite, whereas the Muslim Brotherhood hasn’t.
But as the day rolled on, nothing was resolved, at least on the surface. An expected announcement by the army chiefs didn’t arrive. Mark Willacy reported that the tanks that had been parked in long lines along the banks of the Nile had disappeared. Why? Where had they gone? Was the army repositioning for a crackdown on the demonstrators? Saudi Arabia and Tony Blair were backing Mubarak.
And then Mubarak was on TV live. He was staying on until September, and if was staying until then, he had plenty of time to organise his own survival, or to bring his son to the throne. “Nine months to hunt us all down”, Mark Corcoran reported a senior protest leader saying.
Maybe that was the tipping point, the moment at which the anti-Mubarak forces realised they had no option but to go all the way. The crowd erupted in fury, pointing the soles of their shoes towards the screen. Would they march on the state TV building – provocative enough – or even the presidential palace, crossing some invisible line and triggering a bloodbath? It was all too much, and I went to bed.
When the Brushtail Café opened in the morning, it was all over. Mubarak had hightailed it to his holiday shack in Sharm el Sheik and the army had taken over. No doubt the US State Department – which never likes to be associated with fallen client dictators – had cancelled his Green Card and was trying to find some hapless third world country that would give him refuge. The Swiss government had frozen his assets.
“Maybe Tony Blair has a spare room”, Joadja remarked, to hoots of laughter from the breakfast customers.
And then Barak Obama was on the box, hailing the Egyptian people’s victory with smooth and measured words. What else could he do? The man was smart enough to realise, early on, that Mubarak’s usefulness to the West, and Israel, was all played out and some new puppet, as yet unknown, would have to be recruited.
In Tahrir Square there were jubilant celebrations, but whatever brave face Obama put on it (or Kevin Rudd, or Julia Gillard) they must dread the future that’s been set in train. Who knows, what will follow– the fall of the House of Saud? the Emirates? Syria? Jordan? There were even reports of demonstrations in Iraq.
If Saudi Arabia goes, the price of oil could go anywhere. Then, we will see how slender the cheap energy margin, on which our economies depend, really is.
Après Mubarak, le déluge.