A week into the demonstrations in Egypt, Hosni Mubarak's once unshakeable power structure was in full panic mode. What was once unimaginable had become reality: Egyptians seemed on the verge of overthrowing their government. Last week, hundreds of thousands marched through the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, and other Egyptian cities, shouting again and again their Tunisia-inspired mantra: "The people demand the downfall of the regime!"
As one protester told me and my colleague after viewing some of the dead at one of Alexandria's morgues, "We want to uproot this tree all the way down to its roots, and then plant a new tree" -- terrifying words for the entrenched Egyptian autocracy.
Now, however, on day 16 of the protests, Mubarak and his cronies seemed to have turned a corner. Instead of running scared, the regime is fighting back with both words and violence to quash its opponents, portraying the opposition as a foreign-backed, un-Egyptian group of conspirators. Sadly, its propaganda campaign appears to be as crude as its actual physical crackdown has been.
After Mubarak's defiant last-night speech on Feb. 1, rejecting outright the protesters' demand that he step down, authorities unleashed a stunning wave of violence and intimidation. Gangs armed with sticks and knives attacked protesters. Thugs rode in on horseback and ran demonstrators down. State-run hospitals were under pressure to conceal the toll, so my colleagues and I tried to tally as best we could, visiting wards and morgues across the capital. We've counted more than 300 deaths so far, much higher than the officially acknowledged death toll of 77.
But another target of Mubarak's wrath was, simply, the rest of the world. Thugs hunted down foreigners, including journalists and tourists. Reporters from the Washington Post and the New York Times were harassed and detained; al Jazeera's headquarters were stormed, its equipment confiscated, and at least eight of its journalists detained at various times. Attackers told their victims they were looking for an alliance of Israeli Mossad spies, American agents, Iranian and Afghan intelligence, Hamas provocateurs, and other sinister elements that were conspiring to "destroy Egypt."
Why this intense anti-foreigner violence? In short, because the regime was trying just about everything to preserve the privileges of its corrupt rule. There is considerable circumstantial evidence to suggest that Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party, his Information Ministry, and elements of his security services sponsored a coordinated campaign to discredit and break up the largely peaceful pro-democracy protests that began on Jan. 25 and to intimidate and silence the journalists, foreign and Egyptian, who were reporting on it.
Senior officials, including Mubarak himself, have darkly hinted of supposed foreign involvement in the protests. On Feb. 1, Mubarak said that honest protesters had been "exploited" by spoilers with political interests. In a nationwide address two days later, his newly appointed vice president, Omar Suleiman, more explicitly accused "foreign influences" of spawning chaos.