Dispatch

The Crumbling Anchors of Mubarak's Support

Mubarak may be holding on for now, but every day a little bit more, his base of support is eroding beneath him.

CAIRO — President Hosni Mubarak may just find a way to survive the current waves of civil unrest rocking Egypt and at least finish out his final term in office. But with thousands of protesters occupying Tahrir Square for a 16th day, his position is growing steadily more precarious.

As Mubarak fights hard for his political life, observers are watching closely for any sign that the anchors of his reign may be crumbling. But for a healthy portion of his nearly 30 years in power, Mubarak enjoyed the status of one of the region's most secure dictators.

He defeated armed Islamists during the 1980s and 1990s, intimidated and co-opted opposition political forces, and created a new generation of wealthy businessmen whose entire livelihoods depended on his government. At the same time, he managed to keep the Muslim Brotherhood -- which long ago gave up violence -- under wraps through constant crackdowns, while using the threat of a Brotherhood takeover to convince both his own citizens and Western governments that his reign was an acceptable, stable alternative. He worked hard to ensure that no credible moderate opposition figures emerged to spoil that stark black-and-white choice, spinning each threat to his rule as if he alone were the bulwark against the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.

But as he faces the greatest crisis of his tenure, almost every one of Mubarak's traditional reservoirs of support is being subject to daily review.

The People

It would be inaccurate to say that Mubarak is universally hated in Egypt. Vast numbers of Egyptians do support him, seeing him as the kind of stern-but-fair father figure who doesn't accept any backtalk but who ultimately has the country's best interests in mind. After all, there's always someone else to blame when things go wrong: corrupt ministers, Israel, or al Qaeda.

But that reservoir of public support has been eroding steadily over the years, largely due to the fundamental unjustness of the society that Mubarak has helped build.

Issues like blatant corruption and endemic police brutality have soured untold numbers of ordinary apolitical citizens. Last summer, I attended a thousands-strong rally in Alexandria after a young man was beaten to death in public by plainclothes police officers. I found myself surrounded by people who had never before attended a protest, and each person seemed to have a personal tale of abuse, intimation, or humiliation by the police, from routine torture in police stations to mafia-style protection rackets.

Many Egyptians have been inadvertently politicized by the common bitterness of their experiences under Mubarak's heavy hand. Ahmed El Siwi, a 21-year-old engineering student in Tahrir Square told me on Tuesday, Feb. 8, "I think that a lot of this wouldn't have happened if he had just made sure his police were honorable and respectable. It's his fault really."

The National Democratic Party

There's no question of loyalty here. Mubarak's National Democratic Party (NDP) machine depends on a calibrated pyramid of patronage and corruption that centers on the president.

NDP officials have no doubt been closely watching events in Tunisia, where protesters have made it clear that simply removing Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali from the equation is not sufficient. They refused to stop until all traces of Ben Ali's Constitutional Democratic Rally party were uprooted; a second wave of protests helped bring down the first post-Ben Ali government because it contained too many old regime faces. The NDP, whose headquarters along the Nile were set ablaze on Friday, Jan. 28, rightly fears the exact same result here if Mubarak does fall.

For better or worse, the party's entire fate is tied to that of Mubarak, and there are no public signs of the party turning against him. The recent mass resignations of the entire top tier of NDP leadership -- a cynical purge at Mubarak's "request" -- and installation of supposedly reformist figures is unlikely to reduce the protesters' visceral animosity toward the party. When protest leader Wael Ghonim was released on Monday, Feb. 7, after 12 days in detention, he was greeted by new NDP chief Hossam Badrawi, the symbol of the party's new reformist stance. Ghonim later said that he told Badrawi the only way he could respect him is if he resigned from the NDP. "I told him, 'I don't want to see the National Democratic Party logo in any street in Egypt. I don't want to see another NDP,'" Ghonim said in a televised interview.

The Oligarchs

Like the NDP, Egypt's massively wealthy crop of private-sector titans also owes their position, power, and profit to Mubarak's machine. But the economic toll of two weeks of unrest is still being calculated. The stock market lost 16 percent of its value before the government shut it down; it won't reopen until Feb. 13. The Egyptian pound is at a six-year low, and the vital flow of foreign tourists has disappeared at the start of what should be the high season. A report from Crédit Agricole estimated that the standoff was costing Egypt $310 million per day.

If foreign investors start pulling their money out of Egypt, some of the country's oligarchs might begin brainstorming about immediate alternatives -- if they aren't doing that already. They may seek to nudge Mubarak off the stage while preserving the basic architecture of the system that made them wealthy.

One key indicator to watch: some of the wealthiest tycoons, like Naguib Sawiris and Ahmed Bahgat, also own newspapers and television stations that could be used to bolster either the government or the protesters. Bahgat's Dream TV, for example, gave an open forum to the newly released Ghonim on Monday night, and his tearful, sincere, and emotionally raw interview helped galvanize the existing protesters and may have drawn thousands more off the fence.

The Police

The Interior Ministry remains loyal to Mubarak. But the value of that support has been greatly reduced. One of the primary narratives about the first week of protests is that the police lost its ability to control the people, and the people shook off their long-standing fear of the police state. Dozens of police stations were torched on Jan. 28, when Mubarak summoned the Army in a tacit admission that the Interior Ministry had been defeated.

Some police officers have reappeared on the streets in a positive role, directing traffic and working with volunteer neighborhood watch groups. But the protesters uniformly believe that plainclothes officers from the police and state security are still actively trying to infiltrate the Tahrir crowds to spy or act as provocateurs. The multiple ID checks that take place before anyone can enter Tahrir are partially meant to bar anyone employed by the Interior Ministry.

There are signs that the police are seeking to return to society on a more humble footing, having apologized for their excesses. Cell-phone users on Wednesday, Feb. 9, received a text message from the Interior Ministry saying, "From today our dealings with you will be with honesty, trust and lawfulness."

The Army

This is the true wild card going forward. Army troops have seemingly retained their loyalty, but they haven't yet been asked to do anything that commanders could potentially object to, such as shooting their fellow Egyptians. Mubarak, a former Air Force commander and war hero, has deep ties with the military and has always ensured that his commanders are well compensated and cared for. New Vice President Omar Suleiman and Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq also come from its ranks.

Like the oligarchs, the Army has profited handsomely under Mubarak's system. It is one of the country's biggest landowners and receives a healthy share of the $1.3 billion in annual U.S. funding. But if he proves unviable going forward, it may seek to gently remove him while retaining its position and perks. So far, the Army has kept its promise not to fire on the protesters, while working to ensure the safety of the many government buildings and ministries that surrounded the Tahrir area.

The protesters, meanwhile, seem a little split on whether to actually trust the Army's intentions. When I asked Ahmad Abdalla, a young movie director, last week what his biggest concern was, he said, "The Army. I hope they don't do a U-turn. I don't think they will." It's worth noting that according to multiple first-person accounts, many of the recent arrests and dentitions of journalists and human rights activists were carried out by the military police.

The Opposition Parties

Some leaders of Egypt's generally marginalized and toothless opposition parties have been willing to engage Mubarak's new government in talks. Those talks have produced no tangible results yet. But even if they did, most of these parties hold no credibility with the majority of Tahrir protesters -- who regard them as part of the same corrupt pseudo-democratic facade. The Muslim Brotherhood, however, does have the authority to speak for at least a portion of the Tahrir protesters, and its representatives have met with the government at least once. But it seems to be holding to the protesters' line that no meaningful negotiations can begin until Mubarak leaves.

Regardless of whoever is doing the negotiating, the crowds in Tahrir will remain vigilant for any backroom deal that falls short of that minimum demand.

The United States

After a week of muddled public statements, U.S. President Barack Obama's administration seems to have settled on the idea that Mubarak should go, but not necessarily immediately. The sudden violence of last week -- when pro-Mubarak gangs attacked the Tahrir protesters and international journalists -- seemed to anger the Obama administration, which flatly stated that the attacks were coordinated. It didn't say by whom, but the implication was fairly clear.

Last week's ascension of the powerful Suleiman (a former intelligence chief) to vice president could potentially reassure the Americans. Suleiman has deep ties to Washington, and as the WikiLeaks cables revealed, he was a key liaison in the rendition of suspected terrorists overseas for torture and interrogation.

There were cheers in Tahrir when Obama first stated that an "orderly transition" was necessary, but the overall attitude of many protesters toward Americans isn't so much antipathy as cynical mistrust. They don't really seem to want Washington's help in bringing down Mubarak and would probably prefer it if the United States simply got out of their way. As one sign in Tahrir put it on Tuesday, "Dear America, we're doing fine without you."

Mubarak is no doubt conducting his own checklist these days as he marshals his strength and support. One of the world's most entrenched strongmen in his time, he now finds himself fighting for the right to simply leave on his own terms.

KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images

Dispatch

Egypt's Foreigner Blame Game

Hosni Mubarak tries xenophobia to stay at the helm.

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.

The innuendo didn't stop there. From the beginning of the protests, "reports" of foreign conspiracies have dominated state television news. Egyptian channels such as Al Oula TV, Nile TV, and Al Masriya TV, all controlled by the Information Ministry, began playing virulent propaganda about the alleged plots and conspiracies hatched abroad. Similar rhetoric also ran on the pro-regime Mehwar TV owned by a close associate of Mubarak's party and in the pages of state-controlled newspapers such as Al-Ahram and Al-Akhbar.

Many of the claims of foreign intervention came on so-called call-in shows. On Feb. 1, for example, Mehwar TV broadcast a phone interview with a young woman who claimed she had been at the protests since the first day and had seen a group of "foreign-looking men" -- Turks working for Iranian intelligence, she said -- with lots of cash and satellite phones, distributing expensive gifts and food to protesters. She said they were also distributing political fliers, which is illegal in Egypt. But such calls may well have been staged. The call-in numbers displayed were not even functional, as democracy protesters found out when they tried to dial them.

The next day, Mehwar TV broadcast a breathless interview with a woman whose face they pixelated and who claimed that she had been recruited by Mossad as a spy, had been trained by the U.S.-based NGO Freedom House on how to topple the Egyptian government, and had been working closely with Qatar, home of Al Jazeera TV. She said that each of the protest leaders had received $50,000 in cash to round up protesters and instigate the burning of the headquarters of Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party. The station offered no independent corroboration of this fanciful story, which among other oddities, implausibly links the Mossad with Al Jazeera -- when the TV network is in fact highly critical of Israel. (It's also quite unclear why the Mossad would want to unseat Mubarak, given that his regime is one of only two Arab governments to have a peace treaty with Israel.)

The absurdities continued. Someone who claimed he was a protester called into state-controlled Al Oula (Channel One) TV on the night of Feb. 2, saying he had just returned from Tahrir Square. He reported that 75 percent of the people there were foreigners, including a group of "Iranians or Afghans" who yelled at him in a language he didn't understand. On Feb. 5, the Mehwar TV show 48 Hours interviewed a young man who claimed he was one of the main protest organizers. He alleged that "Islamists with long beards" had taken over control of Tahrir Square and had smuggled in 23,000 guns into the area, many stolen from police stations. The presenter then took a call from Abd al-Azim Darwish, an editor at Al-Ahram, the main state-owned newspaper, saying he could confirm that the weapons had been taken into Tahrir Square and that he had "top secret security information" that the Muslim Brotherhood was responsible for smuggling them in.

The Information Ministry even took its propaganda war to the phone networks, forcing mobile-phone carriers including Vodafone, Mobinil, and Etisalat to send out text messages to all subscribers urging them to attend pro-Mubarak rallies. One Vodafone message on Feb. 1 read: "The Armed Forces urge Egypt's loyal men to confront the traitors and the criminals and to protect our families, our honor and our precious Egypt." Some messages even mentioned locations for the rallies.

In a country where so many -- particularly the poor who don't have access to satellite television -- rely on the ubiquitous state-controlled media for their information and cell phones for communication, the approach was comprehensive and effective. Rather than being depicted as an expression of popular disgust with the government, the protests were portrayed as a complex international conspiracy. And indeed, such distorted coverage whipped up enough anti-foreigner hysteria that a number of expatriates, including journalists, have been viciously attacked on the streets.

Many in the police and Army were apparently convinced by the propaganda. One activist who was brutally beaten while being detained by the military from Friday until Sunday last week told me how an Army interrogator, who tortured him with electric shocks, was absolutely obsessed with saving the country from the foreign spies trying to ruin it. In an ironic twist, it was another detainee, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood -- another central part of the "conspiracy" -- who finally convinced the interrogator that his paranoia was unsustainable. "He told the interrogator that we weren't a foreign-inspired movement, explaining it was ridiculous to believe that the Pakistanis, Iran, and the United States were doing this, as they don't work together in any way," the released detainee told me. The Brotherhood member, he said, told the interrogator that "we were all Egyptians in the movement."

Many other state employees, including several prominent members of the media, however, were unconvinced by the propaganda. On Jan. 26, popular TV host Mahmoud Saad resigned from his nightly talk show, Masr ElNahrda, after state television refused to broadcast his candid look at the protests. On Feb. 3, a leading presenter and deputy head of the state-controlled English-language Nile TV, Shahira Amin, also resigned, saying she refused to continue being part of the lies and propaganda. Indeed, many of those who attended pro-Mubarak rallies appeared to be state-company employees. From our hotel balcony, we watched government-run buses go back and forth from Tahrir Square, bringing in the thousands of government supporters.

But the xenophobic, state-sponsored attacks collapsed just as quickly as they begun. By last Friday, Feb. 4, the pro-democracy demonstrators had taken back the momentum of the street, overcoming the fear and staging one of their biggest rallies yet. Foreign journalists once again walked the streets of Cairo without fear. If anything, the government's attempts to crush the protests -- with violence and propaganda -- had the opposite effect, hardening the opposition's resolve.

In the last few days, state-controlled television has even begun broadcasting more objective coverage of the protests. And on Tuesday, Feb. 8, large numbers of state-media employees joined the protesters, demanding the resignation of the bosses who had been responsible for the vicious state propaganda.

And yet the fight for a new, more democratic Egypt, free from state propaganda and intimidation, is far from over. America's new Man in Cairo, Suleiman, carries too much of the baggage of the past. When Christiane Amanpour asked him last Thursday whether the aspirations of the youth for a more democratic society might not represent a real yearning, he responded, "I don't think that's only from the young people; others are pushing them to do that." He warned darkly of "the Islamic current" that was inspiring the youthful protesters. Perhaps he's been watching too much state television.

Chris Hondros/Getty Images