While checking the Internet late last night, as I often do, the above picture crossed my path. The Egyptian government, in a move without full precedent in Internet history, cut off all access to online, cell phone text messaging and Blackberry Messenger services, on the eve of the largest gathering of protesters to date expected after Friday prayers today, termed “Angry Friday” by activists. As Juan Cole notes, the Iranians disrupted communications networks during the Green Movement protests in 2009, but never did they pull the entire country off the grid. This action seeks to disable the ability for activists to organize, though writer Sultan Al Qassemi reports that Egyptians can access the one ASDL network the country kept up for banking and the stock market, as well as through “leased lines” used in offices and roaming on foreign SIM cards.
The Egyptian regime also deployed a counter-terrorism unit in Cairo to disrupt the protests. And opposition members have been rounded up, at least 2,000 according to human rights groups:
Earlier, the grass-roots movement got a double boost — the return of Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei and the backing of the biggest opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood.
After midnight, security forces arrested at least five Brotherhood leaders and five former Members of Parliament, according to the group’s lawyer, Abdel-Moneim Abdel-Maksoud, and spokesman, Walid Shalaby. They said security forces had also taken a large number of Brotherhood members in a sweep in Cairo and elsewhere.
ElBaradei, the most recognized reformer in the country, has not been taken into custody at this point, and he is a leading figure in what is a leaderless effort coordinated by the country’s youth. The Muslim Brotherhood had been on the sidelines of these actions but planned to join them today.
Safwat el-Sharif, the secretary general of the ruling party, suggested that the regime start a dialogue with the youth activists, who he called “Egypt’s future.” This was before they pulled the plug on the Internet (and other countries, like Syria, clearly are learning from this by proactively shutting down Web access). The regime clearly is panicked, as are investors, who have sent the stock market plunging.
The protests turned violent in the city of Suez earlier this week, and the potential exists for that greatly today. In fact, by the time you read this, it will have begun (around 5am ET). Cole cites rumors that the secret police will set cars on fire and blame the protesters, to discredit them.
Meanwhile the United States appears perplexed with how to address this issue. While President Obama said in a YouTube interview yesterday that activists should “have mechanisms in order to express legitimate grievances,” and that Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, while an ally, should move forward on economic and political reform, Vice President Biden said that Mubarak was not a dictator and highlighted the strategic relationship between Egypt and the US. Meanwhile, the New York Times dug into its cache of Wikileaks cables and revealed how the Obama Administration took a non-confrontational approach to Egypt during the early days of the Presidency:
It was Hillary Rodham Clinton’s first meeting as secretary of state with President Hosni Mubarak, in March 2009, and the Egyptians had an odd request: Mrs. Clinton should not thank Mr. Mubarak for releasing an opposition leader from prison because he was ill.
In fact, a confidential diplomatic cable signed by the American ambassador to Egypt, Margaret Scobey, advised Mrs. Clinton to avoid even mentioning the name of the man, Ayman Nour, even though his imprisonment in 2005 had been condemned worldwide, not least by the Bush administration.
The cable is among a trove of dispatches made public by the antisecrecy group WikiLeaks that paint a vivid picture of the delicate dealings between the United States and Egypt, its staunchest Arab ally. They show in detail how diplomats repeatedly raised concerns with Egyptian officials about jailed dissidents and bloggers, and kept tabs on reports of torture by the police.
But they also reveal that relations with Mr. Mubarak warmed up because President Obama played down the public “name and shame” approach of the Bush administration. A cable prepared for a visit by Gen. David H. Petraeus in 2009 said the United States, while blunt in private, now avoided “the public confrontations that had become routine over the past several years.”
This private pressure combined with public reticence will no longer work for the Administration. They must speak with one voice and not suffer from the confused messaging of the past week. Strong public support for Mubarak at this stage is deeply damaging to US credibility in the region. And with Yemen rising up as well – although regime appears to have allowed the protests to go on peacefully so far – this will become more complicated for Obama and his foreign policy team in the days to come.