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World Views: Egypt's tensions

Alan Johnston | 16:36 UK time, Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Commentators pour over the tensions in Egypt.

We start at the very core of the Egyptian revolt. Gulf-based Khaleej Times's front page carries a photograph of a huge heart marked out on Tahrir Square. In it are written the words "Welcome to Freedom". Beside it the paper has another picture - one of an incredibly strained, anxious-looking President Hosni Mubarak. It's the face of a man whose world really has been turned upside down.

Welcome to Freedom sign in Tahrir Square, Cairo

 

Some protesters slept in the tracks of the army's armoured vehicles to prevent them being used to force the protest into a smaller space says a Reuters report reprinted in the Khaleej Times.

Across the media there's a fascination with what the rebels there are doing. What's happening in the middle of Cairo is saluted by the New York Times' columnist Roger Cohen:

"Its spontaneous development into a tolerant mini-republic is a riposte to President Hosni Mubarak's warnings of chaos."

And Cohen is contemptuous of Mr Mubarak's talk of sweeping reform:

"It's a preposterous idea, really, to imagine that this anti-democrat Mubarak, aided by his long time henchman Omar Suleiman, can now at 82 reverse his every instinct and deliver, within seven months, a free and fair election."

Commenting on Cohen's article, a reader, who describes himself as a being of Arab origin, expresses thanks:

"Thank you for ripping the veil off of the vision in the West that somehow, the Arabs, are different and could never fight for their human rights in such a non-violent fashion."

Every detail of life in the extraordinary bubble that is Tahrir Square is laid out on the Global Voices website by a blogger called Eman Abdel Rahmann and he doesn't hold back:

"Life here has its own rhythm now and the spirit on display is of a mini Utopia."

He posts pictures of the activists praying, eating dates and drinking endless cups of tea.

The people of the Square were given a huge boost with the release from detention yesterday of a man named Wael Ghonim. He's the Google executive seen as having played a key role in using the internet to kick-start the uprising.

Mr Ghonim's first tweet after leaving jail ricocheted around the Arab world:

"Freedom is a bless that deserves fighting for."

On his very widely read Arabist blog Issandr El Amrani says timing is important:

"This cathartic moment may be the spark that was needed to revive Egypt's revolutionary fervor... [T]he people in Tahrir may finally have a leader. After two weeks, the world's media is getting tired of this story and there needed to be a relaunch."

But it may well be too late says Joshua Stracher in the US-based Foreign Affairs blog in a piece headlined "Egypt's democratic mirage":

"Despite the tenacity, optimism, and blood of the protestors massed in Tahrir Square, Egypt's democratic window has probably closed. The Egyptian state has not experienced a regime breakdown. The protests have certainly rocked the system and have put Mubarak on his heels, but at no time has the uprising seriously threatened Egypt's regime."

 

Mr Stracher says the protesters have been successfully contained.

When the uprising began in Egypt, many linked the events in Tunis and Cairo and declared that 2011 might be the Arab world's 1989. Instead, some argue, 2011 is showing just how durable and adaptable the authoritarian regimes of the Arab world truly are.

However, anti-Mubarak blogger Issandr El Amrani still holds out for a revolution on the Arabist blog:

"I'm not as pessimistic. I think the window IS closing but there is still time to make major gains - the only thing is that the opposition must move quickly and coherently."

Meanwhile Egypt's largest circulation, pro-government daily, Al Ahram says that all the answers lie in the less dramatic business of simply talking and listening.

A commentary by Marsi Atallah in Al Ahram says discussions are needed:

"The most important issue that the demonstrations have shown is that Egypt has a youth with the ability to express themselves... However the issue that they are missing is the art of dialogue."

The American magazine Newsweek makes room for the reflections of Fuoad Ajami, one of the Arab world's big thinkers:

"A question had tugged at and tormented the Arabs: were they marked by a special propensity for tyranny, a fatal brand that rendered them unable to find a world beyond the prison walls of the despotism?"

He asks why they hadn't unleashed what he calls the avalanche of anger that we've seen in Tunisia and Egypt:

"An answer, one that makes the blood go cold, is Hama"

He is referring to the city on the plains of Syria where a rebellion was brutally crushed nearly 30 years ago.

"Much of the inner city was demolished, and perhaps 20,000 people perished in that cruel fight. Hama became a code word for the terror that awaited those who dared challenge the men in power. It sent forth a message in Syria, and to other Arab lands."

But now that the fearful spell has been broken, many wonder if the Syrian leadership be challenged in the way Egypt's has. On the pages of Ash Sharq Alawsat we hear from Bouthaina Shaaban who is an advisor to President Assad:

"Everyone is glued to TV sets watching with love what is happening in Egypt. Everything happening there indicates that a new phase of development is ushered for all Arabs."

But she makes no reference to exactly what this might mean for her own country - the word Syria isn't mentioned. Some territory remains too sensitive, it seems.

If there is an Arab spring in the air, Dr Shabaan argues it's yet to bloom in Damascus:

"It is not difficult to trace back the critical moments which accumulated rage in the Arab conscience, particularly the feelings of humiliation, insult and impotence that millions of young people felt as a result of their governments' impotence and silence regarding the tragedies which befell Iraq and Palestine."

And many Arabs would echo that sentiment.

On the other hand, in the interviews you hear from Tahrir Square you don't get a sense of the protesters falling over themselves to talk about the troubles of the Palestinians.

Writing in the Israeli daily Haaretz an Israeli-Arab journalist Sayed Kashua says the protests don't impact on the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians:

"I have the strong impression, contrary to what many Israelis think, that the demonstrations in Egypt are not against Israel, and that whether or not the revolution succeeds, it is not aimed at toppling the government in Israel but rather the one in Cairo."

And a rather unlikely figure, a retired Saudi Navy Commodore writes in the Arab News that what is happening at the moment is very much Arab business and argues against what he calls "an Israeli conspiracy that never existed":

"To this day, I see Arabs blaming Israelis for young Arab drug addicts, their poor education, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, bad roads, corruption, lack of democracy, the upheaval in Tunisia and the unrest in Egypt... Israel did not open a European bank account for the Tunisian leader Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali. He did."

Amid all the super-charged politics in the Middle East right now, there's still room it seems for a little romance. Many of the region's papers, including the Gulf News, are happy to report the marriage of Ahmad Zaafan, and his fiancée Oula Abdul Hamid. They got married in Tahrir Square not minding, it seems, having an Egyptian tank as the back drop to their wedding photos.

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