Friday, February 25, 2011
Surrendering before terror
Events of a quarter century ago are rarely remembered, especially in a country like India where the masses have a poor sense of history and the classes have a loathing for the past. Yet, at times it is necessary to recall events, if only to highlight how our national resolve has weakened in direct proportion to the strengthening of our economy. It would be facetious to suggest an inevitable correlation between the two, but it could be argued that while the rise of our self-seeking middle classes may have led to the creation of a bazaar which is the world’s envy, they have also sapped the nation of its national spirit to a great extent. A pusillanimous Government, whether in New Delhi or in State capitals, is a natural corollary of this phenomenon. Politically convenient and socially fashionable bunkum about India as a soft power has left the Indian state looking vulnerable as never before.
This is most evident from the response of both society and authority to terrorism, irrespective of the colour of the terrorists’ ideology. Instead of standing up and daring those who use guns and bombs to terrorise people, we meekly surrender, thus exposing ourselves to further violence. But it wasn’t always like this. In February 1984, an Indian diplomat, Ravindra Mhatre, posted at our mission in Birmingham, was kidnapped while returning home by members of the then UK-based Jammu & Kashmir Liberation Front. The Government of India had till then faced other hostage situations -- Indian Airlines flights had been hijacked to Pakistan -- but nothing quite similar. The British authorities were nonplussed; officials in New Delhi were stunned.
Within hours of the kidnapping, the abductors issued their list of demands, which included one million pounds in cash and the release of Maqbool Butt, co-founder of the JKLF, who was lodged in Delhi’s Tihar Jail after being sentenced to death for killing personnel of Indian security forces. For two days there were hectic attempts to goad Mrs Indira Gandhi, then Prime Minister, into agreeing to negotiate a deal with Mhatre’s abductors. But Mrs Gandhi remained unmoved and her message was unambiguous: No talks, no deal. On February 6, Mhatre’s body was found in a lane. He had been shot dead after the JKLF realised it was futile to expect Mrs Gandhi to agree to a swap. There were no 24x7 television news channels those days but newspaper reports were sufficient to generate national outrage. A grim-faced Mrs Gandhi struck back. Maqbool Butt was executed five days later on February 11 after President Zail Singh was told to spurn his mercy petition. The JKLF leaders in Birmingham panicked and fled Britain; it’s another matter that British courts failed to fetch justice to Mhatre.
Cynics would suggest that Mrs Gandhi’s audacious tit-for-tat policy did not yield long-term results. That, however, is a fallacious argument, not the least because it overlooks certain crucial facts. Between 1984 and the winter of 1989, the cadre of the JKLF, which was then the sole terrorist organisation demanding azadi, were on the run and their top leaders were in jail. Mrs Gandhi had based her decision on the simple principle that a country as large as India could absorb the loss of one official but it couldn’t countenance the threat posed by terrorists. It worked -- till VP Singh came to power and appointed Mufti Mohammed Sayeed as his Home Minister.
On December 8, 1989, Rubaiya Sayeed, the Mufti’s daughter, was kidnapped in Kashmir by JKLF gunmen who demanded the release of five senior ‘commanders’ of the organisation from prison. VP Singh capitulated and Jammu & Kashmir has never been the same again; nor has the Government been able to stand firm before terrorist demands after that spectacular submission of the authority of the state to fear induced by terrorism. It irreparably broke the national spirit and the will of the Government, as was demonstrated during the week-long saga of shame that followed the hijacking of IC-814 to Kandahar which ended with our setting free three Pakistani terrorists who have since acquired greater infamy through their murderous jihad.
The reason why these events from the past are important to recall and remember is to contextualise the astonishingly timid surrender by the Government of Orissa before the Maoists who abducted the Collector of Malkangiri district R Vineel Krishna and a junior engineer, Pabitra Majhi, 26 years to the month after Mhatre’s kidnapping by terrorists of another ideological persuasion. The Maoists initially made 14 demands, including the immediate halt to counter-insurgency operations, withdrawal of all Central paramilitary forces from areas infested by Red terrorists, release of five of their senior comrades wanted for scores of crimes and cancellation of agreements with multinational corporations.
The Maoists also named their own choice of negotiators to strike a deal with the Government, which meekly complied without even bothering to look into the strategic implications of grovelling before Maoists whose depredations the Prime Minister has repeatedly described as the “biggest threat to India’s national security”. On Wednesday Majhi was set free by the Maoists after one of their most wanted comrades, Ganti Prasadam, accused of more than 100 crimes, was “granted bail”; they next upped the ante and asked for the release of four other jailed comrades, taking the total to nine.
It is immaterial how the Malkangiri story ends. It is equally irrelevant whether the Government later claims that it had to act in a pragmatic, responsible manner. Any justification of the shameful and shaming surrender by the state is so much poppycock and nothing more than that. Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik need not have hastened to appease those waging war on the state. He could have taken a cue from the Governments of Bihar and Chhattisgarh which dared the Maoists to kill abducted policemen rather than give in; used negotiations as tactics to locate the abductors and threaten them with an overwhelming response; and, secured the freedom of the hostages without surrendering. Even if that tactical ploy had failed in Orissa, surely India could have absorbed the loss of two men to secure the safety of more than a billion people?
Sadly, the message from Bihar and Chhattisgarh, as also from West Bengal where the Left Front is waging a determined war against Maoists in Lalgarh, admittedly using means that may not be entirely fair or legal, will now be overtaken by the pathetic whimper from Orissa. The memory of 277 men in uniform killed by Maoists in 2010 stands pitilessly ridiculed. Strangely the Union Government refused to step in and prevent the Orissa Government from causing lasting damage to India’s war on terror. Are we then preparing for a grand surrender? Is this 1989 all over again?
[The abducted Collector was freed on Thursday, February 25, 2011 evening.]
[An abridged version of this appeared as my fortnightly column in DNA.]
Thursday, February 17, 2011
The Arab palace has begun to fear the Arab street. And the Arab street has begun to sense that fear.
The Arab palace will never be the same ever again. Events over the past month, first in the Tunisian Republic and then in the Arab Republic of Egypt, have radically altered the power equation across Arabia from the North Atlantic coast to the Persian Gulf. It may not be immediately, palpably evident in most of the 22 Arab states in the Maghreb and the Mashreq, but the pulse of Arabia now beats in the Arab street. Tunisia’s ‘Jasmine Revolution’ and Egypt’s ‘Lotus Revolution’, both triggered by hectic campaigning by tech-savvy young men and women on Facebook and Twitter, often armed with nothing more than a smart phone, have sent out shockwaves that have rattled the palaces of Kings, Presidents and Emirs and show no signs of abating even as the uprising by Misris reached its denouement on Friday with President Hosni Mubarak resigning from the office he held for 30 years and handing over power to the Supreme Council of the Egyptian military headed by General Mohamed Hussein Tantawi.
Take a look at the map of Arabia. At the far end, west of Suez, is the Islamic Republic of Mauritania. It had a civilian Government of sorts, hugely corrupt, till August 2008 when it was felled by a military coup led by General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz. A year later, Gen Aziz stepped down as the chief of Army and called presidential elections in April 2009. Predictably, he swept the polls and has since transmogrified into a dictator. Beneath the deceptive calm festers poverty amid illiteracy; together, coupled with the absence of space for political dissent, they make the ground fertile for radical Islamism to strike roots and flourish.
The Kingdom of Morocco has been fortunate enough to have an enlightened constitutional monarchy with an elected Parliament. But King Mohammed VI, who assumed the throne in 1999, wields enormous executive power and can issue diktats that are treated as law. In brief, real executive authority vests with the King. Morocco’s society is pock-marked by widespread poverty and illiteracy; women have few rights. President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, hand-picked by the Army in 1999, heads a military-backed regime in the Democratic and Popular Republic of Algeria with a one-party system that disallows — and ruthlessly puts down — opposition in any form. Algeria, too, faces widespread poverty though literacy rates are high, which has added to the number of educated unemployed raging against the regime. Young Algerians are seething in anger; the absence of a free Press only serves to fuel it further.
In the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, Col Muammar Gaddafi remains firmly in power which he seized in 1969. His dictatorship brooks neither dissent nor opposition. Gaddafi’s flamboyant and lavish lifestyle is often in the news abroad; at home, it’s grinding poverty for most Libyans. In the Republic of Sudan, Omar Al Bashir presides over a single-party regime notorious for committing gross violations of human rights and a country torn apart by civil war. After a recent referendum, Sudan is likely to split into two countries. This, in turn, has led to street protests in Khartoum, with most of the protesters owing allegiance to radical Islamist groups.
In the Syrian Arab Republic, President Bashar al-Assad rules with a mailed fist. Its one-party system automatically rules out the presence of other contenders for power. The ‘presidential democracy’ in the Republic of Yemen is a sham that has kept Ali Abdullah Saleh in power since 1978 and pushed the country deeper into poverty, social unrest and radical Islamism-inspired terrorism.
The House of Saud has ruled the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia since 1931. It has neither the inclination nor the time for parliamentary democracy or individual rights and freedom. Leave alone political parties, there are no organisations or unions in this country which lies at the heart of Arabia. And then there are the smaller kingdoms and emirates, ranging from Qatar to the UAE. One country that stands out is the Sultanate of Oman, ruled by Sultan Qaboos al Said who has been on the throne since 1970. He is enlightened, looks after his people, is well-loved and has built an economy that is strong and resilient although rising inflation is beginning to cause resentment among the less privileged.
Now let us look at what is common between these countries, apart from entrenched ageing rulers, who variously describe themselves as Presidents, Kings and Emirs, and the elite who live in opulent luxury while the masses wallow in appalling poverty. From the Arab palace, the world beyond perfumed gardens looks like a glittering fairytale land. From the Arab street, the world looks shabby and grey: Deprivation and denial are the twin leitmotifs. Each of the Arab states has a sizeable population aged below 30; many of them are unemployed; and, most were born after their rulers came to power. They are impatient for change, they want to participate in free and fair elections and access to the World Wide Web has helped them transcend the limits on information imposed by state-controlled media. The young are from the Arab street and hate the Arab palace, identified with limitless corruption and criminal suppression of the masses, with a passion never seen before. The socio-economic pyramid is being sought to be toppled. The base refuses to bear the burden of the tip any longer.
Another common feature shared by these sham republics and bogus kingdoms is the sudden, rapid collapse of a welfare system that was devised and patronised by the Arab palace to keep the masses on the Arab street satisfied, if not happy. Heavily subsidised food, inexpensive services, easy access to public sector jobs that paid subsistence wages and old age pensions were meant to generate a sense of gratitude towards the rais. It was a strategy that worked so long as there was money in the coffers. With Arab regimes, like Governments elsewhere in the world, running out of money, subsidies, jobs and pensions are fast disappearing or are being severely pruned. The clumsy attempt by these regimes to graft economic liberalisation on a system that till recently abhorred anything but the public sector which was either owned by the palace or the state has recoiled horribly. Job cuts and freeze on employment by Governments, such as they are, have added to the plight of the masses, especially the young, and food inflation has added to their woes. For instance, in Egypt, where defiant young men and women have forced the collapse of the Mubarak regime, unemployment is as high as 25 per cent; food inflation is running at 19 per cent; and, rising income disparity has made poverty even starker.
It is against this background that we should view the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia chose not to put up a fight: He fled his country (in an aircraft laden with accumulated gold) and an interim Government has taken charge. President Hosni Mubarak, on the other hand, dug in his heels and refused to budge from either his post or his palace till Friday. Before the day was over, his tottering regime collapsed. And that could trigger a domino effect whose consequences would be deeply unsettling for the region and the world, not least because the status quo would no longer obtain.
Already we are witnessing street protests in Jordan and Yemen where thousands have been turning out to demand political reforms. In Jordan, King Abdullah has been spared popular anger till now but in Yemen the masses want Ali Abdullah Saleh out. Abdelaziz Bouteflika is gearing up to face massive rallies: 25,000 policemen were deployed to restrain protesters in Algiers on Saturday. There are reports that Bahrain is in ferment and protests there could take a nasty turn with Shias, who constitute the majority, demanding the ouster of a Sunni minority regime. A massive protest march is planned for Monday. Iraq, yet to attain any degree of political, economic and social stability, could erupt in street protests too with opponents of the incumbent Government seizing upon this opportunity to try and dislodge it, possibly through violent means, and usher a radical Islamist, pro-Iran regime.
It’s not for nothing that the Arab rulers are alarmed by the developments in Tunisia and more so in Egypt. The ‘Jasmine Revolution’ in Tunisia, with an eighth of Egypt’s population, could have been waved away as an aberration, but the roar from Tahrir Square is too deafening to be ignored. The response has been at three levels.
Alert and intelligent rulers have responded with promises of political reforms: Jordan’s King Abdullah has sacked his Prime Minister and appointed a new team to address popular grievances; Kuwait’s Al Sabbah family has let it be known it is not averse to more freedom and democracy but, as a precautionary measure, has banned all gatherings, rallies and marches after Friday prayers. Bashar al-Assad, who instructed his security forces to crush an incipient copy-cat protest in Damascus earlier this month, has now ordered the ban on Facebook and YouTube to be lifted, making what would be considered in Syria a significant concession. Ali Abdullah Saleh has promised protesters in Yemen that he will neither contest the 2013 elections, nor field his son as a candidate.
Second, the rulers seem to have suddenly realised that perhaps turning the welfare tap off and cutting down on entitlements were not such good ideas; liberalisation and market economy may attract investors but a slothful system ensures that benefits don’t immediately follow. Arab socialism was about patronage; Arab capitalism is about cronyism — the first at least helped silence critics; the latter has made critics shriller. So, as if on cue, the regimes have promptly decided to enhance social welfare spending, regardless of the long-term impact on their near-empty treasuries. For instance, Jordan’s Budget could end up funding higher salaries and pensions, leaving little for anything else. On Friday, hours before Cairo fell to protesters, the ruler of Bahrain, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa announced a $2,700 dole for each family, hoping to placate his subjects. Saudi Arabia, where a group of reformists has written to King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz seeking his permission to set up a political party, is no doubt flush with oil money, but it also has more people clamouring for dole than it did a decade ago: Two-thirds of its population is aged 30 and below; unemployment is at an alarming 10 per cent in a country with nine million expatriate workers; shooting inflation and falling incomes have shrunk its middle class base. Jordan, Bahrain, Kuwait and others could see their money running out fast if the enhanced payouts continue for too long.
Third, the Arab rulers are making efforts, no matter how feeble and ineffective they may be, to reach out to the Twitter and Facebook generation of bloggers. Prince Khalid al Faisal, the Governor of Mecca Province, did something extraordinary recently after heavy rains flooded Jeddah, leaving many dead and eliciting accusations of inefficiency on part of the city administration which was openly accused of being corrupt. He invited a group of five young men, including a blogger who had been sent to jail two years ago for raging against the palace, and briefed them about the ‘sincere measures’ taken by authorities, admitted lapses in tackling the situation and promised action against errant officials. Meeting over, he smiled and told the men: Do send our royal regards to the young people on Twitter.
At the same time, the men who rule Arabia are clever enough to realise that if push comes to shove, their palaces will collapse like castles built of sand. Hence, they want to keep both push and shove at bay, at least till such time they have put in place mechanisms to deal with uprisings similar to the one witnessed in Egypt. The best way to do so, they believed, would be to ensure the Mubarak regime did not fall. This was based on the assumption that if the man who had ruled Egypt for 30 years could somehow hang on to power and ride the storm, the collapse of the old order could be prevented and the domino effect stalled. So the Kings and Presidents, Sultans and Emirs rallied round to Mubarak’s aid. King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz grandly declared, “In case the US withdraws its financial support to Cairo, my kingdom will prop up Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s regime.” That was as much a declaration of support for Mubarak as a taunt to America for abandoning its staunch ally in his moment of crisis. In the end, neither solidarity nor support helped Mubarak retain power. As Egypt burst into celebrations, a bitter realisation began to sink in: If the US could abandon Mubarak, it could also say goodbye to others without allowing friendships of the past to weigh too heavily on its conscience.
Ironically, it is this perceived callous indifference of the US towards a beleaguered Mubarak in his last days in office that has left many flummoxed in Arabia. Egypt under the Mubarak dispensation, backed by the Army, was the best bet for peace in the region, especially in regard to Israel. It was also the best defence against the rise of radical Islamism whose practitioners see themselves as the alternative to incumbent Arab regimes. With Mubarak gone, the Muslim Brotherhood is preparing to make a dramatic appearance either through collaboration or alone in Egyptian politics; through Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamists have seized power in Gaza; in Lebanon, the Hizbullah, which has toppled the Hariri Government and put into place a regime controlled by Islamists, increasingly and frighteningly calls the shots; in Tunisia, dormant Islamism has come alive after the long-exiled leader of the till recently outlawed Islamist party Ennahdha, Rachid Ghanouchi, made a triumphant return home; in Jordan, the Friday street protests are being led by Islamists sustained by the Ikhwan’s ideology; in Yemen, Islamists are waiting for the palace to fall under their assault; in Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait, a deep undercurrent of radical Islamism is waiting to burst forth.
A gleeful Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has described the Egyptian uprising as the unleashing of an “Islamic wave”. His protégé and Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has described the Egyptian uprising and the collapse of the Mubarak regime exactly 32 years to the day of the fall of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi on February 11, 1979, as the “emergence of a new Middle East that will doom Israel and break free of American interference”. The Islamic Republic of Iran has reason to rejoice. Despite it being a Shia country and not an Arab state, Iran sees itself as emerging as the most important player in Arabia by striking alliances with Islamists in the Maghreb and the Mashreq waiting in the wings to seize power: First through the ballot and then by aping the Iranian model of Islamic republicanism which is theocracy by another name and suppresses protest with the help of the notorious Revolutionary Guards and the gallows in state prisons as it did the massive demonstrations, as large, if not larger, than those in Egypt, against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s brazen vote fraud in the last election. The Hamas and Hizbullah, the first Sunni and the second Shia, are heavily funded by Iran via Syria and this enables Tehran to wield considerable clout with both organisations. It also fetches Tehran considerable influence in Damascus.
In what the Americans refer to as the ‘Extended Middle East’, Sunni Arab states have long ceased to play a key role. The three countries that have emerged as major players are neither Arab nor Sunni. At one end we have Iran. There is Israel, a Jewish state, in the middle. And there is Turkey at the other end where the Islamist AKP has silently, slyly fashioned Atatürk ’s secular republic to increasingly reflect its faith-driven ideology. If the fall of the last pharaoh is followed by regimes toppling over in other Arab states, then the identity of West Asia will change forever — whether for better or worse is at the moment a matter of guess and conjecture. But Sunni Arabia, loosely tied by Arab nationalism, will virtually cease to exist; what will emerge is a pan-Islamist region with a near common political agenda driven by religious dogma and theocratic fanaticism. That’s a possibility the world must prepare to deal with in whichever way and form. Democracy, in the end, could lead to the legitimisation of cruel theocracy as an alternative to brutal autocracy. That’s an inbuilt risk which is often overlooked, if not ignored.
Ironically, rulers who have ruled in the name of Islam fear Islamism the most. That could be either because radicalism scares those who are wedded to the idea of stability, often enforced ruthlessly, or because it would reverse the long-established order with the ruled dominating the rulers. Till now the Arab palace loathed the Arab street and held it in contempt. Suddenly, the Arab palace has begun to fear the Arab street. And the Arab street has begun to sense that fear.
(The writer spent three years in Cairo and has travelled extensively in the Maghreb and the Mashreq)
Wednesday, February 02, 2011
Regime mounts counter-assault
Amazing scenes were witnessed on Wednesday at Tehrir Square when hundreds of ‘supporters’ of President Hosni Mubarak streamed in – some on foot, some in cars and others riding horses and camels. They clashed with the anti-Mubarak protesters camping at Midan-e-Tahrir, and what followed were frightening, scary sequence of violence unleashed by Hosni’s men.
The counter-offensive came less than 12 hours after the beleaguered President of Egypt who has been in power for 30 years and whose immediate ouster is being demanded by thousands of protesting Egyptians since January 25, went on state television, declaring he would not contest the September presidential poll but neither would he exit office immediately.
In brief, he let it be known that he was no Ben Ali; he would not leave Egypt; he would oversee political reforms, including amendments to the Constitution limiting the terms of future Presidents. Pro-changers rejected his offer. “He must go now,” they chanted.
On Wednesday late afternoon as bloodied anti-regime protesters were carried off the ‘battlefield’, others ran helter-skelter. Hosni’s ‘supporters’ moved with military precision, in a phalanx. They took over rooftops and rained a variety of missiles including Molotov cocktails on the protesters demanding Hosni Mubarak’s immediate ouster.
Army soldiers stood by, their tanks parked on the periphery of Tehrir Square, and did not intervene – as they haven’t this past week.
By late evening, Tahrir Square looked less crowded than earlier in the day. Obviously, most had fled the violence unleashed by Hosni’s supporters.
Is the protest going to peter out this point onward? Or will the anti-regime protesters regroup and rally afresh again? Friday could see an upsurge. Last Friday their numbers swelled enormously and they ran riot, burning down the ruling NDP’s headquarters in downtown Cairo.
Three points to consider:
. The problems of a mass protest without a clearly defined leadership are now coming to the fore. It is increasingly obvious that Facebook and Twitter – social media tools that were used to mobilize protesters – are no substitute for organized politics and opposition movements.Where does the Muslim Brotherhood fit into the emerging scenario? Did the Ikhwan plan for a situation where there would be a political vacuum – Hosni Mubarak leaves Egypt like Ben Ali fled Tunisia, there’s no interim arrangement, there’s chaos and anarchy – for it to step in and assume power? And use the appeal of Islam to a) legitimize its rule; b) mute dissent; c) discredit the ‘secular’ opposition? If it did, its game has been, it would appear, checkmated by Hosni Mubarak and the Army.
. The Army remains firmly with Mubarak. But it is playing a clever game. Were the thousands of Hosni supporters who descended on Tahrir Square today soldiers in mufti?
. The regime may have calculated that a counter-push and counter-violence would be effective in containing and rolling back the anti-Hosni protests. But it could backfire horribly.
As for the US, it labours under the delusion that it can still influence events to its advantage. In my opinion, the Obama Administration erred grievously in publicizing, through CNN, that it had persuaded Hosni Mubarak to make his offer of not contesting the September presidential election and not fielding his son Gamal as a candidate either.
By blaring to the world that President Barack Hussein Obama’s special envoy Frank Wisner spoke to Mubarak and brokered the deal robbed it of all credibility: America is no longer viewed favourably in Egypt’s streets.
Nor will America’s veiled threat to cut aid to Egypt -- $1.5 billion a year – work: Not with the Hosni regime nor with the opposition, especially the Ikhwan. Similar threats by the US issued to other countries, asking them to behave or else, have miserably failed. Most notably with Pakistan.
Obama had threatened to cut off aid to Pakistan if it did not put down jihadi terrorism and help exterminate the Taliban and Al Qaeda. In the event, Obama has hugely increased aid to Pakistan and cravenly conceded to its every demand, including Islamabad will not be asked to submit accounts.
Jimmy Carter lost Iran for America; Obama will lose Egypt. America should reconcile itself to the fact that it’s fast getting pushed to the margins in Arabia and has ceased to matter in the Arab street.
Tuesday, February 01, 2011
A week after protesters took to the streets of Cairo, Alexandria and Suez demanding President Hosni Mubarak's ouster, the man who has ruled Egypt with an iron fist for the last 30 years addressed Egyptians over state television late Tuesday / early Wednesday morning (2.45 am India time).
Mubarak, 82, made the following points:
.He does not intend to contest September's presidential election.Mubarak's address follows talks with US President Barack Hussein Obama's special envoy Frank Wisner.
.He will ask the new Government appointed by him to take up political reforms and address key 'legitimate' issues agitating the people.
.He will initiate amendments to the Constitution -- including setting a limit to presidential terms.
.He will call on Parliament to hold early elections.
.His Government has begun 'dialogue' with political parties but some have refused to join talks as "they have their agenda".
.He will instruct police to ensure freedom and dignity of people.
.He is a "man of the Army" and will not abdicate his responsibility of ensuring peaceful transition.
.He is proud of the years he has spent in service of Egypt and Egyptian people.
.He is an Egyptian, Egypt is his land and he will die in Egypt.
Will Mubarak's 'offer' help put an end to the protests? Will the protesters disperse?
The immediate response of the protesters has not been very positive. Many chanted: We won't go! You must go!" They clearly want Mubarak to step down now.
But it is also true that a vast majority of Egyptians do not want the country to descend into chaos and anarchy and would prefer an orderly transfer of power -- a 'safe transition' -- from the Mubarak regime to an interim arrangement. The looting and arson have heightened fears among common Egyptians.
Interestingly, voices in support of Mubarak or in favour of a smooth, orderly transition are now being heard. Business owners and those dependent on the services sector are beginning to lash out at the protesters.
Change yes, but few Egyptians are in favour of radical change. Let's not forget that the protesters -- the highest turnout was on Tuesday, pegged at a quarter million -- are a fraction of Egypt's 80 million population.
At the same time, many are insisting that they "want the state cleaned" although they don't know what to replace the existing system with.
Imponderables: Where does the Army figure in all of this? Can a loose coalition of protesters mobilised via Facebook and Twitter without a command and control system exercised by an acknowledged leadership maintain the momentum or will it now lose the edge and energy? Will a division emerge between those who are willing to go along with the timeframe proposed by Mubarak to usher orderly transition and those who want change now?
So, is it now a battle of wits? Who blinks first?
Wednesday will provide some indicative answers. Meanwhile, here's my editorial comment in The Pioneer on the larger implications of the Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings for the Arab states.