23rd Sep 2019

Egyptian revolution reaching climax as EU summit opens

  • Analysts say the army, which has tried to play a neutral role so far, will ultimately decide the fate of the revolution (Photo: Al Jazeera English)

Anti-Mubarak protesters plan to march on the presidential palace in Cairo after prayers on Friday (4 February), even as EU leaders convene in Brussels. France is keen to play the lead in EU-Egypt diplomacy, but Paris is in disgrace in the Maghreb over its role in Tunisia.

BBC reporters on the scene in Tahrir Square in the Egyptian capital say demonstrators are calling Friday the "Day of Departure" for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and aim to walk to his official residence to call for immediate resignation when prayers end in late morning.

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The square again saw pitched battles on Thursday, with stone-throwing, gunfire, barricades and irregular militias loyal to Mr Mubarak driving vehicles at high speed into the 10,000-or-so-strong crowd.

The UN's top human rights official, Navi Pillay, has said that up to 300 people have been killed in the past 11 days of unrest.

The pro-Mubarak militias have also begun targeting foreign journalists and NGO workers with beatings and detentions. "I don't know that we have a sense of how far up the chain [of command] it went," US state department spokesman Philip J. Crowley told press in Washington on Thursday.

For his part, President Mubarak in a landmark interview on Thursday with US broadcaster ABC said he is ready to go but fears even worse violence.

"I am fed up. After 62 years in public service, I have had enough. I want to go ... [But] If I resign today there will be chaos," he said. He reported telling US President Barack Obama on the phone that: "You don't understand the Egyptian culture and what would happen if I step down now."

The country of 80 million people is arguably the most influential state in the Arab world and holds the key to Israeli security, including access to Gaza. In a statement set to disturb Western allies in the region, the Iranian foreign ministry on Thursday praised the uprising as part of a wider "Islamic renaissance" in the region.

France on Thursday seized the diplomatic initiative by publishing a joint statement on behalf of President Nicolas Sarkozy, Germany's Angela Merkel, Italian leader Silvio Berlusconi, Spanish premier Jose Zapatero and British PM David Cameron.

"The process of transition must begin now," the communique said, in what is the EU's firmest call so far for Mr Mubarak to step down.

The EU summit on Friday, originally to have focused on energy security, will be dominated by the turmoil in north Africa. Apart from Egypt and Tunisia, where the government fell last week and which started the domino effect of protests, Algeria, Uganda, Yemen and the West Bank have also seen anti-government rallies in recent days.

The Sarkozy communique comes as Paris tries to reassert a leadership role in its old colonial domain after its disastrous handling of the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia.

Information has come out that French foreign minister Michele Alliot-Marie and her companion, Patrick Ollier, a junior minister, used the private jet of an ally of ousted Tunisian dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali while on holiday in Tunisia in late December.

One protester had already died, another had tried to immolate himself and 10 had been injured shortly before she flew in.

As protests intensified in January, France cleared and then blocked the sale of tear gas to Tunisian police. Ms Alliot-Marie also offered to lend French crowd-control "savoir faire" to Mr Ben Ali a few days before he fled.

Opposition parties have called for her to resign and newspapers have caught her out lying about the private jet affair in TV interviews. But Mr Sarkozy is sticking by the 64-year-old minister, a senior figure in the Parisian political establishment. "Michele Alliot-Marie explained, offered a mea culpa and said she would not do it again," a Sarkozy spokesman said on Thursday. "This is a micro-event ... it's case closed."


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