18th Apr 2021

Ashton aims to visit Tahrir Square, scene of Egypt's revolutionary drama

  • Tahrir Square, the central location in Cairo whose name means 'Liberation' (Photo: Mahmoud Saber)

EU foreign policy head Catherine Ashton hopes to visit revolutionaries camped out in Tahrir Square in Egypt next week as well as Omar Suleiman, a career spy dubbed the "torturer-in-chief" by protesters, who was chosen by President Hosni Mubarak to oversee the transition process.

EUobserver has learnt that Ms Ashton is intending to travel to the country as an extension of a previously scheduled trip to post-revolutionary Tunisia on Monday (14 February).

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Mr Suleiman, head of the dreaded Egyptian General Intelligence Directorate since 1993 until he was appointed vice-president by Mr Mubarak on 29 January, is to brief Ms Ashton on the state of negotiations with the opposition. According to an EU source familiar with the EU high representative's schedule, she also aims to speak with "all political forces", including the Muslim Brotherhood.

"It's a tricky question as to precisely which groups she's going to meet, but the aim is all of the people who are part of the dialogue that [vice-president] Suleiman is conducting. The [EU] delegation on the ground is organising the contacts, but ... it's not as straightforward as you might think to arrange this," said the official, who stressed that the logistics of the trip, in preparation on Monday (7 February) evening, are complex and highly tentative given how quickly events on the ground can change.

"It is possible that she will meet with the Muslim Brotherhood as they have joined this dialogue. There is also an idea that she will go to Tahrir Square. It is part of the logistical preparations, but there is nothing concrete," the source added, referring to the main plaza in Cairo where protesters and pro-Mubarak militia fought deadly battles in recent days.

On Sunday, Mr Suleiman met with representatives of some 50 opposition groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood as well as secular liberal parties Wafd and Ahrar, and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mohamed ElBaradei's National Association for Change.

The results of the first meeting were inconclusive. But reports indicate that the vice-president explored the option of assuming power for an interim period.

The EU contact voiced cautious support for Mr Suleiman's efforts: "In order to appease the people on the streets, he is making this process open, with very public statements. The Muslim Brotherhood has decided to meet with him and there appear to be efforts on both sides to move forward with key political reforms."

But for his part, Mr ElBaradei told US television channel NBC that the Suleiman talks are not working properly: "The process is opaque. Nobody knows who is talking to whom at this stage ... It is all managed by the military and that is part of the problem."

Our man in Cairo

Human rights groups are also highly critical of the EU and US effort to create a "contained transition" under a man they say may "steal the revolt from the demonstrators."

"It's pretty clear that Suleiman is now their man in Cairo," Human Rights Watch's Peter Bouckaert told EUobserver from Egypt.

"They know Suleiman very well. He was the key CIA contact and for US and EU counter-terror operators. I'm sure they feel very comfortable with Suleiman. For the EU and US, these relations are more important than the aspirations of the people of Egypt."

He added that Brussels and Washington see the democratic process in Egypt as an unquantifiable "threat."

"They are moving very hard for a contained transition process, a managed succession that is much more limited than what the protesters are demanding ... We are very concerned about the increased role of Suleiman, that he will carry forward a military-led transition and steal this revolt from the demonstrators and rig elections."

Mr Bouckaert noted that military intelligence services over the weekend began rounding up pro-democracy activists and journalists.

"There is enormous pressure to adhere to the military-led process of reform," he said. "It is impossible that a man so central to the security of the regime will be able to manage the dismantling of that same regime."

What next for Mubarak?

According to German media, arrangements are already underway to whisk Mr Mubarak away to a luxury clinic in Baden-Baden, Germany for an "extended health check-up" once the transition is assured.

Discussions about a stay at the Max-Grundig-Klinik Buehlerhoehe in Buehl near Baden-Baden, which offers hotel-like accomodation to its guests are at an advanced stage, reports Der Spiegel. Policymakers from both of the governing parties have already issued statements offering a German berth to the Egyptian leader should it be required.

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