Egypt’s breaking point?

As we write these words, pro-Mubarak supporters have descended upon Tahrir Square, violently attacking thousands of demonstrators who have been peacefully protesting for the Egyptian president’s ouster for the past week.  

The military, meanwhile, stood still as the violence unfolded despite calls to intervene by the opposition. While it issued a statement in the morning encouraging protesters to withdraw from Tahrir, the army did not block pro-regime supporters from entering the square and violently attack anti-government protesters.

The actions that have taken place in Tahrir Square are unacceptable and whoever is responsible must be held accountable before the law.

There is mounting evidence that the attacks were partially organized by pro-regime thugs, elements of the ruling National Democratic Party and members of Egypt’s fallen security forces who failed to quell hundreds of thousands of angry protesters across the country last Friday. Such state-sponsored attempts to violently disperse mass demonstrations should not be tolerated under any circumstances, by the Egyptian public or the international community.     

The Egyptian regime’s legitimacy has quickly eroded over the past few days, and may be completely shot after today’s violence. It’s tactics for dealing with the series of protests that have shaken the country since 25 January are unacceptable by international standards and should be flatly condemned. They have also failed to deter Egypt’s popular uprising. The regime has responded to protests with security measures rather than meaningful political concessions; Mubarak’s government has mobilized all its human resources–violent security forces, thugs, ruling National Democratic Party supporters–and has clamped down on media and communication networks to silence the uprising. These tactics have been a colossal failure.

The current situation requires a political solution, not a security one. None of the concessions offered so far by the president have satisfied the opposition–youth activists, the Muslim Brotherhood and reform advocate Mohamed ElBaradei–who are calling for Mubarak’s immediate resignation and a peaceful transition to a democratic government with a popular mandate.

Moreover, several needed reforms identified by the opposition remain unaddressed: Mubarak has not committed to ending Egypt’s draconian Emergency Law, nor has he commented on some of the most controversial articles of the Egyptian constitution, such as those granting the president extensive unchecked powers and Article 88 that governs judicial supervision over elections.

Meanwhile, the US response to the Egyptian uprising has been disappointing. Criticism of the Mubarak regime has been timid and often eclipsed by more pressing concerns about the threat this uprising poses to US interests across the region. The State Department’s most recent call for all sides to show restraint, issued while most international media in Tahrir were reporting that the violence was almost entirely initiated by one side, is a stubborn refusal to see the facts for what they are. Willful ignorance of abuses committed by the Egyptian regime will not serve the US’s stated objective of a peaceful power transfer and democratic elections; it will only generate extreme levels of popular anger against the American government.

Egypt’s protesters have shown courage and persistence that will inspire many around the world who are struggling to build democratic futures. The uprising does not show signs of relenting any time soon, even if demonstrators emerge from today’s violence severely weakened.

The 25 January “Day of Anger” was a turning point for mass politics under Mubarak as thousands of demonstrators broke a fear barrier that for decades had kept Egyptians off the streets out of concerns for their safety. Those days are coming to a close. The Egyptian regime must recognize the consequences of this shift and begin answering the demands of its people with fundamental political changes rather than tactics intended to cause fear and chaos. Failing to heed the lessons of this moment will only result in the deeper alienation of the Egyptian people and a gradual loss of the stability that the Mubarak regime and the US administration appear so keen to preserve.

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