In this transcribed interview, John Rees reports from Tahrir Square, in the centre of Cairo, on the Egyptian revolution, its future and its significance for the Middle East.
Tell us about today's demonstration in Tahrir Square.
This demonstration assembled this morning at 10 o'clock, it wasn't supposed to start until 2 o'clock, its 9pm now and it's absolutely rammed - people are chanting, groups of people are discussing politics, people making speeches, people all over the square.
But in some ways, this is only one development of the day. All around Cairo, at every intersection in the heart of the city there are popular militia controlling the traffic and the flow of population. There is probably a tank on one in twenty of the intersections, but there are militia at every single intersection in the city. The police have completely disappeared off the streets, people from the neighbourhoods have taken it upon themselves to protect themselves where they live.
The show of force by the regime today was to have six fighter jets flying low over Tahrir square. But this simply encouraged the demonstrators, as far as I can see. As one Egyptian friend told me: “They control the air, but we control the streets.”
People in Tahrir Square are surely closely monitoring the coded language of the US. Hillary Clinton today talked about “transition to a democratic regime” quite explicitly. That surely meant that the Americans are dropping Mubarak?
Yes, absolutely. It has been clear for a couple of days now, at least, that both the American and the British government are dumping Mubarak. The word in Cairo is that Mubarak himself is not even in Cairo, but in Sharm el-Sheikh. I don't know if that is true. But I certainly do think that what is happening is that power within the elite is draining away from the president- and other figures in Egypt's political elite are now taking a hand. That will be in relationship to what is happening diplomatically with America as well.
Do you think that will be enough, if for example the military oversaw a transition of power, Mubarak was put on a plane and they guaranteed elections within six months; will it be enough to quell the demonstrations?
I don't know. The experience in revolutions is that the first person who comes forward as a transitional figure is not necessarily the person who ends up holding the power. I reported from Berlin at the fall of the Berlin Wall, and there was short-lived moment where the now long-forgotten Egon Krenz took over from the former leader and dictator Erich Honecker, but he passed away pretty quickly.
In Indonesia, when the Suharto dictatorship fell in 1998, the power briefly resided with I think his deputy. So, revolutions are very fast-moving events, but they are also processes, in which the unfolding politics and the differentiation among the political elements that make up the movement plays out. I think we are at the early stages in the Egyptian revolution - after all, Mubarak is still in place.
We are getting a sense of the passions that the events are arousing in London and many other cities. Do you think the passion might get in the way of a harsh reality, which is that the US cannot allow a regime to take power democratically or otherwise which would act against the interests of Israel. Are the demonstrators aware of this?
One of the best jokes going around here is that Mubarak says that the army is not the last line of defence, but the IDF - the Israeli Defence Forces. So yes, this is properly understood here in Cairo.
The gap in terms of foreign policy between what the people feel and Mubarak's policies is so great that policy towards Israel could change dramatically. How do people feel about this?
I think people think the world is going to change. They have been under this dictatorship for 30 years, there are people who have been raped and tortured in prison, their families killed by the regime. They have done something absolutely extraordinary, and they think the whole world will have to change as a result of what they are doing - and who knows, they may be right.
This could totally re-define the relationship between the West and the Middle East - the ramifications of it are absolutely amazing.
They are. The only modern equivalent would be the 1989 revolutions in Eastern Europe or possibly the Iranian revolution in 1979, although the regional impact will be even greater than that was. When revolution happens in the most important country in the Middle East, which is the most sensitive area in the world; it is game-changing.
How do you see Israel reacting? What about the borders with Gaza? Relations with Hamas?
We have seen a little foretaste of what may happen: The Egyptian police just melted away from the Rafah border crossing between the Gaza strip and Egypt yesterday in the face of a Bedouin uprising. So, already the question of national self-determination, which comes up in all great revolutions, is happening in the Egyptian one right on the border with Gaza. So, yes, this is going to happen.
Everybody, from the US state department, to the British government, to the Israeli state, is going to have to change their plan. One of the incredible things that has been exposed for all to see is the dependency between the Israeli state and the Arab dictators. You can see that Israel is absolutely terrified of the march of democracy in the Middle East, that it has been absolutely dependent on a symbiotic relationship with the Arab dictators, and if that begins to change, then the whole region will begin to change as well. Those of us who have been in politics and been identified with the Palestinian cause for a long time will be aware of the old phrase that the road to Jerusalem lies through Cairo. Well, it certainly looks that way this evening.
Transcription by Peter Stauber.
John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher), ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German) and The Leveller Revolution. He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.
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