Egypt: when camels attack

At the time of posting the situation in Egypt is on a knife-edge. After the peacefulness of the “million-person” protest on Tuesday, yesterday’s violence was a horrible, jolting sight. There are, of course, lots of claims that armed pro-Mubarak supporters were working in league with the armed forces. If true this would signal a sinister new development that could be taking the Egyptian protests into a much more dangerous phase.

Only 24 hours earlier BBC veterans like John Simpson were noting that the army’s statement that it wouldn’t fire on protestors meant they’d ruled out the “Tiananmen option”. Well, it doesn’t look quite so certain now. The Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq may have apologised for yesterday’s “fatal error”, but Al Jazeera is, even as I write, reporting “heavy gunfire” on a bridge leading into Tahrir Square.   “I’m calling on the army to stand up to its responsibility to stand and protect the people”, said one middle-aged woman yesterday, an anti-Mubarak demonstrator enraged at the army’s passive role as the pro-Mubarak forces arrived, some on horse and camels from the pyramids (from tourist rides to offensive weapons almost overnight). Amnesty echoed this woman’s concerns, condemning the army for failing to prevent violence, and perhaps even aiding and abetting those perpetrating it. In fact it looked like a sudden return to arranged attacks on pro-democracy activists, something Amnesty has documented in Egypt in the past. Egypt’s intifada is now starting to look quite different to Tunisia’s, and that’s one of the things about so-called domino effects – they’re not exactly predictable. Notwithstanding recent events in Yemen and Jordan (and also Syria, Morocco, Algeria, Sudan, Libya, Mauritania and elsewhere), it would be premature to imagine that the age of authoritarianism is crumbling before our very eyes. There are reports (see the Jon Snow/Sarah Smith video here) that President Obama – for one – has been ringing round to leaders in the Middle East and the wider region reassuring them that they still have the USA’s support.  Meanwhile, those attacks in Tahrir Square by armed men on horses and camels were a strange, frightening development in this increasingly strange, frightening yet still hopeful affair. I’m a big admirer of animals (all animals) and don’t approve of people riding on them for pleasure, never mind using them as mobile attack machines (whether by the Met police or Egyptian anti-democracy vigilantes).  “Camel warriors in battle of Cairo”, said the Daily Mail headline this morning and Wikipedia informs me that these rather beautiful creatures are unique amongst animals in having replaced the wheel in northern Africa as the main mode of transport even after the wheel was established. My message to the Egyptian authorities: don’t try to reinvent the wheel when it comes to deciding on the make-up of post-protest Egypt – simply take the human rights option.

Newsflash: am hearing an Amnesty delegate and other human rights activists in Cairo have been arrested – please check NewsFromAmnesty  for further updates.

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