The World from Berlin 'Mubarak's Henchmen Will Fiercely Defend the System'

Things took a nasty turn on Wednesday when government loyalists attacked anti-Mubarak protesters in Cairo. As the violence continued early Thursday, the army moved in to create a buffer zone. In Thursday's newspapers, German commentators discuss the crucial role of the military and the dilemmas facing the West.

REUTERS

The crisis in Egypt took a sharp turn for the worse Wednesday almost immediately after 82-year-old President Hosnai Mubarak rejected calls for him to give up power and leave the country. Violent clashes on Wednesday and Thursday between opponents and supporters of his rule have left at least five dead. Now all eyes are on the army to see if it will decide to back the regime or help hasten its demise.

Although the army has struggled to maintain a neutral stance since the protests began 10 days ago, most observers still believe it will ultimately decide the country's fate.

On Wednesday, soldiers stood back and watched as things turned very ugly with pro-regime supporters attacking anti-Mubarak demonstrators. While some threw rocks from rooftops, others charged the crowds on horses and camels.

The clashes continued into the early hours of Thursday, with automatic weapons fire pounding the anti-government protesters in the square. Egypt's health minister said on state-run Nile TV that the number of injuries at Tahrir Square had reached 836 -- including 200 within a single hour on Thursday morning.

Later Thursday, Al-Jazeera reported that army tanks had created a buffer zone between the two sides to protect the pro-democracy camp from the carloads of regime loyalists seen heading toward the square.

'A Fatal Error'

The opposition is claiming that the attackers were plainclothes policemen and thugs hired by the regime. The spike in violence came after the protestors refused to disperse following a speech by President Mubarak in which he promised to not seek re-election in September but refused to step down immediately. For those who have been challenging his 30-year rule over the past week that was apparently too little. Instead, they are demanding that he give up power immediately and that fresh elections be held as soon as possible.

The new government Mubarak installed last week has sought to distance itself from the recent violence. "This is a fatal error," Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq told the privately-owned al-Hayat television. "When investigations reveal who is behind this crime and who allowed it to happen, I promise they will be held accountable and will be punished for what they did."

"There is no excuse whatsoever to attack peaceful protesters, and that is why I am apologizing," he said, urging the protesters "to go home to help end this crisis."

Reacting to the clashes on Wednesday, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said: "If any of the violence is instigated by the government, it should stop immediately."

The anti-Mubarak movement has vowed to intensify protests in order to force Mubarak out and called for another big demonstration for Friday. While the army and the government are calling for the protestors to return home, leading opposition figure Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Peace laureate and former head of the UN's nuclear watchdog, has demanded that the military "intervene immediately and decisively to stop this massacre."

The escalation in Egypt has drawn condemnation from British Prime Minister David Cameron. "If it turns out that the regime in any way has sponsored or tolerated this violence, that is completely unacceptable," he said Wednesday after meeting with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in London. Ban added: "Any attack against the peaceful demonstrators is unacceptable, and I strongly condemn it."

In Thursday's newspapers, German commentators criticized the escalating violence and examined how events in Egypt have left the West in a conundrum.

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"Mubarak is inciting the political camps against each other and looks on as Egyptians attack Egyptians. The question of the autocrat's legitimacy will have been finally answered in the eyes of many citizens. In his speech to the people, the 82-year-old emphasized that he had devoted his life to the nation and that he wanted to step down in dignity. He has yet to answer the question of why he wants to ruin his country by staying in office for another six months. How are the Americans and Europeans supposed to continue working with their long-time partner in Cairo? And, in a country that lives from tourism, who is going to book a trip to the Red Sea or to see the pyramids after seeing these TV images from Wednesday?"

"Many people had placed their hopes in the army, which is now washing its hands of responsibility. Elite troops stood on the roof of the Egyptian Museum on Tahrir Square. They stood by and impassively watched the bloody riots just like the soldiers in the tanks scattered across the square. The officers' argue that they had warned the demonstrators to go home. But what they mean is that it's their own fault."

The center-right Die Welt writes:

"The fighting makes clear that the transition to a new era will be anything but smooth. And that the regime has not given up yet. What happened on Tahrir Square was not a popular uprising against a popular revolt. It was the latest phase of Hosnai Mubarak's fight for survival."

"Those on camels and horses who suddenly attacked the regime opponents were almost certainly not normal citizens who had spontaneously decided to launch a counter-demonstration. … It seems that many were members of the security forces. They were thugs mustered and paid by the regime to help foster the widespread impression that there is a civil war. Their aim is to discredit the regime's opponents -- and quite possibly also to persuade the hesitant army to take the regime's side."

"After Mubarak's offer not to contest the presidential elections in September, the military had made it clear that the demonstrations should end. The opposition doesn't want to accept that. They do not trust Mubarak to allow a transformation process. Someone who has lied to and cheated his people so often, and who recently so blatantly manipulated elections, has lost their trust for good."

"It remains to be seen if the violent clashes will slow down or speed up the end of the regime. It depends on what the military decides to do. It can opt for massive repression and install a military dictatorship. Or it can push Mubarak from power and become a guarantor of the transition."

The business daily Handelsblatt writes:

"The political powder keg of the Middle East is facing a very dangerous period of instability. Given these circumstances, it is all the more important to avoid chaos and anarchy. Nevertheless, that won't be so easy. The scenes of street fighting in Cairo show just how fiercely Mubarak's henchmen will defend the system."

"The West now has to energetically push for Mubarak to step down. The Europeans and Americans have done little in these days of fury to present themselves as partners in a time of need. They were not prepared for the transformation, backed the wrong forces and underestimated the rage of the people."

"Neither the US nor the EU has the power or means to have any far-reaching influence on the developments in these states. The transformation has to be carried out by the states themselves. However, the Europeans could back the democratic forces, help economic development through investment projects and enter into a closer political partnership with North Africa and the Middle East. In the process, Turkey could serve as a valuable mediator."

"The US has to work hard to prevent the peace process from being buried in the ruins of the old power structures, and active involvement on the part of Israel is essential. The Netanyahu government is stuck in a bunker mentality. It has obviously not understood that nothing will be as it was before in the Middle East."

"Neither peace nor democracy nor a civil society can be achieved overnight. But if the region is to be freed of dictators and not fall into the hands of anti-Western Islamists, the right signals have to be sent. The EU has an opportunity to do just that right now."

The Financial Times Deutschland writes:

"The lesson of the Iraq War shows that stability in the Middle East is something that should be highly valued. To endanger it frivolously could have terrible consequences."

"Western foreign policy is currently marked by conflicting goals. It is grappling with the issue of just much idealism and how much realism a responsible Middle East policy can bear. It's about democracy versus stability."

"To accuse the West of double standards in its dealings with Arab autocrats and to demand the guillotine for the despots and radical democracy for the people would be too short-sighted."

"At the moment, Washington, Jerusalem and Berlin are primarily concerned with the issue of Islamists, and correctly so. It's clear that Mubarak has to go. But, at the same time, the West must do everything it can to prevent the Muslim Brotherhood from taking a leadership role in the freedom movement and then later taking power through free elections."

"The bloody street fights by Mubarak supporters show that regime change is long overdue .... The threat of anarchy is dangerous for the entire region. Yet just as dangerous is the prospect of allowing Egypt to stagger uncontrolled toward freedom after three decades of autocracy. The most radical solution -- immediate free elections -- is not the best one. The transition to a functioning democracy has to be mediated in a measured way."

The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"(Egypt) has played and still plays a key role in the efforts to prevent a region that is becoming more radicalized, that is riddled with seemingly unsolvable conflicts and that the world depends on for its oil from descending into chaos and war. The fact that Israel has stuck with Mubarak speaks volumes. The only democratic state in the Middle East is a stable despotism, which at least guarantees a 'cold peace,' something that is preferable to a state based on the people's rule, with a fate that is still uncertain. This uncertainty explains America's hesitation to drop Mubarak."

"Egypt will probably not end up being a theocracy like Iran; the countries and the times are too different. However, the examples of Iraq, Afghanistan and the Palestinian territories do not exactly increase the hope that everything will turn out well once the old regime is set aside and the people are finally allowed to decide for themselves who will govern. Could that be the Muslim Brotherhood? The West will have next to no influence over this."

"No one can say with certainty what the Arab revolutions will achieve. There will certainly be few 'Westminster democracies.'"

The left-leaning Die Tageszeitung writes:

"With his speech on Wednesday, Mubarak ruined his chance of having a dignified exit and a return to a normal life. The scenes in central Cairo were the consequence -- Mubarak had let loose his supporters. …. The images of the escalation on Wednesday will remain associated with the president. The overwhelming majority of the opposition continued to demand late on Tuesday night that the president step down and have stuck to their calls for another big demonstration on Friday."

"And now, after days of peaceful protests, all signs point to confrontation. Once again, the question arises about the stance of the army, which called on the demonstrators to go home yesterday morning. It is possible they did so because they feared further escalation similar to the clashes in Alexandria on Tuesday evening. However, it is also possible that, after Mubarak's speech, military leaders now think enough is enough and are now backing the president."

--Siobhán Dowling

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