After Sticks and Stones, a War of Words in Egypt

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Suhaib Salem / Reuters

Egyptian army tanks move towards opposition supporters' front lines near Tahrir Square in Cairo February 5, 2011.

Friday night was quiet, almost jubilant. But the defenders of Tahrir Square were ready in case their enemy, the pro-regime marauders of the two previous nights, return. The stones were stacked and laid out in long, neat rows. The men who control this last line of defense before the makeshift metal walls and the cordon of army tanks compare their tools to those of the Palestinians. When a youth with a bandaged hand blows a whistle, the men take up position along the rock lines — ready for a possible assault by armed loyalists to the regime of President Hosni Mubarak.

This is the front line at the edge of Tahrir Square, where the physical battles take place, sporadically, between pro-democracy demonstrators and Mubarak loyalists. But a wider battle is playing out for hearts and minds. And in the days of standoffs and clashes since Jan. 25, all sides — from government officials and loyalists, to protesters — have accused the others of using slick strategy ploys to win the game. Indeed, after combat using sticks and stones, the weapons are now words.

First, is "Father." It is an infuriating word to the protesters because Mubarak has always projected himself as the father of the nation, only now to play the role in a negative way — as patriarchal tyrant. They blame the sudden insecurity that befell the capital in the evening of Friday on the President — a warning of what happens when Father removes his protection. "That was like the first test," says Awad Mahmoud, a tour guide at the Egyptian museum. "This is Mubarak's way of saying: Egyptian people, you can't protect yourselves. You need your father Mubarak." But, Mahmoud says, Egyptians only grew angrier. "First, he talks to us like a father, and then we go to sleep at night and he fights us." Fatherly, a description of the president once used affectionately, has taken on a furious, almost oedipal meaning: Father Mubarak has become the enemy deceiver. "Liar," read some of the signs in Tahrir Square.

The protesters believe the regime is playing on this ambivalence about "father," tugging on the heartstrings and the Egyptian sense of reverence for the elderly. Old men sit close to the cordons, says Mahmoud, "They say, 'Oh, I'm so worried for you. You're like my sons. Are you sure you won't leave?' They never come inside. They just listen from the gates." He believes they are infiltrators, false fathers.

"Israel," meanwhile, has become a term increasingly hurled at the regime. For the protesters, Mubarak and his new Vice President, former intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, are pawns of the United States, and allies of neighboring Israel. Under Mubarak, Egypt assisted in the Gaza siege, and cut trade deals with a state that most here view as Egypt's prime enemy. The stuffed dummies hanging from Tahrir square's lampposts, effigies of Mubarak, are painted with the star of David. And as the space below pulsed with hundreds of thousands of people on Friday afternoon, a group of men on one end of the square, chanted: "Hosni Mubarak's language is Hebrew. Hosni Mubarak is the president of Israel."

But Mubarak and his supporters aren't above using the "Israel" tag against the protesters either. Still, the Jewish State is only one country in the regime's almost pathological xenophobia in the wake of its crisis. "Foreigner" becomes the danger word for regime loyalists. Government-run media has so vigorously played the foreign agent card — accusing outsiders of promoting the unrest in Tahrir Square — that the message has taken hold of the psyches of many Egyptians. "It's all foreigners in Tahrir," a man was overheard speaking into his mobile phone as he walked away from a checkpoint on Wednesday, shortly before the square was attacked. "None of them are Egyptian."

Mubarak loyalists have chased and attacked foreign journalists in recent days, and have assisted in their arrests by state authorities. My colleague Rania Abouzeid was beset by young toughs shouting "foreigner, foreigner" at her as she sat in a taxi, convinced they had found one of the fabled foe. It has become a common experience for non-Egyptian journalists covering the turmoil. On Thursday night, a paramedic reported that a Swiss journalist was rushed to a hospital after a mob accused him of being Israeli and beat him. At least two reporters for the state-run Nile TV have quit since the protests began; one equated staying with the job to "inciting violence."

And then there is the burble of speculative gossip, rumormongering and wishful thinking used as weaponry between the two parallel worlds of Egypt in crisis: the one inside the square where the protesters rule; the other on the outside where plainclothes cops and state security still call the shots. For example, the regime broadly hints, at the very least, that the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood has had a hand in the unrest. Members of the Brotherhood, not only deny it but then posit that such contentions reflect regime weakness. "He's completely surrounded now. Internally, no one supports him. Omar Suleiman is not even supporting him a lot," says Khaled Tantway who belongs to the Brotherhood.

The neutrality of the Army, too, becomes a point of contentious hope. "[Sending in] the army was meant to show the world that [Mubarak] is a civilized democratic president," Mahmoud the museum guide says. "But now the Egyptian army is divided between those who support the people and those who support the Mubarak system. Not in the leadership, but in the young people who grew up in the Mubarak age. I talked with some of them and they said, 'If anyone kills you here, I will fight until I die.'" Such talk buoys the protesters who seem to believe that, if push finally comes to shove, the soldiers will fight for them. But the Army's "neutrality" has, so far, been a way for the regime to extend its control of the streets, not cede it to the protesters.

Words are not facts. But words may be more effective in winning hearts and minds than sticks and stones and broken bones. And so the people in the Square are extra-vigilant against dangerous words. A person may look harmless but he or she may be an enemy. Islam Ashraf, 24, a protester, believes there are infiltrators and spies around him. "It's people dressed like me, but I know they are people pushed by the [ruling] party." How? "When I hear someone talk and push politics, I know which party he's from." Mahmoud from the museum can tell as well. It is all, he says, in "the way you talk."