Egypt unrest has world watching

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    Egyptians and former residents of Egypt have been frantically trying to contact loved ones there to get firsthand comment about unrest that has gripped that country.

    Former Egypt resident Pat Amante, who now lives and works in the Cayman Islands, said the street protests have saddened her, but she is also proud of the people for standing up for their rights.

    “I am happy and sad for the Egyptians; it’s something that should have happened a long time ago. Historically, Egypt is the pillar of the Middle East and it is my view that Egyptians need their human rights and their freedom in order to be able to get a better life and prosper,” she said. “What is amazing is that a lot of the protesters are well-educated, middle class young people who cannot find jobs in their country and find it hard to live and go on with the national progression of life. The president has oppressed these people for many years and now it’s time for a new regime. It’s what the Egyptians want and it will happen sooner or later.”

    The protests have also brought people who would normally have opposing views on religion, life and other subjects together.

    “What is more amazing is that all Egyptians – young, old, rich and poor, Muslims, Christians – are all standing together for the same cause,” Ms Amante said.

    “It is very sad because within this process there’s a lot of looting, vigilantes and people are afraid for their property because the government has ordered police to go home. It’s unfortunate and my heart goes out to every single Egyptian because it used to be a beautiful place to live. I lived there, I was born there in Alexandria even though I’m not Egyptian – and my family has a long history there. It was the most beautiful port in the Mediterranean and it’s unfortunate that we’ve come such a long way but instead of improving we’ve gone back in time.

    “The entire Middle East looks up to Egypt firstly for its history and then its history for peace in the Middle East. Mr. (Hosni) Mubarak was instrumental in that, he made that his mission; however, he has neglected his people. It’s unfortunate to see the whole situation erupt in such a horrendous mess.

    International Mideast envoy Tony Blair said Monday that a change in Egypt’s leadership appears inevitable. “Change will happen. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle now,” he said.

    The former British prime minister did not say explicitly whether Mubarak should step down. He said it’s important that Egypt holds proper elections and that any transition be peaceful.

    “People want to get to a position where the Egyptian people are able to express their will in free and fair elections,” he said. “But I think the watchword is change with care, because at the same time we have to make sure any change occurs with stability and order.”

    Ms Amante said she is also concerned about the lack of information or ability to contact her family and friends in Egypt.

    “From oppression comes the fact that they decided to close down the Internet for four days, they’ve also taken the license from Al-Jazeera who were reporting and I’ve heard from BBC this morning that there were five journalists who were arrested from Al-Jazeera.

    “I have been able to contact people if they had land-lines but for a couple of days we couldn’t contact anybody because most people had cell phones and the four or five cell phone providers were shut down, but now they are back working.

    “There is very limited airlift in and out of Cairo because of the curfew so a lot of people are stranded and everything has just come to a halt, which is so sad because there are so many good industries in Egypt. My stepfather is Egyptian – he lives in Italy but has a business in Egypt – and it’s just, just sad.”

    Blair said he was concerned that unrest in Egypt could disrupt the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

    Israeli officials said Monday that they allowed the Egyptian army to move two battalions — about 800 soldiers — into Sinai on Sunday. The officials said the troops were based in the Sharm el-Sheikh area on Sinai’s southern tip, far from Israel.

    Under the 1979 peace treaty, Israel returned the captured Sinai to Egypt. In return, Egypt agreed to leave the area, which borders southern Israel, demilitarized. The arid peninsula lies between Egypt’s mainland and Israel, and Israel was worried about an Egyptian invasion then.

    Now, as the unrest in Egypt has spread, Israeli officials have grown increasingly concerned about the stability of their southern neighbour. They are especially worried that Palestinian militants could take advantage of the unrest to smuggle weapons into the Gaza Strip through tunnels under the Egypt-Gaza border.

    The Israeli officials spoke Monday about the troop movements on condition of anonymity because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has banned the government from discussing the situation in Egypt.

    There was no confirmation from Egypt, and David Satterfield, the director general of an independent 12-nation monitoring force in Sinai, refused to comment.

    Netanyahu said Sunday that Israel is “anxiously following” the developments in Egypt — reflecting Israel’s concern that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s days in power could be limited. Mubarak has been a key ally for Israel, strictly honouring the peace treaty during his 30 years in power and frequently acting as a bridge between Israel and the Palestinians to the broader Arab world.

    Israeli President Shimon Peres said “we always have had and still have a great respect” for Mubarak. “I don’t say everything that he did was right, but he did one thing for which all of us are thankful to him: He kept the peace in the Middle East,” Peres said Monday.

    Blair acknowledged the unrest in Egypt has put Western powers, especially the US, in the difficult position of choosing between a longtime ally and a grass roots protest movement demanding more freedom.

    “I think when people criticize America over this, they’re being a bit unfair,” Blair said, adding that President Barack Obama has handled the crisis in “the only way he can.”

    “That’s why the sensible thing to do is to partner the process of change and make sure we get the right change, with order,” he said.

    Blair said the focus of the upcoming Quartet meeting would be to get the sides talking again, a task he acknowledged has become more difficult by the situation in Egypt.

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    People walk past a burned police station in Cairo, Egypt, Monday Jan. 31, 2011.
    ASSOCIATED PRESS