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Delhi and Left stir on Egypt

New Delhi, Feb. 1: The day a million marched in Cairo, the government representing a billion gave qualified support to the demand for “reform” in Egypt and the Left stirred to back the “popular upsurge”.

By the time New Delhi and the Left have spoken up, half a month has passed since the Tunisian uprising — the first such revolution in an Arab nation.

Late tonight, nudged by Barack Obama, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak told his country that he would not run for re-election in September — an offer well short of the protesters’ demands.

Delhi’s controlled response is in sharp contrast with the statement-happy days of the last century and a testimony to how the nature of protests has changed since then. Not to mention lessons learnt from the burnt fingers of some communist leaders.

Although the fire on the Nile has drawn India closer to Arab Street, New Delhi kept its statement open-ended to reflect the still-evolving situation.

It acknowledged that the “mass protests” were “an articulation of the aspirations of the Egyptian people for reform”, almost supporting a regime change but stopping short of spelling it out.

New Delhi did send a message that the Egyptian regime should not crack down on the protesters. “It is hoped that the current situation will be resolved in a peaceful manner, in the best interests of the people of Egypt.”

A source in the external affairs ministry explained: “Till yesterday, inputs from Cairo had suggested the picture was not yet clear, which is why we took our time. Now it looks like Mubarak will have to go but it is still fluid.”

Other sources said India was also looking over its shoulder to find out how other countries were responding.

Yesterday, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton sought an “orderly transition” in Egypt.

Iran was the first country to vocally support the demonstrations against Mubarak. Egypt and Iran have had tense ties since Cairo signed a 1979 peace deal with Israel.

Israel, which has cordial ties with India, runs the risk of being isolated in its indirect support for Mubarak. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has warned that fundamentalist forces threaten to overrun Egypt.

Israel has been joined in support to the Mubarak regime by the Saudis. Tunisia’s overthrown President has found asylum in Saudi Arabia.

Mohamed ElBaradei, who won the Nobel Peace Prize before Barack Obama, has asked the US to “choose between Mubarak and Egypt”.

Making that choice was all the more difficult because of the absence of a clear chain of command among the protesters. Largely fuelled by social media, the uprising has taken on a life of its own without a central figure that was once vital to mass movements.

No one knows who will step in to fill the vacuum, if Mubarak caves in. The Muslim Brotherhood is waiting in the wings but the protesters so far have shown no sign of religious fervour.

Mubarak is a staunch ally of the US but that does not mean a successor will necessarily have to be anti-American. These reasons have prompted India and the Left to keep their cards close to their chest till now.

If India was itching to comment, all it needed to do was look at Left history. Left veterans recalled how a communist leader returned from Romania in 1989 and portrayed it as a land of milk and honey.

A few days later, the Nicolae Ceausescu regime collapsed in an uprising. Since then, the CPM has been careful.

The caution was in evidence today — the CPM did not mention Tunisia. The Indian government also glossed over Tunisia.

The CPM termed the Egyptian protest a “popular upsurge against the despotic regime of President Hosni Mubarak” and said that he was acting as an agent of the United States in the region”.

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