Can Egypt's revolution stay the distance?
Increasing signs of normality in parts of Cairo belie a continuing stalemate.
Tuesday 08 February 2011
After thirty unbroken years as President of Egypt, it had seemed as if Hosni Mubarak's charmed career was finally coming to an end.
But yesterday, Cairo's famous traffic jams were back. Businesses, shops, and banks were open across the capital. Barack Obama spoke of the "progress" the Egyptian government was making towards reform. And though still in tens of thousands, the numbers at Tahrir Square were probably down on the previous day.
Meanwhile, Mr Mubarak, the great survivor, was using all the guile that has kept him in power for so long to produce a series of sweeteners – including a 15 per cent pay rise for state employees – to widen his public support. He even held the first meeting of his new cabinet: the group he had hastily cobbled together as another means of staving off the end. His regime was doing everything in its power to suggest that things were calm once more. In another symbolically conciliatory move, the regime released Wael Ghonim, a local marketing manager for Google, who is a prominent youth activist involved in the protests and was detained three days after they began.
But the increasing signs of normality in parts of Cairo yesterday belied a continuing stalemate between the two sides in the fortnight-old conflict. Even as the regime tried to suggest that it was back to business at usual, the protesters who remain in Tahrir Square angrily argued otherwise.
There may have been fewer of them than the day before, but they showed no sign of backing down, with the vocal rejection of the regime's insinuations of growing agreement on constitutional reform only the most obvious sign of their determination to carry on. The protesters are deterred from ending the struggle in Tahrir Square by a real fear of arrest, victimisation and revenge by the authorities if they give up.
But there were also signs of splits within the negotiating committee that represents them. Some within the 25-strong "wise men" group of prominent Egyptians argued that the protesters should take the regime's promises of reform at face value and that Mr Mubarak should stay for the six-month departure period he outlined last week.
Naguib Sawiris, a prominent business tycoon and one of the 25 negotiators, yesterday used a BBC interview to call on protesters to allow Mr Mubarak to stay until a clear mechanism for transition was in place. Mr Sawiris said Mr Mubarak had lost his legitimacy but that a big segment of the country did not want to see the President – a war hero – humiliated. He also warned protesters that chaos could ensue along with increasing exploitation by religious movements, and possible moves by the army.
Mr Sawiris' comments followed similar remarks by other senior negotiators. On Sunday the popular Nobel Prize-winning Egyptian-American scientist Ahmed Zweil said that while there were some who wanted Mr Mubarak to go immediately and there was a problem of "trust" in the talks, others felt that Egypt respected "the elderly" and that Mr Mubarak should be allowed to stay for the "relatively short time" before the planned presidential election.
But several other representatives of the demonstrators announced their intention to stand firm. Zyad Elelaiwy, 32, a lawyer who is a member of the umbrella opposition group founded by Mohamed ElBaradei, told The New York Times there was a generational divide in the movement. The older figures "are more close to negotiating, but they don't have access to the street," Mr Elelaiwy said. "The people know us. They don't know them."
The paper also reported that one of the groups that started the protest with a hitherto anonymous Facebook page had broken cover to demand a general strike today. After his meetings on Sunday with various opposition groups Vice-President Omar Suleiman declared in a statement widely reported on state television that there was now "consensus" about a path to reform. But this version of events was challenged by some prominent youth activists as well as by a Muslim Brotherhood leader, Mohamed Morsy, who insisted: "We did not come out with results."
Whether protesters will take to the streets today in the kinds of numbers that they did at the end of last week remains in doubt. Whatever happens in Tahrir Square, it is not clear that reporters will be able to assess it first hand. Yesterday journalists attempting to access the area were told they would need press cards to do so from now on – and that it would take a further 48 hours to issue them.
Day 1: 25 January
Inspired by the ousting of Tunisia's president on 14 January, thousands protest across Egypt to demand President Mubarak's resignation.
Day 2: 26 January
Police use tear gas and water cannon against thousands of demonstrators who defy a government ban on anti-Mubarak protests. Around 500 people are arrested.
Day 3: 27 January
Nobel peace laureate and reformist Mohamed ElBaradei arrives in Cairo. He is later placed under house arrest.
Day 4: 28 January
Internet services are severely disrupted. Protesters set fire to the ruling party's headquarters. Mubarak deploys the army to control demonstrators, but the protesters welcome the tanks.
Day 5: 29 January
Mubarak sacks his cabinet and appoints a vice-president, but refuses to step down. Looting and vigilante attacks are reported, and hundreds of prisoners escape.
Day 6: 30 January
US President Barack Obama calls for Egypt to make an "orderly transition" to democracy, but does not ask Mubarak to step down.
Day 7: 31 January
The Egyptian army refuses to use force against peaceful protesters. A new cabinet is sworn in. The death toll stands at 100 people.
Day 8: 1 February
Up to a million Egyptians march through Cairo demanding Mubarak's resignation. Mubarak announces his decision to step down in September, when his term ends.
Day 9: 2 February
At least three people are killed and 600 injured as Mubarak supporters and demonstrators fight with petrol bombs and iron bars. ElBaradei, the White House and the United Nations condemn the fighting. Internet services are mostly restored.
Day 10: 3 February
Mubarak tells reporters he is fed up with being in power, but thinks chaos will ensue if he steps down straight away. The UN estimates that around 300 people have been killed in the unrest.
Day 11: 4 February
Thousands continue to gather in Cairo's Tahrir Square to demand that Mubarak steps down. President Obama puts pressure on Mubarak to listen to the protesters' demands.
Day 12: 5 February
Demonstrators maintain occupation of Tahrir Square. Mubarak removes his son from a senior party post and asks his deputy to invite opposition groups to negotiate reform.
Day 13: 6 February
After being closed for more than a week, banks begin to reopen. The Muslim Brotherhood and other opposition groups discuss reform with the government, but many say this concession is not enough.
Day 14: 7 February
People return to work, but protesters remain in Tahrir Square and Cairo's stock exchange stays closed. The Muslim Brotherhood says government talks did not offer substantive concessions.
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