Egypt: What Happens When the Revolution Is Delayed

After the high drama of the first wave of anti-government protests, many Egyptians are beginning to grow anxious about what the uprisings has wrought. The latest refusal of Mubarak to leave is bound to roil emotions and anxieties

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Suhaib Salem / Reuters

Opposition supporters gather in their stronghold of Tahrir Square, in Cairo Feb. 10th, 2011.

On Feb. 10, enormous crowds gathered in Tahrir Square to cheer the hoped-for resignation of President Hosni Mubarak. Those hopes were quashed when Mubarak, in another meandering and legalistic speech, reiterated his intention of staying in office until a new President is elected in September. The people in Tahrir, some of whom had come from as far away as Aswan in the south, were furious — but also at a crossroads. What else could they do short of turning what has, on their part, been a largely peaceful protest into something bloodier? Tahrir Square has been a barometer of anti-regime feeling for more than two weeks now, the numbers who gather rising and falling with public support. The question now is, will anger swell the streets with protest again? Or will the failure to get Mubarak out only increase anxieties over instability and economic stagnation (the crucial tourist industry, for example, is a shell of its former self.) There was speculation that Mubarak's latest speech was an attempt to divide public opinion even further, targeting older Egyptians frustrated that life was not getting back to normal. Even before Feb. 10, Egyptians were expressing both hopes and anxieties, as TIME reports:

It's been barely a fortnight since the first demonstrations broke out in Cairo's Tahrir Square, but Mohammad Ibrahim Abdel-Mohsin already refers to the revolution in the past tense. The lawyer and father of three says he marveled at the valor and steadfastness of the mostly young protesters; in the uprising's first heady week, he twice visited the square to witness their heroism for himself. And he was delighted when a plainly rattled President Hosni Mubarak pledged he wouldn't stand for re-election in September. But now Abdel-Mohsin, 45, wishes the kids would just go home. "They secured very big concessions, and they should let things return to normal and life to continue," he says.

Mona Abdel-Salem, too, is impatient for a return to normality; for the divorced mother of five, who manages a small teahouse in the Agouza neighborhood, revolution is bad for business. Unlike the lawyer, she feels no sympathy, much less admiration, for the Tahrir Square youths. She remembers the first week of protests only for the violence and looting they unleashed. Despite the risk — and the scarcity of customers — Abdel-Salem, also 45, kept her teahouse open. She had no choice, she says: "Otherwise, how were we going to eat?" That pragmatic outlook informs her politics as well: Mubarak is the devil she knows. "We don't know how a new President will treat us, so let's stick with the old one," she says.

Revolutions are often a contest between yes and no. Calls for caution, the ifs and buts, are frequently drowned out. But as Egypt, a society weaned on the absolute certainties that come with authoritarianism, enters its third week of political upheaval, many feel a mounting anxiety about what lies ahead. For the political activists and amateur protesters who have brought the revolution this far, the challenge now is to persuade Egyptians like Abdel-Mohsin and Abdel-Salem to set aside their misgivings, sacrifice short-term economic interests and get behind the push to topple the regime. It's a tough sell.

The unease is heightened by the absence of a charismatic, reassuring leader among the protesters — the revolution is missing a Vaclav Havel or Corazon Aquino. Nor is there a Mikhail Gorbachev, an insider happy to shake the system up; the regime's new center of power, Vice President Omar Suleiman, is no reformist. Although he has opened negotiations with opposition groups, Suleiman has shown great reluctance to drop the emergency powers Mubarak has used for three decades to curb dissent. And he has sought to undermine the uprising by blaming it on old bogeymen: unnamed foreign forces and the Muslim Brotherhood.

If all this feeds the fears of anxious Egyptians, it also sows a sense of apprehension in Washington, where the Obama Administration, having nudged Mubarak toward the exit, is now trying to help manage Egypt's change to a more democratic system. That leaves the White House with a fine line to walk. It must reassure Suleiman and the Egyptian military, perhaps the country's true arbiter of power, that the U.S. will not stampede them into a messy democracy — like, say, Russia's under Boris Yeltsin — while simultaneously restraining them from cracking the heads of protesters.

The Administration has reached out, through Ambassador Margaret Scobey and special envoy Frank Wisner, to opposition leaders like Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former head of the U.N.'s nuclear-watchdog agency Mohamed ElBaradei, advising restraint and providing assurance that democratic freedoms are on the way. Under Egypt's constitution, Mubarak's resignation would trigger an election in 60 days — a challenging amount of time, a State Department spokesman says, for the country to prepare for its first-ever free and fair elections. But, as President Obama told Fox News, "Egypt is not going to go back to what it was."

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