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

  • Suhaib Salem / Reuters

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

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    U.S. diplomats, to be sure, could see through some of Suleiman's games. One WikiLeaks document detailed how an ambassador described Suleiman's "long history of threatening us with the [Muslim Brotherhood] bogeyman." Yet other cables suggest Suleiman didn't always agree with his political master: he was said to detest Mubarak's son Gamal, his rival for the presidency. But he remained loyal nonetheless. In his first interview to state TV after being made Vice President, he described Mubarak as "father and leader."

    That sort of history means that Suleiman is nobody's idea of an honest broker, and his negotiations with opposition groups may have been doomed to failure even if he'd been sincere in promising reforms. Even including the Muslim Brotherhood in the talks brought him little credit — opposition parties and unaffiliated protesters alike see him as just an extension of the Mubarak regime and suspect he's merely stalling for time, hoping public opinion will turn against the revolution or that the protesters will simply tire and go home.

    Stars and Stalwarts
    But they haven't yet. In fact, on Feb. 8, Tahrir Square once again filled to the brim as the protesters found a new hero: Wael Ghonim, a Google executive who had created a Facebook page titled We Are All Khaled Said, on which he had called for the first protest, on Jan. 25, in Tahrir Square. (Khaled Said was a 28-year-old businessman brutally killed by police in Alexandria last June.) The unexpected success of the protest inspired others across the country and spiraled into the revolution. Ghonim was arrested two days later by state security and held for 12 days; not even his family knew where he was.

    Released on Feb. 7, Ghonim, 30, tweeted a powerful rallying cry: "Freedom is a bless that deserves fighting for it." That evening he gave an interview to a popular Egyptian satellite station, Dream TV. Shown a montage of images of some of the 300 protesters who had died since his arrest, he broke down in tears and walked off the set; the display of raw emotion touched a nerve among viewers and turned Ghonim, previously known only to a handful of activists, into the revolution's poster child. About 130,000 people have already joined a Facebook group called I Delegate Wael Ghonim to Speak in the Name of Egypt's Revolutionaries.

    The mild-mannered executive now finds himself burdened with the expectations of millions. For Fatma Gaber, 16, Ghonim's TV appearance was the moment she stopped being fearful of the uprising: he represented its human face. "The media had said there were fights and things," she says. "But when I saw Wael Ghonim, I really got affected by his words and understood that a lot of people suffered in this revolution. I really wanted to be part of it." Gaber and her mother made their way to the square on Feb. 8 to hear Ghonim speak.

    In Tahrir Square, Ghonim was greeted as a superstar but made no claim to leadership. "I'm not a hero, but those who were martyred are the heroes," he said. Such modesty is rare in a political culture of bombast and self-promotion, and the crowd roared with approval. "We will not abandon our demand, which is the departure of the regime," he said to even more raucous cheers.

    Even if Ghonim resists the pressure to take the reins of the revolution, his performances on TV and in the square have reinvigorated the uprising, just when the regime seemed to be succeeding at waiting out the protesters. The turnout on Feb. 8 easily matched that of Feb. 1, the day Mubarak pledged he would step down in the fall. Large crowds also gathered in Alexandria, Suez and Asyut, belying the regime's claim that the protests were limited to Tahrir Square.

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