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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    The rally — and Ghonim's speech at it — was a reaffirmation for Mustafa Nabil, one of the Tahrir Square stalwarts. "This is a real, honest Egyptian, and I'm proud of him like I'm proud of everyone I've seen [in the square], sleeping in the cold every night," he says. Nabil, 29, is a medical doctor who first went to Tahrir Square on Jan. 29 to treat people hurt in clashes with police and has hardly been home since. Moved by the determination of the protesters, he joined their cause, and when armed pro-Mubarak mobs stormed the square on Feb. 2, he alternated between throwing stones at them and attending to the injured.

    There's been little violence since, allowing Nabil to bask in the square's convivial atmosphere. He talks excitedly about three couples who got married there "because they feel that this is the only place in Cairo that is free." His parents and sister, who were vehemently opposed to his joining the protests, have recently visited him in the square. Thousands of people have arrived to check out the scene, and many have chosen to stay on.

    Yet exultant though they sound when describing their revolution, even Tahrir Square veterans like Nabil feel a sense of uncertainty. Many fear that the regime, its police and plainclothes thugs having failed to dislodge the protesters, may try some underhanded tactic. "We don't know what will happen tomorrow or anytime," Nabil says. "We don't know — [but] this is our territory of freedom."

    It's the sort of claim that young, idealistic men and women have been making on the barricades for more than 200 years. And it leaves Abdel-Salem, the teahouse manager, unimpressed. Given her difficulty in making ends meet, she reasons that the protesters must be receiving money and food from an unknown power. (Suleiman's propaganda to that effect has not been in vain.) "They're not like us — I get up early, and I work until it's late," Abdel-Salem says. "They're being paid and fed for doing nothing."

    State media have indeed portrayed the protesters as spoiled brats from the upper middle class who have little concern for the difficulties their actions place on working-class Egyptians like Abdel-Salem. In similar circumstances elsewhere, that has been a powerful argument, but not everyone is buying it. Mohammed, a taxi driver who refuses to give his full name and who has had little income since the uprising began, remains firmly on the side of the protesters. If their continued presence in Tahrir Square messes up Cairo traffic for weeks on end, so be it. "They are staying there for things we believe in," Mohammed says. "They are outlining their demands before the people."

    Having driven some protesters to the square, Mohammed feels protective of them. He worries that if they disperse, the police and intelligence agencies will be able to pick them off for imprisonment and torture. If the regime attacks the young people again, says Mohammed, "I will go down to the square myself to protect them." The most important thing, he says, is for the revolution to maintain its momentum. The alternative is too grim to consider: "I'm afraid that these people will leave [the square] and things will return to the old ways or be even worse." Wherever the revolution goes from here, there's plenty more anxiety to come.

    — With reporting by Abigail Hauslohner, Rania Abouzeid and Yasmine El Rashidi/Cairo and Michael Scherer and Massimo Calabresi/Washington

    This is an updated version of an article that appears in the February 21, 2011 issue of TIME

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