Walk south along the Nile in Cairo’s febrile downtown, past austere, colonial-vintage government buildings and stately luxury hotels, cross into Tahrir Square, and you’ll pass from one authority to another. Outside, tanks and armored personnel carriers guard Egypt’s besieged and maligned government; inside the square, in the heart of the city, hundreds of thousands of protesters and revolutionaries hold jurisdiction, establishing a parallel capital where dictator Hosni Mubarak has little control. Those who for years lived in fear under Mubarak’s regime openly taunt police. Impromptu lectures and debates erupt on the curbside, near the Ministry of Information, no less. “I see the world with new eyes,” one protester told me.
The demonstrations, which started on January 25, were called by a small group of longtime activists, including the loose-knit Kefaya movement, the Revolutionary Socialists, supporters of Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, and other groups. They expanded to a size that not even the leading activists imagined possible. “On the first day, no one wanted to come because they thought it would never work,” said Amna Shawkat as she hoisted a sign cursing Mubarak. “But people started seeing how big it was. Now everyone is coming.” By its second week, the demonstrations had grown into a broad-based movement that encompassed secular liberal parties, the Muslim Brotherhood, left-wing groups and perhaps the largest contingent: unaligned first-time activists.
The government simultaneously launched a brutal crackdown and offered a number of concessions, including a pledge from Mubarak to step down in September, which most demonstrators rejected, insisting on his immediate resignation. Some leading opposition figures met with Omar Suleiman, Mubarak’s longtime intelligence chief, named vice president soon after the demonstrations erupted. Suleiman also promised concessions, but he refused to countenance the immediate resignation of Mubarak. I asked a number of protesters what they thought of such negotiations, and Mubarak’s promise. “These people talking to the government don’t represent us,” said Muhammad Sharif, a mechanical engineer, echoing a widely repeated sentiment. “No negotiations with anyone until Mubarak is gone,” said Sabr Muhammad, a cobbler, who has been living in a grotty tarpaulin tent at the square’s center for more than a week.
This highlights deeper divisions between many of the older, established opposition parties and activists on the ground. In fact, most protesters insist that they want not only Mubarak’s departure but also a thoroughgoing overthrow of the entire system he has established, including the dissolution of a Parliament many see as rigged and the ouster of all officials from the ruling National Democratic Party. But some of the opposition parties have been equivocal. One leading figure of the Muslim Brotherhood, which wields the most influence of any party, said in a press conference, “It’s safer that the president stay” until the Constitution is amended to limit his powers. But shortly afterward, another leading Brotherhood figure insisted on Al Jazeera that there would be no talks without Mubarak’s resignation.