The Tahrir Show

The Tahrir Show

Greetings from the center of the world.

I’m in Cairo, Egypt, where thousands of protesters remain holed up in Tahrir Square in the heart of this city’s decaying Beaux-Arts downtown, fighting pitched street battles with pro-regime thugs and defiantly refusing to buckle under, give up, and go home.

I arrived here this afternoon at around 2:30 p.m., after a surprisingly quick ride in from the airport. I found a city that looked largely as it did back in 2005 and 2006, when I lived here as an Arabic student, wannabe journalist, and democracy activist.

There are, of course, some important differences. Commerce has ground to a halt. Army vehicles now dot the major arteries into the city — I counted at least five armored personnel carriers and five tanks on the way in to downtown — and the area around Tahrir Square shows the signs of a weeklong siege. There are burned-out wrecks and makeshift barricades at major entrances, which are halfheartedly manned by Army troops. To enter, one must show ID — presumably one that doesn’t say "I’m a police spy" — and submit to one or more enthusiastic pat-downs by (polite) volunteer guards. But once you’re inside, it’s generally peaceful, as the raging rock fight near the Egyptian Museum is at the far end of the square, perhaps a quarter-mile away from the main roundabout.

The square is the center of the action — and yet somehow it seems peripheral to the politics that will determine whether Hosni Mubarak has to make a hasty exit and whether his military-backed regime will survive him.

While I’m here, I hope to focus on the action outside the square: The regime’s ruthless survival strategy, the politicking among various opposition factions, and the disconnect between what I see here and what’s being discussed back in Washington. It probably won’t be easy — there are more reports today of attacks on and arrests of journalists and activists, and I’ll need to keep a low profile. But I hope I can provide a little context and insight on what is a fascinating and fast-evolving story.

Here are some questions I have so far:

What does the vital center of the Egyptian public think of the protests? Obviously, the people in Tahrir Square will accept nothing less than Mubarak’s immediate resignation. But what of the rest? I spoke with one protester, a young man who gave the name Mustafa Hassan, who admitted, "People are split now" after Mubarak agreed not to run for a sixth term. But, he said, he hadn’t sympathized with the anti-Mubarak protesters until he saw what happened to them Wednesday night. "After what happened today, I started to feel different," he told me.

Is Vice President Omar Suleiman’s strategy of dividing the opposition working? Universally, Egyptians I’ve spoken with have little respect for the traditional opposition parties — they’re widely seen as ineffectual, uninspiring, and just as corrupt as the government itself. There seems to be a diversity of views on Mohamed ElBaradei, who is generally seen as a nice man who doesn’t seem tough enough or dedicated enough to their cause. But being seen as embracing dialogue may help portray the government as the reasonable party.

How resilient is the regime? Some of the smartest Egypt analysts I know think that the Army is deftly maneuvering to maintain its position of privilege — presenting itself as the antidote to chaos while allowing the protesters to punch themselves out. It’s hard to imagine what level of unrest it would take to truly fragment the armed forces. For now, the military seems firmly in control of the situation.

How important is the Muslim Brotherhood? This is the question on many minds in Washington and Jerusalem, and it’s a valid one. From my anecdotal scanning of Tahrir Square, it looked like the Ikhwan were a major presence but not the major presence. "Maybe 40 percent," one secular protester told me.

Is there still any evident organization to the protest movement? Just walking around and talking to people in the square, it sure seems as if what’s going on is spontaneous and led from the bottom up. But there are clearly still leaders deciding what the next move will be — e.g., Friday protests, marching or not marching on the presidential palace, negotiating with the regime, and so on. There are about eight medical areas across the square that are regularly being restocked with fresh supplies, as well as a makeshift "hospital" inside a small mosque, and suspected infiltrators are largely protected from the mob. So who’s in charge?

Are we witnessing a revolution, a soft military coup, or a failed uprising? This is the million-dollar question, and one that I suspect can’t be answered until events have run their course. Much depends on tomorrow’s demonstrations: Has the regime succeeded in its usual game of divide and conquer, or will Egyptians’ revulsion at this week’s brutality send them to the streets in the millions? Right now, Mubarak and friends seem to have the upper hand, though Egyptians have certainly been proving the cynics wrong of late.

To be continued…