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The Pharaoh Is Dead, Long Live the Pharaoh?

My week in Cairo began amid violence and culminated with Mubarak's ouster. But no one really knows what's coming next.


CAIRO — Pharaoh is gone.

In just 18 days, a ragtag youth army overthrew one of the Arab world’s most entrenched and brutal dictatorships, overcoming their own fears, the regime’s considerable tools of oppression, and the doubts of outside powers that still aren’t sure whether their interests will be served by a messy transition to democracy.

I arrived in Cairo last Thursday, Feb. 3, to cover what was then an unknown quantity. Was it a revolution? A revolt? Another failed uprising? This much was known: It was a gripping story, an unprecedented outpouring of popular anger whose aim was to drive President Hosni Mubarak from power and replace him with an electoral democracy.

On Wednesday, Feb. 2, the night before my flight, I had stayed awake glued to my Twitter feed and Al Jazeera, watching in disbelief as men armed with whips, knives, chains, and Molotov cocktails besieged Tahrir Square in a thuggish bid to flush the protesters out of downtown Cairo and crush their uprising. Up to the last minute, I still wasn’t sure whether it would be safe to go; the U.S. State Department issued a sharply worded statement urging all Americans to leave the country "immediately" as the violence — clearly orchestrated by elements of the regime itself — began taking on an ugly, anti-foreigner tone.

The previous week, the protesters had twice outwitted and outfought Mubarak’s black-clad riot police, finally seizing Tahrir Square and sending the regime’s security forces melting into the night, while the Army mobilized to secure key government buildings.

They were still hanging on when I reached downtown Cairo late Thursday afternoon, after cruising along nearly deserted streets, past tanks, armored personnel carriers, and tense soldiers holding bayoneted assault rifles. I had landed in a war zone. The windows on the ground floor of my hotel, located right near the main entrance to the square, were barricaded, the lobby’s lights dimmed, perhaps in the hope that Mubarak’s goons would ignore us if they couldn’t see us. Security guards nervously searched my bags and hastily ushered me inside.

Ironically, the safest place in Cairo was Tahrir Square itself. Although a rock battle was still raging on the northern end of the square near the landmark Egyptian Museum, it had settled into a stalemate. The "pro-Mubarak protesters" — as some gullible Western news outlets still referred to them — knew by then that they were badly outnumbered, and in any case their tactics had backfired badly; governments around the world expressed shock and demanded that Mubarak allow the demonstrators to express their grievances in peace.

Meanwhile, attacks on journalists continued, made all the more dangerous by a vicious campaign whipped up by Egyptian state television against foreigners. The following morning, I called a friend with long experience in Cairo. Military police had just raided the offices of the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, a legal-aid clinic that had become the locus of efforts to document instances of abuse and illegal detainment. He told me his organization might be next; he was leaving town and lying low for a while. Management at the big hotels around the square had been told in no uncertain terms to control their journalists or have them controlled for them, other friends warned me.

I was, frankly, a little bit scared. I’m a desk jockey, not a war reporter. What had I gotten myself into?

But we journalists were never the story; the protesters’ desperate struggle to hang onto the square was. My impression upon arrival was that the regime, having tried violence, was now deftly maneuvering to marginalize the protesters after failing to crush them. Outside the square, Egyptians began clamoring for their lives to return to normal. As for the protesters, state TV darkly warned that they were traitors serving a foreign agenda, part of an Israeli-Iranian axis bent on destroying Egypt.

That was, of course, complete nonsense — but it seemed like it just might work.

On Friday, Feb. 4 — optimistically billed as the "Day of Departure" — I met dozens of young Egyptians who often boiled their demands down to one simple word: "freedom." Tarek al-Alfy, a 30-year-old tech entrepreneur from Giza, told me that he had come to the protests for the first time that day to express his outrage at the government’s unprecedented shutdown of the Internet. "I felt like I was living in North Korea so I decided to go to Tahrir," he said. "I want a fair constitution."

Near the museum, where a half-dozen burned-out police vehicles were scattered at the scene of Feb. 2’s battles with Mubarak’s thugs, I met Mohamed Abdel el-Ainein, a 49-year-old mechanic Army veteran who was resting in the driver’s seat of a truck, his head bandaged from a nasty direct hit. He was too tired to speak. A doctor at the makeshift clinic nearby, Ahmed Abdel Rahim, told me he had watched five people die overnight and said he had treated "dozens" of trauma victims since 6 a.m. that day. As I spoke with him, a young man with the word "paradise" written on a piece of paper taped to his shirt walked by, headed to the front lines.

Magdy Soliman, a 38-year-old computer programmer, volunteered to be my guide for the day and help me get the lay of the land. At a dingy downtown cafe, smoking harsh, honey-flavored shisha and drinking tea from grubby glass cups, his two friends — both with master’s degrees in agricultural engineering — told me of how they had to pay bribes for "everything" involving the government. "I have to pay some guy 600 Egyptian pounds to get a driver’s license," said Ahmed Khalil, 35. "Why? It’s my right. We want to smell freedom," he said pleadingly.

Soliman asked me whether I thought the protesters were going to win. I told him I wasn’t sure but that I hoped so.

"A lot of people will get arrested," he worried. Ahmed was blunter: "They will kill us for sure."

The Tide Turns

Mubarak did not, of course, depart that Friday.

Over the weekend, momentum seemed to shift further against the protesters. A self-appointed group of prominent "wise men" stepped forward to negotiate a solution to the standoff. Mubarak’s new vice president, former spy chief Omar Suleiman, made a public show of magnanimity by sitting down with various figures from the traditional opposition, including members of the Muslim Brotherhood — the same group Mubarak’s police state had spent years persecuting. He then issued a deeply disingenuous statement that seemed crafted to offer symbolic concessions without conceding real power or control over the pace of reform.

Message: The government is being reasonable while you kids in Tahrir Square are bent on destroying Egypt. Time to go home. On Sunday, Feb. 6, banks opened across the country, and the government urged people to go back to work. Instead of killing protesters, the regime would now ignore them. It seemed to be working.

The crowds were dwindling, and yet the Tahriris held firm. They announced a "week of resilience," signaling that they were hunkering down for a long struggle. On Sunday, Feb. 6, the "day of the martyrs," huge images of fallen heroes, some showing smiling faces, others grim shots of bloodied corpses, decorated the square. Meanwhile, the protesters adamantly refused to negotiate until Mubarak stepped down.

If there was a turning point, it was a heartfelt interview on the night of Monday, Feb. 7, by Wael Ghonim, a key protest organizer whose sudden disappearance had become an international cause célèbre. Ghonim, an articulate Google executive, effectively gutted the regime’s propaganda campaign against the protesters, weeping as he insisted that the youth in Tahrir Square only wanted what was best for Egypt. The next day’s protests were the biggest yet.

From Tuesday, Feb. 8, onward, the protesters pressed their advantage as cracks began to show in the regime and new civic groups joined the revolution. Demonstrations and strikes broke out within ministries and syndicates and in factories across Egypt. Suddenly, thousands of professors, judges, lawyers, and delegations from distant governorates were marching on Tahrir. On Wednesday, Feb. 9, in their boldest move yet, a group of protesters seized the street in front of the parliament building before the Army could react and rushed in blankets and tents for an extended sit-in. On Thursday evening, after a drumbeat of leaks and statements suggesting Mubarak was planning to step down proved overly optimistic, an angry crowd blockaded the state television building. And on Friday, Feb. 11, seemingly the entire country took to the streets as rumors spread that Mubarak had fled Cairo, if not Egypt altogether.

And then, with a short, lugubrious statement from Suleiman, it was over. Mubarak was out, and the military was in command.

What now?

For now, as the country erupts in ecstatic celebrations, Egyptians are choosing to be hopeful.

"Of course we trust them," Dalia Ziada, a local civic organizer for the American Islamic Congress, said of the military, just after Mubarak’s resignation was announced. "They never harmed anyone in any way. I am sure they will start to prepare for the elections. There is no political regime anymore."

"This is the best scenario ever," said Wael Nawara, secretary-general of the liberal Ghad Party. "The Army is promising the Egyptian people what they shed blood for."

"It’s the only possible solution," Hassan Nafaa, a political scientist at Cairo University, told me. "Now we will have to watch carefully what the military will do."

The task now, says Nafaa, is for military leaders to lay out their political vision for the coming months. In recent days, opposition leaders put together a road map that includes a new government of national unity, the dissolution of the state security apparatus, an overhaul of the police, the complete independence of the press, and free and fair elections — but it’s still not clear what sort of consensus has been built around it.

Mubarak is gone, but Egypt’s transition to democracy is far from ensured. What actually happened Friday was a coup — not a revolution. And nobody yet knows whether the military, which has shown few democratic inklings in its nearly 60 years as the power behind the throne, truly intends to carry out its promises to upend the ruling order. Mubarak’s vast state security apparatus remains intact, and now that the dictator is gone, opposition leaders may well return to bickering among themselves. It’s also not clear what role the autocratic Suleiman — who said this week that Egypt has no "culture of democracy" — might play in the months ahead.

"Call me a party pooper, but I do not see Mubarak’s resignation necessarily good news at this point for the opposition," said Nathan J. Brown, a leading scholar of Arab political systems. "They got what they said they wanted, but this is not a transition yet. It could still be a kinder, gentler Algeria."

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