Dispatch

The view from the ground.

What Happens When an Irresistible Force Meets an Immovable Object?

As the reality of Mubarak's defiance sets in, the protesters in Tahrir Square plan their next move.

John Moore/Getty Images
John Moore/Getty Images
John Moore/Getty Images

CAIRO – There was a nanosecond of stunned silence as it became clear to the crowd in Tahrir Square that Hosni Mubarak was not, in fact, leaving.

And then, for some, a sudden explosion of shock and anger. "He wants blood," one 30-something man behind me kept repeating. "He wants blood." Another muttered darkly that America must have been behind the president's decision to stay in office, if only in name.

Many immediately took their shoes off and waved them furiously in the air, shouting "Irhal!" -- Leave! -- the oft-heard cry that has become the Egyptian protest movement's singular point of focus.

CAIRO – There was a nanosecond of stunned silence as it became clear to the crowd in Tahrir Square that Hosni Mubarak was not, in fact, leaving.

And then, for some, a sudden explosion of shock and anger. "He wants blood," one 30-something man behind me kept repeating. "He wants blood." Another muttered darkly that America must have been behind the president’s decision to stay in office, if only in name.

Many immediately took their shoes off and waved them furiously in the air, shouting "Irhal!" — Leave! — the oft-heard cry that has become the Egyptian protest movement’s singular point of focus.

Others wandered the square in a daze, tears welling up in their eyes as they processed the evening’s emotional roller-coaster ride. Hours earlier, a flurry of statements, purported leaks, and unconfirmed rumors (the airport road is closed! The president is in Sharm el-Sheikh!) made it seem to all that Mubarak had finally realized it was time to go. A top military officer even appeared in the square to assure the Tahriris that all of their demands would be met.

As the crowd swelled to its largest nighttime size yet, smiles widened and songs and chants broke out in the suddenly festive square, among them the popular refrain, "We won’t leave; he’s the one who’s leaving."

Instead, Mubarak said he was turning over his powers to his vice president, Omar Suleiman, rejected calls for his immediate departure, and stopped well short of meeting the protesters’ demands. "I will not leave," he said flatly, echoing his earlier declaration that he would "die on the soil of Egypt."

Several minutes passed as the "revolutionary committee" — the recently formed coalition of youth groups involved in planning the original January 25 protest — huddled to plot its next move. Even before it had reached a decision, the call went out on the loudspeaker: Friday’s countrywide demonstrations would go ahead as planned. It was time to seize the Information Ministry, a massive circular structure along the Nile corniche that doubles as the state television headquarters; and the presidential palace, miles away from downtown Cairo. The revolution would go on.

As machine-gun wielding soldiers looked on impassively from atop armored personnel carriers and behind coils of razor wire, several thousand young demonstrators rushed to occupy the street in front of the Information Ministry and denounce the information minister, Anas al-Feki. Many of them vowed to stay the night, but were uncertain about what Friday — another planned day of mass protests — might bring in the wake of Mubarak’s speech.

"We don’t know what will happen tomorrow," said Nora Younis, a well-known Egyptian blogger. "It’s impossible to know."

Mohamed ElBaradei, the former International Atomic Energy Agency chief who has become a leading figure in the protest movement, told Foreign Policy before Mubarak’s speech that he had no confidence in the government’s reform process and urged the demonstrators to "keep kicking their behinds."

"There will be more escalation," said Alaa Abdel Fattah, a blogger and activist, noting that it was far from clear the organizers could limit the crowd’s ambitions to seize major government buildings, even if they wanted to. Asked how the army might respond, he said, "I don’t care about what the army does. I care about what we do."

Other potential targets include the Interior Ministry, where dozens of protesters lost their lives on Friday, Jan. 28, and the following Saturday in a pitched battle for one of the most hated symbols of the regime, and Abdeen Palace near downtown, a historic residence of Egyptian presidents that is now a museum. A march on Mubarak’s own presidential palace, in the distant suburb of Heliopolis, would be a far more challenging — and likely bloody — affair.

But Mubarak and Suleiman, who has increasingly become a target of protesters’ ire, seem to have left the protesters little choice but to up the ante. So far, the regime’s concessions have been tactical — cashiering despised ministers and ruling party officials, appointing toothless advisory committees, holding a dialogue with several unimpressive opposition groups (though also including the very well-organized Muslim Brotherhood), and making vague, suspiciously familiar promises of reform.

Meanwhile the intentions of the army, which insists publicly that it respects the "legitimate demands" of the people and would never harm protesters, remain opaque. In what he called "Statement No. 1," a military spokesman said that top commanders would meet "continuously" to assess the situation — but gave few other clues to the content of those discussions.

Judging from the size of the crowd left behind in Tahrir, ElBaradei’s call for the protesters to keep occupying the square — and perhaps now the areas in front of Parliament and the Information Ministry — and keep pushing until their demands are met is a widely shared sentiment on the streets.

As ElBaradei put it in his interview with FP, "Mubarak was told by everybody, in every language, in every different way of putting it: ‘You need to go.’ And for some reason, he’s still hanging around."

More from Foreign Policy

A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.
A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.

Lessons for the Next War

Twelve experts weigh in on how to prevent, deter, and—if necessary—fight the next conflict.

An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It’s High Time to Prepare for Russia’s Collapse

Not planning for the possibility of disintegration betrays a dangerous lack of imagination.

An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.
An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.

Turkey Is Sending Cold War-Era Cluster Bombs to Ukraine

The artillery-fired cluster munitions could be lethal to Russian troops—and Ukrainian civilians.

A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol  January 8, 2009 in Washington.
A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol January 8, 2009 in Washington.

Congrats, You’re a Member of Congress. Now Listen Up.

Some brief foreign-policy advice for the newest members of the U.S. legislature.