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Understanding Egypt's Protests

Who are the main players in the upheaval—and what do they want?

Cairo, Egypt—For years, analysts and journalists have described the Egyptian masses as apathetic and embattled. But, after the last five days, it’s impossible to say this anymore. Since January 25, protesters have taken to the streets in Egypt’s major cities, demanding an end to President Hosni Mubarak’s almost 30-year reign. Here is an explainer of the main actors in Egypt today and what they may be thinking.

The protesters. Egyptian men and women of all ages and social classes are amassed in central squares in major cities, including Cairo, Alexandria, Mansoura, Suez, and Aswan. The protests started on a national holiday that honors the country’s security services, called Police Day, which organizers termed a “Day of Wrath” on Facebook. They came out onto the streets to express their antipathy toward the regime and their fury about the country’s staggering poverty and repression. The timing on Police Day was an ironic play on citizen’s feelings toward Egypt’s security services. Police brutality has been a major rallying cry against the regime for years. The death of one 28-year-old man, Khaled Said, allegedly after being tortured by plain-clothed police in Alexandria, sparked protests across the country last June.

Said could be compared to Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian man whose self-immolation helped launch riots earlier this month that led to the overthrow of President Ben Ali. Many protestors now in Egypt say they drew strength from Tunisia. The Egyptian protesters are mostly peaceful, with many taking care of each other, distributing food and water at the rally sites. The largest protest has been in Midan Tahrir, a central square in downtown Cairo. But the movement has been largely leaderless, which could create a problem if the protestors’ demands to oust Mubarak and the current system are met. Who, then, would take control?

Hosni Mubarak. President Mubarak came to power in 1981 after the assassination of Anwar El Sadat. The former air force pilot is 82 years old and ailing. Egypt’s pharaoh (as he is often called) underwent gallbladder surgery in Germany in March. Now in his fifth term, he is deeply unpopular. Yet challenges to his rule have been limited. In the last presidential election, critics cried foul, accusing Mubarak of rigging the vote. Officially, the second runner-up gained only around 7 percent of the vote.

The country’s next presidential elections are scheduled for September 2011, but Mubarak had yet to announce whether or not he would seek a sixth term. Mubarak has never nominated a clear successor, neither within the ruling National Democratic Party, and it was not until last Saturday that he appointed a vice president. Many believe he has been grooming his son, an investment banker-turned-politician named Gamal, to succeed him. But Gamal is even more unpopular than his father, and the idea of a dynastic transition is an affront to many here.

It is unclear what would persuade Mubarak to abdicate the presidency, as the protestors demand he do. Continued unrest and sporadic violence may not be enough to loosen his grip on power, and he has shown no overt signs of stepping down.

Mohammad ElBaradei. ElBaradei emerged as a leading figure in the Egyptian opposition when he began criticizing Mubarak’s regime in the fall of 2009. His presence revived an opposition that had been floundering for years due to internecine feuding. ElBaradei’s supporters have rallied around the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, who returned from Vienna to Egypt last year, under the banner of the National Coalition for Change (NAC). The NAC focused on collecting signatures for a petition to change constitutional amendments passed in 2005 and 2007 that made it almost impossible for an independent candidate to run for the presidency, but the effort failed. And, soon after, ElBaradei’s time in the spotlight looked like it was up when his calls for boycotting Egypt’s parliamentary elections went unheeded. After the first round of voting showed signs of massive fraud and abuse, however, the opposition withdrew, and ElBaradei surely felt vindicated.

ElBaradei has frequently been criticized by members of his own movement for spending too much time outside of Egypt, but last Thursday, he returned to the country and said he would consider heading an interim government if Mubarak stepped down. He was put under house arrest on Friday, allegedly for his own protection, but appeared in Cairo’s central square tonight to speak to the thousands of protesters who defied the 4 p.m. curfew.

ElBaradei did not impress most protesters I spoke with earlier in the day; one told me he was the lesser of all evils. Many people want a complete shift in who holds power, but, without a leader, the future of the protest movement remains uncertain.

The Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood is a conservative Islamist movement that has been working for over 80 years to inculcate their interpretations of Islam on Egyptian society. It is Egypt’s largest organized opposition group. Although the Brotherhood has been officially banned since 1954, it maintains a strong grassroots presence; its supporters are estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands. Fielding candidates as independents in parliamentary elections, the group won the largest amount of seats in the 2005 elections. But the Brotherhood holds no seats in the current People’s Assembly, after an election in December marred by allegations of rigging and voter intimidation.

The Brotherhood was initially (and notably) silent on the protests, possibly in hopes of preventing a regime crackdown. As the movement has gathered steam, however, key leaders have thrown their weight behind the masses and said they would bring their supporters to the streets. Many leading Brotherhood figures have been arrested in recent days.

On Sunday, in Cairo’s main square, many people identified themselves as Brothers, but they said the demonstrations are not religious or partisan. How the Brotherhood would fare if elections were held is unclear.

Ayman Nour. ElBaradei and the Brotherhood aren’t the only elements of the fractured opposition. The head of the Ghad Party ran for president against Mubarak in 2005, coming in second, though the vote was widely thought to be rigged. After that, he was promptly thrown in jail on what his supporters allege are bogus charges of manufacturing signatures supporting his candidacy. He was released in 2009, purportedly after the U.S. government put pressure on the Mubarak regime.

Since his release, Nour has failed to galvanize the opposition. He was in Tahrir on Sunday, making a speech along with leaders of other small parties. But most people on the streets have tired of the same old faces, and now prefer ElBaradei to Nour (which must sting after his stint in prison).

Gamal Mubarak. The old heir-apparent to the Mubarak dynasty is the president’s youngest son. He rose quickly through the ranks of the National Democratic Party when he returned from London, where he was a banker, in 2000. He is widely credited as having been critical to Egypt’s economic reforms in the last ten years, which drove up GDP. But little of the country’s newfound wealth trickled down to the masses; around 40 percent of Egyptians live on less than $2 a day.

Gamal is widely unpopular; many Egyptians think he is unfit to lead the nation, with limited political experience, no military background, and no constituency. He has never stood for a local or parliamentary election, possibly because he would fare so poorly. (Last year, posters supporting a “Gamal Mubarak Presidency” were put up as test balloons to gauge his support base. Egyptians tore many of the posters down.) What’s more, people don’t like the idea of a son taking over for a father. Word on the street now is that Gamal has fled the protests and is now in London.

Omar Suleiman. On January 28, in an attempt to placate the people, Mubarak named General Omar Suleiman, his general intelligence director, vice president. Suleiman is generally thought to be popular. He gained international prominence for his role in Middle East peace talks and negotiations between the Palestinian factions. Little is known about his personal life, but should Suleiman succeed Mubarak, he would continue the trend of leaders with military backgrounds. Every president since Gamal Abdel Nasser has come from its ranks.

On Sunday, political analyst and blogger Issandr el Amrani posted on his blog, “For me, Omar Suleiman being appointed VP means that he’s in charge. This means the old regime is trying to salvage the situation.” Many protesters have told me that, while they would have accepted his appointment as a step in the right direction six months ago, that’s not the case anymore. They want fresh elections and a break from Mubarak’s past.

The military. While Egyptians generally oppose security services, including the riot police with whom protestors had been clashing until they disappeared off the streets late last week, the Egyptian military is the most respected institution in the country. Since Mubarak ordered it into the streets, the military has not moved against the protesters. Instead, it is setting up roadblocks and standing guard around important buildings, like the Egyptian Museum. Egyptians believe the military will serve the best interests of the citizens. Many are convinced the military, which has stepped in when Egypt needed them most—like producing bread in 2008 when there was a shortage—will join them. Today, on the main square protesters hoisted one solider on their shoulders chanting together in unison.

But, ultimately, the military is believed to be loyal to Mubarak. There have been shows of force and intimidation by the air force, which has flown helicopters and F16s over the protesters in Cairo’s main square. If Mubarak orders the army to fire on the protesters, it’s unclear what will happen.

Sarah A. Topol is a freelance journalist based in Cairo.

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