“President Mubarak is gone!” Laughing, shouting in relief, hundreds of people, streaming the Egyptian flag above them, began running toward the big screen in Cairo’s Tahrir Square last Friday. Two minutes later, the jubilation—a culmination of over two weeks of an impassioned popular uprising—ended. It was just a rumour. More than a week after the “March of Millions,” a climactic day of mass peaceful protest that was followed by a bloody—and some say government-staged—onslaught by supporters of the regime, and the transformation of Tahrir into a barricaded stronghold for the protesters, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak remains in power.
Life in Cairo has taken on a semblance of normality over the past days—shops have opened, the roads are again abuzz with activity, and many Egyptians have restarted their daily routines. Outside of Cairo’s centre, the vigilante groups—impromptu home guards stationed every half kilometre with sticks and machetes—have relaxed their watch.
But the protesters have not left Tahrir Square—it has become a city of tents, with the feel of an organized community. Men and women frisk entrants, food stalls sell sandwiches made by an army of women in the nearby mosque, and doctors give aid at established field centres. “I want to bring some change to my country,” says Rihan, a mother who has been there for 12 days. “I want to tell my president, ‘Thank you, I want you to go now,’ but he doesn’t listen.”
Crackling loudspeakers blare revolutionary prayers and lead the crowds in chants. At times the atmosphere is almost festive. A central stage plays host to Egyptian celebrities and politicians; Egypt’s famous composer Amar el Sharay has made an appearance, as did, to many people’s surprise, Egypt’s defence minister.
The government is keen to send the message that life is back to normal. The military curfew that has been in place since tanks rolled into Cairo on Jan. 25 remains in place, but largely only in name: two hours after the curfew began last Monday, touts offered rides on their horses and carts, and popcorn vendors made good business from passersby. But the government is also keen for the attention on Tahrir Square to die away; authorities have tried to bar journalists without a local press card—and getting such a card is a three-day process.
Meanwhile, newly appointed Vice-President Omar Suleiman has engaged in talks with opposition leaders, including, for the first time, the banned but highly in?uential Islamic party, the Muslim Brotherhood. During the meeting, Suleiman signalled concessions: to set up a committee to propose constitutional changes, and forming another to carry them out.
For some Egyptians this is enough. Khan el-Khalili market is usually alive with throngs of tourists buying Egyptian wares. But since the riots began, the locale stands in eerie silence. “Cairo now is bad for life, says Deir el Fishawy, owner of the famous Fishawy Café. “We want change, but not in this way.” Indeed, last Friday, estimates appeared that the paralysis resulting from the unrest had been costing the economy an average of US$310 million a day. “People don’t want Egypt to suffer more,” says Ahmed Saleh, a 23-year-old tour guide. “A lot of changes have been made over the past week. I have been in a demo for six days—now I have to continue with life.”
But for the thousands of protesters across Egypt, returning to normalcy is not easy. Suleiman is nicknamed “the Torturer,” says one, a lawyer who does not want to be named. “He is Mubarak’s man.” Many fear reprisals if the regime remains in power. Activist Ashraf Moh, 23, sits in a dingy hotel, terrified because he has just escaped indefinite detention at the hands of the military and police. “What did I do to deserve this?” he says. “Just because I speak my mind!”
Despite government promises that protesters will remain unharmed, over the last days scores of foreign and Egyptian citizens have been detained in collaborative efforts between military and police forces. “We are very concerned that there is an effort by the military and police to crack down and detain activists, bloggers, and lawyers,” says Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director with Human Rights Watch, who is in Cairo. In Tahrir Square, protesters hold a list of over 70 people—all key figures of the anti-government movement—who they say have simply vanished. “Soon we will all be free or we will all be in jail,” Bouckaert says one protester told him. “Either we end the police state, or, if the movement fails, the repression will return.”
Human Rights Watch calculates that 297 people have died during the uprising. But as it enters its third week, there is no sign that the protesters are losing heart. The government’s veneer of normality was shattered Tuesday when hundreds of thousands joined in solidarity with the demonstrators at Tahrir Square. They flooded across the bridges over the Nile in what some observers said was the biggest protest yet, their numbers so great that military efforts to check identity cards were thwarted as they surged through. “We want a change in the system—it will change. People before were afraid of the police. Now no one is afraid,” says graphic designer Nasser Moustafa. Can the revolution sustain its momentum? “I think we always have to bet on people’s ability to bring change, and not on the regime,” says Shadi Taher, spokesperson for leading opposition figure Ayman Nour. “Regimes come and go—the population doesn’t.”