A Political Battle of Wills in Egypt

Protesters are fighting to show momentum, but will they convince the rest of their country?


On Tuesday, the revolutionaries in Tahrir Square took over the street in front of Parliament and the building where the presidential cabinet meets. A professors' march took a few unplanned turns, joined a small group of protesters already in front of parliament, stragglers accrued, the military stood aside and - presto - the revolution had another beachhead.

By 10 p.m., hundreds of reinforcements streamed in from Tahrir Square, just around the corner, bringing blankets and tents. They were there to stay.

A government engineer sat smiling on the curb in front of parliament. Beside him a crowd whistled, cheered and beat a drum while a man shimmied up the iron gates of parliament. The sign he taped there read: "Closed Until the Fall of the Regime."

"The government said we were just squatting in Tahrir Square having a picnic, so we had to move," said the engineer, whose name was Tarek. At first he declined to tell me his last name, but then he laughed at the absurdity; he's already on wanted list, and has been warned that if he goes to work at his government job, he'll be arrested.

"If this revolution fails, Mubarak will hang me by my neck whether or not you publish my name," Tarek said.

Organizers of Tahrir Square are playing a numbers game. If more people show up each time they call for a big crowd - as happened on Tuesday, which drew perhaps the greatest amount of people since it all began on January 25 - then the revolution advances. That's their gamble. Several of them said they believe that success required steady escalation. Tuesday, the parliament. Friday, perhaps the state television headquarters or a ministry. Sunday, the police headquarters. And so on. They are hoping to organize major days of action three times a week, a plan that hinges on drawing more and more people each time. So far, popular response has exceeded their expectations at each turn. That's no guarantee that the pattern will continue, or that the regime won't use incalculable brute force or brilliant political maneuvering to shift the power balance.

The ultimate wild card is the Egyptian people. Many outside Tahrir Square complain about the demands of the people inside, which many see as too radical, and say they long for business as usual -- especially now that Mubarak has promised to resign before the year's end.

But they might well change their minds. Before January 2011, reporters working in Egypt encountered a stunning paucity of people willing to state a critical opinion on the record, almost all of them educated, well-heeled activists.

Not anymore. The hundreds of thousands joining these protests, and cheerfully dispensing phone numbers and addresses, include members of every single one of Egypt's social classes. Tuesday witnessed a particular surge in middle-class attendees, prompted by the teary televised interview with Wael Ghonim, the Google executive, just after his release from prison the previous day.

"We plan to take over more streets and squares and factories, and we are trying to spur discussions in the square about plans for the New Egypt," explained Alaa Abdelfattah, a blogger and protest organizer. He was surveying the emerging camp in front of parliament with a general's satisfaction. Nearby, military officers stood thoughtfully among knots of protesters, listening to their complaints about the rampant bribery, torture and injustice of Mubarak's rule.

At this stage, we can be sure that two tenacious sides have committed to a total contest; no one can be sure how it will turn out.

The revolution, after entering its third week, is acquiring some institutions of its own, including a leadership committee and published political positions. A 14-member committee is planning logistics and outreach, jockeying to harness each unexpected new wave of popular support. And Egyptians have responded, on Tuesday packing Tahrir Square until they spilled into the entire downtown. The mood was euphoric, especially outside of parliament a few hours after curfew.

Revolutions are slow, gradual processes. Egypt's, whether or not it succeeds, is likely to last quite some time. A determined and growing core of revolutionaries insists on overturning the system; the ancien regime, doubtless, will fight to retain its power and privileges. Both sides command popular followings. It's a thankless (and perhaps pointless) task to keep score of momentum and turning points, as if one could tally victory in a contest between the sea and shore: the tide retreats, the coastline holds firm, the tide advances, the shore has lost. Only with time do we learn for certain what has eroded.

"If Egypt changes, the whole world changes," exulted Mahmoud Gawish Garbyah, a 22-year-old engineering student. He was wearing a headband with the colors of the Egyptian flag, gripping his friend's hand. "Next we'll take the presidential palace."

Photo: Protesters rally in front of the Egyptian Parliament in Cairo. By Mohamed Abed/AFP/Getty