by Sherine Bayoumi and Leila Fadel
The protesters who spilled onto Egypt's streets this week have given the opposition movement here characteristics that it long lacked: spontaneity and roots in many segments of society.
The demonstrations, which continued Wednesday despite a strong police presence and hundreds of arrests, drew experienced activists and those who had never marched before. There were secularists, socialists and Islamists all walking together and demanding change with a unity that for years eluded Egypt's opposition.
The new face of the opposition poses a significant challenge for President Hosni Mubarak, who has imposed sharp limits on his critics during his 30-year rule. Poor health has raised questions about Mubarak's ability to remain in office and prompted speculation that he is grooming his son to succeed him.
Marina Ottaway, director of the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, said that there is "a great amount of discontent in Egypt" but that until now it had been "compartmentalized in three different movements" that didn't work together: a labor movement, a pro-democracy political movement and the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group.
"Is there any indication the three groups are beginning to merge [in the demonstrations]? That is the crucial question," she said.
"The psychological barrier of fear has been broken," said Shadi Hamid, director of research for the Brookings Doha Center. "Eighty million Egyptians saw [Tuesday's protests]. They saw that it's okay to come out and that there is safety in numbers."
Egyptians' anger has been simmering for years in this police state, where opportunities are scarce and the gap between the poor and a small elite is growing. There have been intermittent political protests here for years decrying the repressive regime, food prices and an emergency law that effectively rescinds human rights in the name of national security. But they have drawn just a few hundred young activists at a time or have been organized by the Muslim Brotherhood, which can activate a large grass-roots membership but can also be easily dismissed by the government as Islamist discontent.
Tuesday's demonstrations were the largest in years and, by some estimates, one of the largest anti-government protests in Egypt's history, rivaled in recent memory only by a gathering across the country organized by the banned Muslim Brotherhood in 2005.
Although members of the Islamist group are participating in this week's demonstrations, the Muslim Brotherhood has not organized them. Many among the throngs on the streets of Cairo are college-educated Egyptians in their 20s and 30s, with some older. They gathered Wednesday despite a government ban on demonstrations, screaming, "The demands of the people are for Mubarak to leave!"
"This is more of a leaderless movement," Hamid said. "When police shoot into the crowd, it's not the Brotherhood. It's the Egyptians: people's brothers, sisters, mothers and wives."
Demonstrators' defiance on Tuesday spurred others to join Wednesday. A video showing a young man standing in front of a riot police truck as it sprayed high-pressure streams of water at him circulated on the Internet.
There were fewer protesters on the streets Wednesday, after police moved early in the day to crack down on them. The Associated Press reported that 860 people had been arrested since protests began Tuesday morning.
Egyptian authorities blocked access to Facebook and Twitter on Wednesday in a sign of their deepening concern about the demonstrations.
Clashes in Suez, a northeastern port city where violence has been the most intense, wounded 27 people, including police and demonstrators, Egyptian state television reported. Al-Jazeera English reported that six people had been killed since protests began.
Wednesday afternoon, lawyers flooded from the national lawyers' association in downtown Cairo and broke through walls of riot police to spill into the street. They threw rocks and bricks at police who were beating a demonstrator. Dozens of riot police trucks were positioned downtown, and streets leading to Tahrir Square, where more than 15,000 demonstrators were encamped Tuesday night, were blocked.
People climbed down from their apartments, and passersby joined in to call for the "abdication of Mubarak." Thousands of people had gathered in the streets by 3 p.m.
At the foot of the steps of the lawyers' building, hundreds of riot police cordoned off the demonstrators, but still more people joined them. More riot police were brought in, but the people pushed back and broke through.
"Until now, I had thought that the weakness and disunity of the opposition parties and movements in Egypt was a major barrier to their putting real pressure on the Mubarak regime," said Michele Dunne, editor of the Arab Reform Bulletin, an online journal. " I'm not so sure anymore."Original URL: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/01/26/AR2011012607770.html
Sherine Bayoumi and Leila Fadel
Bayoumi is a special correspondent. Fadel reported from Beirut. Janine Zacharia in Cairo and Mary Beth Sheridan in Washington contributed to this report.
Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.