In Cairo, protesters restless as they hope for U.S. support

February 8, 2011

CAIRO - With the barrels of American-designed tanks pointing at them, American-backed air power circling overhead and a longtime American client still sitting in the presidential palace, the protesters in Tahrir Square were starting to get restless.

"No Kentucky! No Kentucky! No Kentucky!" went their chant, using the local slang for KFC food as a call to arms, one that seemed mostly a call for the United States to take a clearer stand in favor of their struggle for an Egyptian democracy.

The United States is hardly the most pressing concern among demonstrators here, whose uprising has shown little of the broad "Down with America'' vitriol that for decades has been a staple of other protests in the region. But a specific background hum of anti-American feeling is drifting through the square among demonstrators who say they can't understand why Washington hasn't endorsed their demand that President Hosni Mubarak leave and take his regime with him.

"What are you thinking about us?" Bilal Mohamed, a 24-year-old doctor, asked incredulously, pointing out that what the protesters want seems to be consistent with what America says it stands for. "We are speaking about our rights. You must be clear. Being midway is no good."

The demonstrators point out that when President Obama was here 18 months ago he talked specifically about democracy in this part of the world. They also say that much of the U.S. assistance given to the Mubarak regime has gone toward their oppression, starting with all that military hardware being brandished against them. They argue that the United States hasn't gotten a good return on its assistance.

"Don't gamble on a leader - put your money on the people," said Lotfy Abdul-Mageed, another doctor.

The fluctuations in Obama administration policy toward Mubarak over the past week were barely noticed in Tahrir Square. Protesters felt Washington wasn't doing enough, no matter what it said. When Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned over the weekend against Mubarak leaving too hastily, demonstrators felt she was finally being honest about U.S. intentions.

What particularly annoys people here is the U.S. focus on the Muslim Brotherhood, the best-organized and largest opposition group, with its desire to remake Egypt into a more thoroughly Islamic country. In the eyes of demonstrators, the U.S. attention to the Brotherhood is a misplaced obsession.

"This is a revolution of the people. It's not a revolution of the Muslim Brotherhood," said Mahmoud Saad Ibrahim. The Brotherhood has not played a leading role in the uprising; Ibrahim and others doubt that it can snatch the fruits of the revolution from those who have been on the square day after day, if and when they emerge victorious. They say the Brotherhood doesn't have that much support throughout Egyptian society.

"Everybody's afraid of Egypt turning out like Iran," said a demonstrator who did not want to be identified. "Why would Egypt turn out like Iran?"

Some protesters criticize Mubarak for doing America's bidding: for keeping quiet over the invasion of Iraq, for instance, and for helping Israel by closing access to the Gaza Strip.

A takeoff on a movie poster that went up in Tahrir Square on Monday says, "The Film of the Season: 'The Collaborator,' starring Hosni Mubarak and Omar Suleiman, directed by the United States and Israel."

Suleiman is the newly selected vice president of Egypt, who has been negotiating with opposition parties. Washington seems to be comfortable with him in a caretaker role.

At the same time that Suleiman and Mubarak are accused of being in Washington's pocket, government supporters have returned the favor by describing Mohamed ElBaradei, an opposition politician and Nobel Peace laureate formerly with the International Atomic Energy Agency, as an American tool. (They also accuse him of advancing Iran's interests.) For an Egypt under stress, anti-Americanism almost seems to be a default position.

The pro-Mubarak mobs that rampaged last week attacked Americans who came their way. The anti-government demonstrators, by contrast, have been almost uniformly welcoming of Americans who visit Tahrir Square. A frisker at a barricade off Talaat Harb Street frowned when he saw an American passport. "I don't like America," he said, then, his face brightening, he added, "I love Americans."

What they want, the anti-government protesters say, is freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and free elections.

"What the demonstrators are asking for is legitimate. They're not fanatics," said Ibrahim Fadel, a company manager. "I need to elect my city council, freely. I need to elect my parliament, freely - without any harassment, without any bandits.

"The veins and arteries are blocked. We all think that Egypt deserves better."

In Fadel's view, the United States can't be against that, if only it would understand. There's an enduring affection for American culture here - when the KFC on Tahrir Square reopens, it's unlikely to go hurting for customers - and that has a way of keeping the hope alive among the protesters that U.S. policy must eventually turn their way.

Special correspondent Samuel Sockol contributed to this report.

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