In Egypt, deep resentments are at heart of unrest

Thousands of Egyptian anti-government protesters clashed with police in Cairo on Friday. The police fired rubber bullets into crowds and used tear gas and water cannons to disperse the protesters.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 28, 2011

IN CAIRO Abdel Zaher Dandarwi does not look like a revolutionary.

At 53, his hair is graying at the temples and his eyes betray more fatigue than fury.

But it was fatigue - with the daily corruption, the detached ruling clique and the rot permeating this once-proud nation at the heart of the Arab world - that drove him to the streets this week to voice a revolutionary thought: "Down with Mubarak!"

The tens of thousands of Egyptians who did the same had personal reasons for joining the unexpectedly massive demonstrations that have rattled authorities here and continue to threaten the 30-year rule of a man who once seemed invincible, President Hosni Mubarak.

But for many it came down to this: a pervasive sense that the world has passed Egypt by, that money and power have become hopelessly entrenched in the hands of the few and that if the country is ever going to change, it has to do it now.

"There's a suffocating atmosphere in Egypt, and I'm tired of it," said Dandarwi, a lawyer dressed impeccably in a dark blue pinstriped suit, who quietly sipped coffee Thursday afternoon as he waited for the next protest to begin. "The elections are fraudulent. The people in power monopolize all the resources. There are no jobs. There's no health care. And I can't afford good schools for my children."

The protests this week have been unlike any other in Egypt's modern history, primarily because the outcome remains uncertain. Most protests in Egypt are bits of theater - stage-managed affairs in which opposition parties rally the faithful, the police make arrests and everyone else goes home.

This time, the protests have no clear leader, and no limit to how large they could grow. Those who have taken part see no limit to what they might achieve. In a region where transfers of power are almost always either hereditary or at the barrel of a gun, events this week have raised the prospect that Mubarak, now 82, may be forced by popular unrest to yield authority before he can hand it to his son, Gamal.

Mubarak's government will not go quietly, of course, and security services have attempted to crush the protests through force. But with demonstrators driven by deep resentments and long-suppressed rage, police have been unable to squelch the nascent movement.

Mubarak 'will have to go'

While the primary organizers have been university students, others have spontaneously joined the demonstrations as those in the streets beckoned in unison to those watching from the balconies: "If you are Egyptian, why don't you come with us?"

Many have, and while the demonstrations Wednesday and Thursday were significantly smaller than those on Tuesday, organizers said they were planning a much larger show of force after prayers Friday, despite a government ban on such gatherings.

Until now, the protests have been distinctly secular, with few representatives of the country's largest opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood. Whether it will stay that way after Friday is an open question. Those involved in organizing the protests say they hope their movement to oust Mubarak is not overtaken by a group that has said it wants to bring Islamic law to Egypt but is widely suspected of occasional complicity with the government.

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