In Egypt, deep resentments are at heart of unrest

By Griff Witte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 28, 2011; A01

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.

"We're not part of any opposition party. When they have protests, they ask for a change to the constitution or a new minimum wage. We're asking for something different: We want the regime to leave," said Mohammed Hassan, an intense 20-year-old university student who said he was involved in coordinating this week's rallies.

Hassan said he foresees bloodshed, but eventual triumph for the protesters. "It will be like Tunisia,'' he said. "Mubarak will start shooting people. But he will not be able to kill all Egyptians. He will kill 60 or 70, and then he will have to go.''

Already, several protesters and at least one police officer have been killed in the protests, which have involved violent clashes in cities across Egypt.

Toward a new course

Tunisia - where a grass-roots movement succeeded this month in ousting the country's longtime dictator - has been the inspiration here but is not the model.

Protesters interviewed Thursday said they fear the sort of instability that has followed in Tunisia in the weeks since President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fled the country.

The protesters in Egypt have been largely middle class - lawyers, doctors, university students and professors. They have something to lose if this nation of 86 million descends into anarchy, but they also say they may not have much left if Egypt does not shift course.

Ahmed, 25, squared off with baton-wielding police officers this week in large part because he wants to join their ranks, but can't without paying a substantial bribe. He went to law school for four years, only to find that being a lawyer in Egypt means endless payments to clerks just to have his cases heard. He'd rather be a police officer, he said, so he can shake down others.

"But to become a police officer, I have to pay a big bribe, and I don't have the money," said Ahmed, who would not give his last name because he said he does not want to hurt his chances of some day joining the police.

"There's no middle class in this society - we have two classes, the rich and the poor," said Mohammed el-Moafy, 26, also a lawyer. "In the 1990s, you could count the number of millionaires in Egypt. Now it's a long list. And everyone else can't afford everyday living expenses."

Moafy said that while he gets by on the income he earns as a lawyer, he does not have enough money to marry. Still, he is one of the lucky ones. Egypt is rampant with young people who are well educated but have no job and few prospects.

"The demographics were a time bomb ticking away, and unfortunately, the government did not pay any attention to it and it finally went off," said Hisham Kassem, a political analyst here.

Kassem said those demographics, plus the ability of young people to connect with each other via social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, set the conditions for this week's protests.

Seeking dignity

But it's not only young people. Dandarwi, the 53-year-old, said he is determined to keep protesting - if not for his own benefit, then for that of his children.

Dandarwi was raised in a poor farming village, and was the first in his family to go to college. For decades, Egypt provided him with opportunities for advancement.

But he said the stagnant economy and the rigid social structure have left his three children with none of the chances to climb that he had.

On Friday, he expects to be on the streets, and he said that his college-age son will be with him, no matter how severe the consequences. "I worry about him, sure, because I'm a father," Dandarwi said. "But I prefer that a human being die with dignity rather than live with injustice."

Special correspondent Sherine Bayoumi contributed to this report.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company