In Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak still has support, from rich and poor
Thursday, February 3, 2011; 12:00 AM
CAIRO - For eight days, pro-democracy demonstrators roared their belief that Egypt's 80 million people were ready to oust President Hosni Mubarak and start anew with elections.
But the melee that unfolded Wednesday in the capital when Mubarak supporters stormed the opposition-occupied Tahrir Square suggests that there are many in Egypt who are deeply invested in the current system - and will fight to preserve it.
While protesters call Mubarak's three-decade reign a disaster, a cross-section of Egyptians has much to lose when Mubarak leaves office.
Businessmen with rich government contracts, civil servants, security officers, ruling-party activists and poor Egyptians who fear the instability that has descended on their country in recent days - all have a stake in ensuring that whoever comes after Mubarak changes as little as possible.
The country may be rich with revolutionary fervor, but Wednesday's events proved that the guardians of the existing order still wield tremendous clout.
"There have been problems during Mubarak's time, but at least we've had stability," said Maher Salman, a 37-year-old businessman who was among those on the streets Wednesday shouting his approval of the president. "If he goes, we will be like Iraq and Tunisia. We don't want all the things we've gained over the past 30 years to be lost."
As with most in the pro-Mubarak crowd on Wednesday, Salman's affection for Mubarak appeared genuine. But there was also strong evidence that the counter-demonstration was orchestrated from above, suggesting that powerful interests here are digging in for battle.
With Mubarak promising to leave the stage but resisting protesters' calls for an immediate exit, the current phase of the confrontation "becomes very dangerous,'' said Alaa al Aswany, the Egyptian novelist who has long been a leading voice in the call for democracy here.
"The fall of the regime is not only going to be harmful to the president but also to all of the people linked to the president,'' Aswany said.
Fears of the poor
It is not only the powerful who are spooked by the departure of the only president many Egyptians have ever known.
Already the instability has brought an economic shock likely to continue as the government's backers and its opponents struggle for control. Shops have been closed, trading was halted on the stock exchange and factories are dark. Many poor Egyptians say they cannot afford the unrest, and they blame the protesters for sparking it.
"These people have made us go hungry. They've stopped our work," said Ahmed Sayed, 45, an auto mechanic who held aloft a poster of Mubarak smiling benevolently in shirt and tie.