By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
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.
While rich and poor alike have joined the call for democracy, the movement has been led by the professional middle class - lawyers, doctors, university students and engineers. Many of the poor, who constitute the majority in Egypt, said they mistrust demonstrators' motivations and are concerned that the movement has a hidden foreign agenda.
Sayed, dressed in worn jeans smeared with oil, said no decent Egyptian would insult the president as demonstrators have Mubarak.
"I don't read or write myself, but I know that Mubarak went to university, and since then he's done nothing but serve us," he said. "It doesn't make sense to me that after all that, we're just going to throw him away."
The government has blamed pro-democracy demonstrators for the rioting and looting that have been a byproduct of the protests, and that view is repeated ceaselessly in the state-controlled media, although opposition leaders deny it.Position of strength
While Mubarak has used fear to help maintain his grip on power, he has also proved to be a canny politician, one who knows how to dispense the favors and patronage that put people in his debt. He has kept Egypt out of war, managed crises and enacted modestly liberalizing reforms.
Taymour A. Hasseb, a consultant with the state-run newspaper Al-Ahram, said Mubarak does not get the credit he deserves for the good things he has brought to Egypt, including greater freedom of expression than exists in many Middle Eastern countries, such as Syria and Saudi Arabia.
"Egypt is better now than it was when he came to office," Hasseb said.
And besides, the alternative is not pretty, he said. According to Hasseb - and to Al-Ahram - the Muslim Brotherhood would take hold here if Mubarak leaves. Pro-democracy demonstrators dismiss that view as a government diversion, but it is one that is widely believed.
Many of the president's backers expressed confidence Wednesday that Mubarak may yet seek another term, no matter what he said Tuesday night.
"I'm not worried, because Mubarak is not going to go," said Gamal Ali Ibrahim, 42. "There may be some wayward sons who dare to tell their father to leave his own home. But we are not wayward sons here in Egypt."
Special correspondent Samuel Sockol contributed to this report.