It is two weeks into Egypt’s revolution. The protests that have shaken the Mubarak regime since 25 January have awakened millions and drawn hundreds of thousands into a struggle for change.
Tens of thousands defended Cairo’s Tahrir Square in pitched battles with government thugs on camels and horses last week, while the army looked on.
Hundreds of thousands poured back into the streets on Friday 4 February, and again on Saturday and Sunday—not only in Cairo, but across the country.
As the protests continue, the revolutionary process deepens.
Tahrir Square is a liberated space, a laboratory for popular self-organisation with its own security forces defending the entrances from attack, field hospitals, pharmacies and volunteer squads of street cleaners.
It is a seedbed for new kinds of democracy. Slogans and demands are tested on the crowds. Those who gauge the mood correctly see their ideas spread like fire across the square, echoing into TV studios, through social media networks and even into the corridors of power.
The army sent a senior officer down to the square last Saturday to try and talk the people into leaving. The crowd shouted him down: “We’re not going, Mubarak’s going.”
Amid the ferment of political debate, Tahrir also functions as an organising centre.
“People are going back to the factories from the square to explain the real story of the revolution,” explains Tarek Mustafa, a leader of the independent Property Tax Collectors’ Union.
“People outside are beginning to realise that the Egyptian media is lying when it says that the square is full of Iranian spies.”
But beyond the barricades and the barbed wire, however, the state is not yet broken.
The regime’s ruling party is in disarray. The entire executive committee resigned last Saturday and the president’s son, once considered his heir apparent, has been kicked out of the party.
Layers of the Egyptian bourgeoisie are beginning to articulate demands which only weeks ago were considered revolutionary: dissolution of the newly elected parliament and an end to the state of emergency.
But the repressive core of the state machine remains intact, run by Omar Suleiman—former security chief, Mubarak’s confidant, and now vice-president.
Trucks of riot police are parked up side roads. The army is visible everywhere, even in the square, where protesters sleep beneath the tanks to stop them moving.
The popular committees, which emerged to defend
neighbourhoods after the police withdrew, are contradictory.
They are still visible in many areas, but only weakly connected to the movement in Tahrir.
And there is a growing sense of social polarisation, heightened by the regime playing on the need to return to “normality”.
“People in the streets of the middle class suburb where we live are complaining that only those with no jobs are still in Tahrir,” explains one woman.
The potential for the workers’ movement to act as a social base for the revolutionary movement is there, but it is still only latent, and political leadership of the movement currently lies outside the organised working class.
The main organisations present in the square are drawn from the radical opposition movements of the Left, the Nasserists, loose networks of leftists and liberals—such as the 6 April Youth Movement, and the Muslim Brotherhood Youth—and the National Association for Change, which supports Muhammad ElBaradei.
Legal “opposition” parties hover on the edges hoping to pick up a share of the spoils from negotiations with the regime.
The radical opposition movements, with the exception of the Brotherhood, generally reject the idea of negotiations with the regime before Mubarak goes.
The legal opposition parties—long tainted by playing the political game by the regime’s rules—entered discussions with Suleiman last Sunday, as did representatives of the Brotherhood.
It is difficult to see what the result of these talks will be—the situation is fluid.
Activists from the radical opposition groups in Tahrir reacted with fury to pictures of Suleiman meeting “representatives of the revolutionary youth” on state TV.
They organised a press conference to denounce the negotiations as a betrayal of the revolution.
The key challenge in the weeks ahead will be how to maintain momentum on the streets and keep the protest movement alive. If that fails, there is little doubt that the revenge of the state will be swift and brutal.