Egypt protests: Can Mubarak be toppled?

Poster of Hosni Mubarak defaced in Alexandria. 25 Jan 2011 Protesters in Alexandria targeted posters of President Mubarak

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Anti-government demonstrations have been continuing in Egypt despite efforts by the government to close them down. But so far they have not risen to a level to threaten President Hosni Mubarak.

On Wednesday, the interior ministry declared all demonstrations illegal and the police moved in quickly to break up any gatherings.

Security officials say 1,000 demonstrators have been arrested. The protesters refuse to be deterred but they have had trouble assembling large crowds.

Clashes continued into the night in several cities across Egypt. Some of the most violent scenes have been in Suez, where three demonstrators were killed on Tuesday.

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Across the Middle East, the situation is so unpredictable and events are moving so fast that almost anything can happen”

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When the authorities refused to release one of the bodies on Wednesday, the crowd set fire to a government building.

So far, despite everything, normal life is continuing in most parts of the country.

The vast majority of Egyptians are too busy scratching a living to join the protests. There is widespread anger and disillusionment with the government, but there are probably not more than a few thousand people actively expressing their anger. That will give some reassurance to the government.

The former UN nuclear chief and Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei has arrived back in Cairo. That may provide some focus for the protests, but his support is more from the middle class than the masses.

There have been calls for more demonstrations after Friday prayers, but so far the banned Islamist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, has stepped back from endorsing the protests.

They are the one movement that could bring out really large numbers. So far, though, these protests have been largely leaderless, rallied by messages posted on Facebook or Twitter, not by conventional politicians.

As for the government, to date the response has been very familiar. A political and social protest movement has been treated simply as a security threat.

Mohamed ElBaradei leaves Vienna for Egypt. 27 Jan 2011 Opposition figure Mohamed ElBaradei is supported mostly by Egypt's middle classes

But this morning the Egyptian papers are full of reports that a series of emergency meetings are going on behind the scenes, as the government considers responding with wage increases, offers of new jobs, and other ways to try to answer the many grievances being expressed by the demonstrators and ordinary Egyptians.

That might relieve pressure on the very poorest in society but it is not going to satisfy the more middle class young people who have been coming out on the streets.

Their grievances are not just economic. They complain of a much wider malaise in Egyptian society, with a government they believe is taking the people for granted.

Egyptians will tell you that this is a country that needs a dream, a vision. But for 30 years, President Mubarak's message has been much less ambitious - all about safety and security.

By all accounts, this government and system is not nearly as fragile as the Tunisian government, which collapsed so spectacularly.

The military, the West, and many powerful and rich people here have a big investment in keeping President Mubarak, or at least ensuring an orderly transition to another leader friendly to the West and to business.

There is no sign yet that these protests have the momentum to overcome that.

But across the Middle East now, the situation is so unpredictable and events are moving so fast that almost anything can happen.

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