Middle East

Fragile future for Egypt's revolution

Protester and tank in Tahrir Square
Image caption Tahrir Square, one of Cairo's most famous landmarks, looks like a war zone

Following the recent days of unrest in Egypt, the BBC's Middle East bureau chief Paul Danahar, who has been following the protests in Cairo day by day, reflects on what he has witnessed.

I sat on a smashed up truck used by the anti-government protesters as an observation post.

In front, where the previous day's rocks and stones whistled around me, the army had created a no-man's land.

The entrance to Tahrir, or Liberation, Square was lined with rows of razor wire and troops. A tank was parked on the flyover. A helicopter circled overhead.

The pro-Mubarak groups, who many people here suspect are nothing more than government security officials in civilian clothes, were nowhere to be seen.

There is now a stalemate between an old man whose regime was spawned in the Cold War and the young people who have only ever lived under his rule.

There is no doubt there is jostling going on behind the scenes for a role in a transitional government, but during a week of demonstrations, I haven't heard anyone chant the name of any other politician but President Hosni Mubarak, and that was "Mubarak Go Now".

This is a leaderless revolution, so the usual government tactics don't work. There is nobody to buy off, lock up, or scare away.

So no-one, not the people in the square, not the generals, not the White House, not even the last pharaoh himself, Hosni Mubarak, knows how this will end.

Image caption Protesters have so far retained the upper hand in Tahrir Square

Lost control

Egypt and its capital, Cairo, have always seethed frustration. It is a virtual police state.

Hundreds of thousands of people are employed to snoop, harass, intimidate and torment this nation of 85 million people.

But exactly a week ago, during the "Day of Rage", the police lost control of the city. They have not got it back since.

By that evening, I was being pushed and shoved around by a mixture of looters and protesters as I watched the ruling National Democratic Party headquarters being consumed by flames.

As it burned, young men ran in and out of the building, stealing chairs, tables, filing cabinets, anything that was not nailed down.

The police, who hours earlier had been fighting pitched battles on the streets, had been told to go home, just as somebody was making it rather easy for all the prisoners from the city's four largest jails to escape. All at the same time.

The main roads into town were littered with their discarded uniforms. Some of them were undoubtedly here grabbing what they could.

Suburban raids

But many more were beginning to prey on the middle-class suburbs that dot the city.

Throughout the night, they ransacked homes, terrifying and sometimes attacking their middle-class owners.

It could have torn the society apart; instead it built a more formidable force of opposition against President Mubarak.

The fear recreated local communities in a city where people had adopted the Western urban trait of not having met the family living next door.

Walking around the city during curfew now means being stopped every 50 paces at vigilante checkpoints staffed by educated middle-class people, warming themselves from the winter chill by chopping up and burning the local police post.

One weary housewife, who was spending her nights in the street outside her home armed with her best kitchen carving knife, told me: "Someone, who if you saw them in the street you wouldn't know, you are now trusting to secure your family while you are protesting. This is amazing."

And so their confidence came flooding back and they poured it into the defining moment of this struggle - Tuesday's "million-man march".

Young person's revolution

Image caption The internet generation seems to be at the forefront of the protests

This was a secular protest; it was not driven by the Muslim Brotherhood, much as the government might have hoped the outside world would think.

When the call for midday prayers began that day, barely a quarter of the crowd knelt to pray.

"It's a young person's revolution," a woman told me.

"You would see in the demonstrations people with the hippy look, the men with a little bit of long hair and think: 'What are they going to do, you sissy generation?' You cannot tell the men from the women, but then, look what they did."

The "sissy generation" were already celebrating what they thought was their inevitable victory.

The most popular slogan was "Game over Mubarak", something that could only have come from a generation weaned on video games and the internet.

Youssef, an engineer, was grinning from ear to ear: "We live like Third-World people, but we are First-World people, we want to be able to show that we have all the capabilities to be First-World people.

"We have been here for 7,000 years, but people in Europe, you think that I have a camel in front of my house, and I'm living beside the pyramid. Even the poor people here are civilised. The people [in the square] are even cleaning the streets."

Political chasm

And by the end of the day, they had won their concessions.

President Mubarak went on national TV to declare he would not stand again for this year's presidential elections.

He promised constitutional reform. It was just what the intellectuals had been demanding for years. They would have taken it in flash just a week ago. But they thought they had him on the ropes, they wanted more.

Driven by the infectious optimism of the youths that surrounded them, they shouted that "No! He must go now".

But when you corner an old military man, chances are he will come out fighting and that is just what happened.

The area of ground separating the pro- and anti-Mubarak groups as they rained rocks and stones down on each other this week has often been just a few hundred feet.

But the political divide that has now opened up between them may be impossible to bridge.

Tahrir Square, one of Cairo's most famous landmarks, looks like a war zone.

Barricades of burned-out trucks and cars lie on their sides along the thoroughfare. Tanks stand where hawkers used to sell postcards to passing tourists.

The pavement has been broken up and lies in orderly piles of rubble as ammunition for the next street fight.

The city that gave the world one of its great civilisations this week lurched towards barbarity.

The first time the army stepped into this conflict, it was to save the treasures of the National Museum from rioting and looters.

Fortunately, they managed to preserve this country's glorious past.

Now something needs to be done to protect its increasingly fragile future.