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Egyptians flood the streets, defying police and calling for regime change

Many Egyptian protesters came out for the first time, despite fears of violent confrontation as police cracked down hard, to call for the fall of Hosni Mubarak's regime.

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Citizens have broken a barrier of fear

How this all ends remains uncertain. But autocracy in the Arab world’s largest country is looking shaky. Protesters are seeking to build a wave of momentum that could sweep away a regime, a move that would dramatically alter regional policies and complicate US interests in the Middle East.

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Mr. Mubarak is unlikely to be swept away as easily as President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia was driven out of his country. But it’s clear that citizens have broken through a barrier of fear in the Arab world’s largest country, a nation that serves as a regional cultural capital and as a model for the security states that dominate the region.

“For the first time, we felt as if we can breathe. We can say no. So we came today to fight for our rights," says Usama el-Wardany, an upper class Egyptian who became politically active when his friend of Khalid Said was beat to death at the hands of police last year. “I think they’re going to kill us today, but I feel this is how I will achieve my rights, so I’m not scared.”

Illusion of stability shattered

The illusion of stability, that an authoritarian state that takes little feedback from its citizens that can sustain itself indefinitely, has been shattered. The outcome of a presidential election scheduled for September, widely expected to be engineered to either return Mubarak to power or perhaps to install his son Gamal as successor, now looks very much in question.

Will other members of the ruling elite dump the Mubaraks and promote another from their ranks in the hopes of mollifying the people? Will street power continue, and be rewarded with a meaningful political opening towards democracy?

These questions, which would have seemed absurd just two months ago after rigged parliamentary elections in November wiped out the formal opposition to Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, are now being asked in regional capitals, in Washington, and by citizens from Algeria to Damascus wondering if their voices, too, can now be heard.

“There’s only one way this gets resolved [and that] is by the massive of use of force, and I don’t think it’s going to work,” says Joshua Stacher, a political scientist at Kent State who studies the authoritarian systems of Egypt and Syria. “Even if this is a furious burst of hot air and it stops [soon], if they try to install Gamal in September, they will get an enormous backlash.

"Everyone talks about the prowess of Egyptian security. Well, they’ve never really been tested," he adds. "Maybe the [police] are getting tired and spread out. I don’t want to call this an inevitability, but it’s looking bad for the regime.”

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