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Special Report: How the Egyptian revolt will recast the Middle East

Three scenarios for the way the uprising might end and what it all means for the US, Israel, and Iran.

By / Staff writer / February 4, 2011

Protesters at Cairo's Tahrir Square are seen defying curfew on Jan. 30.

Ann Hermes/Staff

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Iman Mosharafa points at the loose curls spilling over her red sweater. The gesture emphasizes that she isn't wearing an Islamic head scarf. "Look, I'm not from the Muslim Brotherhood," she says in an interview in Cairo's Tahrir Square.

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Ms. Mosharafa – a teacher, a member of the burgeoning Egyptian middle class – says it is secular young people such as herself who are the engine powering protests that have shaken the regime of Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's modern pharaoh. "We are the silent majority that has been silent for so long, but not anymore," she says.

Magda Abdel Hamid, in contrast, isn't middle class. She works as a cleaner in a hospital, and her head scarf and clothes indicate she may come from a farming family. She is tired of rising food prices and water and housing shortages. She stumbled on the protests on her way home from work and decided to join, even though she had done nothing like that before in her life.

"We left our children at home and came to fight for their future here," she says.

Business owner Abu Bakr Makhlouf is a member of Egypt's elite. He wears a stylish overcoat to ward off the chill of Tahrir Square. He wasn't politically active in the past – he used to worry about what might happen to his children. Now he's been through the tear gas and the rattling batons and thinks it's better for his family if he fights. "I will stay here – I told my wife not to wait for me. There's no way back for us," he says.

Still they rise. In Egypt a population has lost its fear of authority and taken to the streets in protests likely to change their nation – and the Arab world – forever. The only question is how.

Is this democracy's moment? That's what many of the protesters say they want. Egyptians across the spectrum – young, old, poor, comfortable, religious, secular – are talking the language of elections and freedom. After 30 years of Mr. Mubarak, they don't want to be ruled by another authoritarian ex-general in a suit.

But in this case the protesters have outrun the politicians. The secular political opposition to Mubarak is weak, due to decades of oppression. There are few figures of stature for the protesters to rally around.

True, Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei has won kudos by racing home to demand change, getting sprayed by water cannon in the process. But the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency is a professional bureaucrat who's lived abroad for years. "Have you seen him out there with his leather jacket and bullhorn?" asks one US-based expert. "He looks a little uneasy."

The Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic opposition group, remains a substantial force with unknown intentions. In open elections, Islamic parties might get about one-third of the Egyptian vote, according to many estimates. Behind the scenes the military still controls the nation's infrastructure of power, through wide business interests and close ties with government officials. Top generals see themselves as descendents of the Free Officers, the junior Army leaders who toppled the Egyptian monarchy in 1952 and installed Col. Gamal Abdul Nasser in power. They're unlikely to cede power-broker status willingly.

Contributing to this report were correspondent Kristen Chick in Cairo; staff writers Dan Murphy in Cairo, Howard LaFranchi in Washington, and Scott Peterson in Istanbul, Turkey; and correspondent Joshua Mitnick in Tel Aviv.

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