How Egyptians toppled Mubarak – and who will lead them now

A grass-roots revolution outmaneuvered Mubarak's powerful regime. But bringing real democratic reform to Egypt will be harder without clear leadership.

By , Staff writer

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    A jubilant Egyptian carries a soldier in Tahrir Square, Cairo, on Saturday. Crowds returned to the square to celebrate the protests that toppled the Egyptian regime, but remained vigilant for the future.
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As a new era dawns in Cairo today, with the sounds of a stunning revolution still echoing across the region, Egyptians face a more sobering task: How to translate the momentum that brought down a regime into meaningful democratic reform.

The unprecedented popular uprising that drove now-former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak from power after nearly 30 years succeeded in large part because it became a grass-roots movement that could not be contained, negotiated with, or controlled through a few leaders.

But now, there is no clear leadership to tell the protesters milling around Tahrir Square – the epicenter of the 18-day uprising – whether to go home or to stay, keeping pressure on the military as its supreme council decides the country's next steps.

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Some Egyptians, filled with a new sense of freedom and pride in their country, have begun cleaning up Tahrir, which served as a home base for hundreds of thousands of Egyptians pressing for a new democratic order. Some of the protesters-turned-volunteers wore signs that said, "Sorry for the inconvenience, but we're building Egypt."

Just how they'll do that remains uncertain.

Unified by a cause, not a leader

Until now, the leaderless nature of the uprising has been its strength, allowing the cautious Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood to make common cause with socialists, Coptic Christians, and middle-class youths who know they want a freer Egypt but are uncertain of what ideology should drive them there.

Over nearly three weeks of protests, Egyptians of every stripe coalesced at Tahrir Square with a single unifying demand: Mubarak must go, now.

"They keep saying they don't have a single leader, and that's true," said Ahmed Baher Mansour earlier this week, as he demonstrated with others in the square. "Nobody has asked us to come [for anything] except for our freedom and our dignity."

They organized themselves into teams to guard the barricades and search for weapons among people joining the crowd. They set up field hospitals and water distribution stations. A group of volunteer engineers even poured cement for public toilets.

And on Friday, Feb. 11, in a display of steadfast, focused anger after Mr. Mubarak defiantly insisted that he would not step down, they busted out of the democracy ghetto of Tahrir Square.

Thousands marched near the presidential residence, previously a sacrosanct no-go zone, and tens of thousands converged on the radio and television building – the nerve center for state propaganda – leaving regime mouthpieces trapped and frightened inside.

In the face of such a display, Mubarak was forced to resign – less than 24 hours after adamantly refusing to do so.

The moment Vice President Omar Suleiman finished his brief announcement that Mubarak had resigned, Cairo erupted. People poured out of their homes, cars began honking wildly, and chants of "It's done! The people brought down the regime!" broke out in Tahrir Square, in front of the state radio and television building, and among protesters at Mubarak's official residence.

"It's like a dream," said Mohamed Aidarus, a mechanical engineer camped outside the presidential palace. "Whatever happens, we've shown that we can make our voice heard and that no government can do whatever they want to us again."

Leadership issue more pressing now

Now the matter of leadership becomes much more pressing. In the weeks and months ahead, prominent forces in Egyptian society – from the military to ruling party members to prominent businessmen – will seek to massage events in their favor.

For the moment, the Supreme Military Council of senior generals has taken charge, with Mr. Suleiman likely to play a key role in managing the transition to a post-Mubar­ak era.

The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's long-suppressed – and best organized – opposition group, will certainly have a voice. Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the United Nations nuclear watchdog agency who has become a prominent advocate for democratic reform, will be seeking one, too.

Divided on regime change

The protesters themselves have been split over what comes next – whether Mubarak's stepping down is sufficient or whether full regime change is required. As the Monitor went to press, it was too early to tell whether the coming weeks would yield real democratic reform.

The regime so far appears to have been trying to split the masses with a relentless state propaganda campaign warning of chaos and foreign infiltrators, with Suleiman reaching out to the millions of Egyptians who want a return to normalcy.

"Mubarak and much of the regime have thrived on dividing people, stirring up trouble between Christians and Muslims, making us distrust ourselves, for years," said Maria Hus­­sein, a Tahrir Square demonstrator speaking before Mu­barak resigned. "The whole system needs to be overturned or the revolution won't really succeed."

On one side are Tahrir warriors, with bandaged heads from battles with government thugs, who will settle for nothing short of regime change; on the other are those who are more eager to go back to work than to overhaul the political system they've lived under for decades.

"Yes, we want Mubarak to go, but we also want to work," said Islam Suweis, who runs a small grocery store in central Cairo. "We could all be in danger if this carries on."

Mustafa Kamel al-Sayed, a Cairo University political science professor, speaking shortly before Mubarak resigned, agreed the situation was fraught: "There are already some divisions among the demonstrators. Some are saying, 'Let us give the promise of reform a chance and trust the armed forces, who say they will guarantee reform.' Others are saying, 'No trust is left.' If the process of reform doesn't proceed positively and quickly, this could become very dangerous."

Many of the traditional opposition, including the Muslim Brotherhood, have been generally ambivalent about unfolding events, leading to a lack of trust from the street-level protesters. Whether they will be able to win them over will be a test.

Who could play a key role

Suleiman, representing at least a part of the military establishment, is likely to remain a key player.

With vast economic resources at its disposal, the military's commitment to an end to one-party rule and an end to the military's monopoly on the presidency is unclear. It, too, and its various factions, will be influential.

Here are some others who could play a role in the transition, but weren't directly involved in organizing the protests:

•The Muslim Brotherhood has been falling over itself in declaring its support for democracy while insisting it won't run a candidate for president. The Brothers are distrusted by many secular Egyptians and showed more signs of willingness to compromise than other reformers.

•Mr. ElBaradei is the most internationally known of the opposition politicians in Egypt right now. But he's spent most of the past decade living overseas and has no real political organization on the ground. A recent poll by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy found that just 3 percent of Egyptians support ElBaradei for president (a post he says he is not seeking).

•Egyptians like billionaire Naguib Sawiris, with much to lose, would like to see Egyptian politics open up as a political safety valve, but are seeking a smooth, managed transition.

• And finally, there are the people on the streets, a vast majority of them under 30, meaning they've never known any leader but Mubarak.

Their fury at him and Suleiman is palpable. At least 300 protesters have been killed by Egyptian security forces under their command, and thousands more have been rounded up by the military police and the Mukhabarat, the feared secret police.

"The military police took me, blindfolded me, and handed me to what I think were the Mukhabarat," says Ahmed Bader, displaying cigarette burns on his arms from what he said was three days of detention and interrogation. "We're just asking for our rights.... There's no giving in now."

Transition to post-Mubarak era

Could the youths on the streets demand more than Mubarak's departure? They might.

President Obama and reformers like El­Bara­dei had been hoping for a managed transition in Egypt, fearful that a precipitous Mubarak departure could lead to chaos and a full military takeover.

But after Mubarak and Suleiman publicly dug in their heels Feb. 10, the writing was on the wall – with redoubled public demonstrations.

The military stepped in for the sake of the country the next day, deciding that the president himself was the source of instability.

The military's role in tipping events shows that it hasn't all been people power. The friendly attitude of soldiers in front of the TV building on Friday – they even allowed demonstrators to climb up on their tanks to shake hands and pose for snapshots – made the siege of the government symbol much easier.

Many in Egypt trust that the military will play a caretaker role and ensure a democratic transition. Everyone will soon find out if that trust is well placed.

Egypt's revolution looks as if it's at the end of the beginning, to borrow a phrase from Winston Churchill. What comes next will depend on whether the demonstrators can continue to rally masses to their side and whether men like Suleiman resort to force to avoid being swept away.

Monitor photographer Ann Hermes and Max Strasser contributed reporting from Cairo.

Five key figures in Egypt

Omar Suleiman: Appointed vice president by President Hosni Mubarak; announced Mr. Mubarak's resignation on Feb. 11. Former general and intelligence chief.

Mohamed Badei: Supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood. Has sought to emphasize the group's traditional mission of religious and social outreach over practical politics.

Naguib Sawiris: Coptic Christian and Egypt's wealthiest businessman. Has ties to the Mubarak regime. Urged people to trust that the regime would carry out promised reforms and seemed to be trying to deflate protest movement prior to Mubarak's resignation.

Mohamed ElBaradei: Nobel laureate and former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Prominent "wise man" who sought to build a bridge between the protesters and the Mubarak regime.

Hussein Tantawi: General, deputy prime minister, and minister of Defense. First government member to visit Tahrir demonstrators. Although military he commands did not obviously back the protesters, it did not crack down, winning praise from activists.

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