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Fissures emerge among Egypt's protest leaders, jeopardizing victory

Just five days after toppling Mubarak, Egypt's protest leaders are split on how to proceed. Some say the military is pursuing a 'divide and conquer' strategy.

By Staff writer / February 16, 2011

Egyptian citizens sit at the Nile corniche in front of Egyptian TV headquarters protected by a line of armored vehicles, in Cairo, Wednesday, Feb. 16. Labor unrest unleashed by the ousting of Hosni Mubarak flared again Wednesday in Egypt despite a warning by the ruling military that protests and strikes were hampering efforts to improve the economy and return life to normal.

Hussein Malla/AP

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Cairo

For more than two weeks Tahrir Square in central Cairo was the focal point of the Egyptian revolution, a sacred place where swelling crowds of protesters overturned three decades of government efforts to divide the Egyptian people.

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Again and again, protesters at Tahrir spoke of the feelings of unity and brotherhood, of pride restored in being Egyptian and Arab. A simple set of demands – the dictator Hosni Mubarak out, fair elections, a reformed constitution and a rejection of fights over ideology – saw tens of thousands of previously apolitical Egyptians join hands with the country’s small core of long-standing reformers.

And then, at almost the moment of victory, it all started to come apart, even as Egyptians’ success was inspiring democracy activists in Libya, Bahrain, and Yemen.

Now, just five days since Mubarak was forced to step down, the rank-and-file among protesters have deserted Tahrir and bickering has broken out among protest leaders.

'Divide and conquer' strategy?

Critics say Egypt's military, which took direct control of the country for what it insists will be a maximum of six months before restoring civilian rule, is seeking to exploit the divisions.

The head of the Egyptian military, Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, Tuesday appointed a council to reform the Constitution with limited input from the broad coalition that led the first stage of the revolution.

There have also been indications that he and other military officials are favoring some groups over others in an attempt to break apart a broad front that viewed Mubarak’s removal as a first step, not an end point.

SPECIAL REPORT: How Egyptians toppled Mubarak – and who will lead them now

“One thing I don’t really like is that the Supreme Military Council has not tried to speak to the parties or to movements that drove this phenomenon,” says Wael Nawara, a spokesman for the Ghad (Tomorrow) Party, whose leader Ayman Nour was imprisoned after he sought to run for president against Mubarak in 2005.

“They’ve singled out a few young people to talk to, they’re from the people’s movement, but there are a lot of others that need to be included,” he says. “The military should not try to revive the old tactic of divide and conquer.”

Among those young people was Google marketing executive Wael Ghonim, whose online activism helped kick off the protests on Jan. 25 and who briefly emerged as the face of the movement after he was secretly detained by the Mubarak regime for over a week during the height of the protests.

But Mr. Ghonim is politically inexperienced, having been involved in activism for less than a year. His own political leanings are as yet unclear.

The Ghad Party is a member of the National Association for Change, an umbrella group of reformers that coalesced around former UN nuclear watchdog boss Mohamed ElBaradei a year ago, and Mr. Nawara says the absence of real outreach to the group by the military is worrying.

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