Cairo protesters distrustful as opposition groups jockey

Cairo protesters are planning a huge rally Tuesday. It is not certain they will rally around Mohammed ElBaradei or opposition groups.

Suhaib Salem/Reuters
A protester gestures in front of Egyptian soldiers as they block a street during an anti-government protest in Tahrir square in Cairo on Jan. 31.

Egypt’s notoriously fractious political opposition appeared to be uniting this week, trying to ride the wave of the popular uprising that has threatened the regime of President Hosni Mubarak.

But many Egyptians say it’s a little too late for that. They’re indifferent to attempts to capitalize on a victory won by their own hand – and it is not certain that they will rally around Mohammed ElBaradei, the former head of the UN nuclear watchdog agency who is now emerging as the opposition’s designated negotiator.

Omar Suleiman, newly appointed as vice president by Mr. Mubarak, on Monday said in a televised address that he had been asked to begin dialogue with all opposition forces. What the opposition parties failed to do in 30 years, the people achieved in one week, says Ibrahim El Houdaiby, an analyst and former member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest opposition movement.

“It is significant” that the opposition has come together, he says. “But the people are ahead. What brought the opposition leaders together? The fact that the people in the streets were together.”

Tens of thousands of protesters, their numbers growing, continued to occupy Cairo’s central Tahrir Square on Monday, since battling police for it on Friday. The crowd was buzzing with plans for a huge rally Tuesday that might march to the presidential palace in Heliopolis. Those plans, along with the fact that Egyptian police were sent back out on Cairo’s streets today, led to apprehensions of an escalation tomorrow.

Sunday, the Muslim Brotherhood announced it would support Dr. ElBaradei as the negotiator for the opposition, and most opposition groups have agreed to support him. The spectacled scientist visited the protesters in Tahrir Sunday evening.

But the plans for a massive rally and march Tuesday did not originate with him, just like the uprising itself.

“I think the weakness of the opposition is that there is no organic link between most of the opposition, political parties, and the uprising," says Mustapha Kamel El Sayyid, a political science professor at the American University of Cairo.

The same is true of ElBaradei himself, he says.

Some in the crowd of protesters Sunday and Monday criticized ElBaradei for being away from Egypt when the protests began and only returning two days later, on Jan. 27. The lack of a strong connection between ElBaradei and young people, who have been a driving force of the uprising, means he may not be in a strong negotiating position.

“I don’t know what sort of bargaining chips he has,” says Mr. Sayyid. “This depends on the government perceiving him as the leader of the uprising, but he is not the leader of the uprising. So the government will not have to negotiate with him.”

The fact that Egypt’s opposition – the secular parties and the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood alike – are working together is remarkable, but what they have united around is simple: a call for Mubarak to step down. It is not clear how much further they were willing to go together.

At this point, the opposition is just racing to catch up with the masses, says Mr. Hudaiby, the analyst. “I think they have all been marginalized by this movement. They’re way behind the streets.”

He adds that now that people have now seen what they can do for themselves, they are much more skeptical of political leaders. “People are no longer willing to give anyone carte blanche to act on their behalf,” he says.

The protesters in Tahrir seemed to agree. “We don’t want any of the political leaders who are here now,” said Magda Abdel Hamid Sunday, pointing at opposition leaders speaking to a crowd nearby, including Mohammed El Biltagy of the Muslim Brotherhood and former presidential candidate Ayman Nour of the Ghad party.

“We want a president from the people. One who can feel our pain and knows our troubles.” Ms. Hamid says.

Egypt's protests: people to watch

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