The sun sets Saturday night over Cairo's Tahrir Square. Fading light streams over a joyous celebration that hasn’t paused for a day and a half since street protests forced longtime President Hosni Mubarak from office.
From a ninth story apartment that served as one of the information centers of the Egyptian revolution, a group of young Internet activists huddle with older men and women who have been pushing for democratic change in Egypt for most of their adult lives.
At least three similar meetings of the loose coalition of young techies, socialist revolutionaries, Muslim Brotherhood youth activists, and human rights activists that helped bring down Mr. Mubarak are going on at roughly the same time around town. There are undoubtedly many more.
These are the strategic centers of Egypt's leaderless revolution and theme of the meetings is: What next?
Two principal camps are emerging. One wants to approach the military junta that took command of Egypt on Friday afternoon with a unified list of demands, including replacing Mubarak’s last cabinet as quickly as possible. Others want to maintain the protest momentum as well, keeping the pressure on the generals to deliver democratic reform, and fast. But the second option carries risks with a military that needs to maintain order and feels that it has already been extremely responsive to the people's desires.
“There’s a new protest ethic in Egypt: When you get angry, you get some people together and make signs,” says Shadi Hamid, research director at the Brooking Institution’s Doha Center. “I think that’s a good thing, but that’s not something the military is going to look kindly on indefinitely. From their standpoint they’ve given the people what they want. ‘What more is there to ask for?’”
“Remember, the military’s mandate is to preserve the stability of the state," says Mr. Hamid. "So if people go back to Tahrir Square and [the state radio and television building] and close up the center of the city again, they’re not likely to tolerate that kind of action.”
Positive signs from the military
For protest leaders, Sunday afternoon brought more good news. The Supreme Military Council said it had dissolved the upper and lower houses of Parliament, suspended the Egyptian Constitution, and that it will run Egypt for six months or until new presidential and legislative elections are held, whichever comes first. It also announced that a committee will be formed to propose constitutional reforms that will be submitted to the people in a referendum.
The bad news? The military said that Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq, a former air force officer, and the rest of the cabinet Mubarak appointed days ago as he scrambled to hold on to power, would remain as an interim government.
“I think making clear that presidential and parliamentary elections would be held within six months, putting a red line there and dissolving Parliament are good signs,” says Mr. Hamid. “The military has acted honorably and sent the right signs, for the most part, so far. But let’s keep in mind it’s only been a few days… if they were going to do something drastic, they wouldn’t do it right away.”
So far, the commitment of Gen. Mohamed Tantawi, the head of the Supreme Military Council, to democratic reform and allowing civilian control of the presidency after 58 years of military-backed rule, appears reliable.
But Alaa Abd El Fattah, a democracy activist and blogger, taking a break from a Friday night strategy session of about 30 people on the roof of downtown Cairo’s Carlton Hotel, said he worries that the absence of a new cabinet of national unity could make pushing for democracy harder.
“At the moment, the military isn’t talking to anyone, I don’t think they really know who to talk to,” he said. “Right now, all the existing parties are trying to cut deals and get something for themselves – the longer this goes on, the better chance they have of success.”
The status of political prisoners – a group of activists demanded on Saturday that they all be immediately released – remains unclear. Mr. Fattah said there were some signs that prisoners have been released, but far from all.
By Sunday morning, the tens of thousands in Tahrir Square the night before had dropped to maybe a few thousand and most of the tents were gone. The night before, large groups of young men chanted through the square “we’ve won, go home” and most of the people present took that advice.
“I’m going home,” says Sameh Sabri, a bank employee and semi-professional musician collecting the trash at Tahrir Square. “We have to trust that military is going to deliver on their promises. If they don’t, we can always come back and protest again.”
To be sure, labor strikes are mushrooming across Egypt, a potent form of pressure on their own. But for the moment, it appears Egypt’s transition to democracy largely relies on the good will of the military.
By early afternoon Sunday, as traffic rather than protesters clogged Tahrir Square once more, troops waded in, dismantling the tents of the holdouts as shouting and shoving matches broke out. Around 30 protesters were briefly detained, though the military effort remained largely peaceful and a few thousand remained at Tahrir.
Labor actions continue
Meawhile, labor actions have continued, from factory workers to bank employees to a group of police in Cairo demanding better wages. Labor activists reported at least 10 strikes around the country, and there were undoubtedly more.
Deteriorating economic conditions for the Egyptian poor played a key and clear role in the mass mobilization that drove Mubarak from power and those underlying problems remain.
This afternoon, Prime Minister Shafiq said that lowering food prices is a government priority, but how that will be accomplished was left extremely vague.