Cairo

President Mubarak’s government may soon collapse. Popular support for him has evaporated, and while the Obama administration has declined to officially take sides in the Egyptian protests, it is clearly looking toward some sort of endgame. But what form would such a transition take?

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Item: “In recounting Saturday’s deliberations, [administration officials] said Mr. Obama was acutely conscious of avoiding any perception that the United States was once again quietly engineering the ouster of a major Middle East leader. … ‘He said several times that the outcome has to be decided by the Egyptian people, and the U.S. cannot be in a position of dictating events.’”—David E.

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Only fools would predict the unpredictable, and thus with the course of the Egyptian revolution. Imagine yourself as a pundit in Paris at the start of the French Revolution, the mother of them all. In August of 1789, you would have celebrated the “General Declaration of Human Rights,” an ur-document of democracy, as the dawn of “liberty, equality and fraternity.” Yet, four years later, the Terreur erupted, claiming anywhere between 16,000 and 40,000 lives. In 1804, one-man despotism was back.

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Cairo, Egypt—For years, analysts and journalists have described the Egyptian masses as apathetic and embattled. But, after the last five days, it’s impossible to say this anymore. Since January 25, protesters have taken to the streets in Egypt’s major cities, demanding an end to President Hosni Mubarak’s almost 30-year reign. Here is an explainer of the main actors in Egypt today and what they may be thinking. The protesters. Egyptian men and women of all ages and social classes are amassed in central squares in major cities, including Cairo, Alexandria, Mansoura, Suez, and Aswan.

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Déjà Vu in Cairo

Everyone now understands that President Obama faces a set of difficult choices in Egypt. Cut Mubarak loose, and risk a revolt from the other American clients in the region while potentially empowering the Muslim Brotherhood. Support Mubarak, and earn the enmity of Arabs and Muslims across the Middle East who correctly see the United States working in tandem with the autocrats who repress them. What has largely gone undiscussed, however, is that the United States faced a very similar dilemma in Egypt once before.

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As the protests in Cairo stretched through the weekend, much of the international news coverage has focused on looting and violence. Newspapers have been describing a state of near-anarchy, and cable TV has been streaming reports about violence throughout the country, and gangs of thugs terrorizing Cairo’s neighborhoods. Last night, gunshots were ringing into the early hours of the morning. There is certainly violence occurring in Egypt, but after returning from Pakistan a day ago to cover the upheaval, I was actually struck by how peaceful the protest is at Cairo’s main gathering spot.

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Excess Point

Cairo, Egypt—The measures taken by the Egyptian regime over the last three days are not just targeting demonstrators; they are affecting everyone. Ahead of Friday’s post-prayers protest, the Egyptian government cut off every form of instant communication—namely, the Internet and cell phone service. The goal, it seemed, was not just to prevent people from organizing demonstrations or sharing their experiences with the outside world, but also to create an atmosphere of chaos and uncertainty.

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The contours and consequences of the uprising in Egypt—which, after decades in which Hosni Mubarak destroyed the civil society of his country and stifled the most elementary aspirations of his people, was perfectly inevitable—are still unclear. About the justice of the protestors’ anger there can be no doubt. But the politics of the revolt are murky.

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It takes some hubris to write about events unfolding as fast as the protests in Egypt, especially when it’s clear that nobody saw this coming. Mubarak is preparing to address the nation, and it's unclear what will follow. Here are five points that American observers should keep in mind whatever comes next, while consuming the blog posts, Tweets, and TV coverage of their choice. Revolutions often erupt with little warning. Explosions of popular anger on the “Arab Street” have become a cliché.

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Black Friday

Cairo—Downtown Cairo is one of the loudest places in the world, but tonight it is eerily quiet. There is an unusual amount of elbow room—make that enough room to extend one’s arms fully—in Tahrir Square, the heart of the city which many thousands of demonstrators descended on last Tuesday. The steps of the Journalists Syndicate, a key locus of protest that was packed only yesterday, are completely empty.

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