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Egypt's Day of Reckoning: Mubarak Regime Could Collapse in the Face of Massive Protests

The corruption of government officials, the bulging prisons, the laughable elections, the whole vast, sclerotic edifice of power has at last brought Egyptians on to their streets.
 
 
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A day of prayer or a day of rage? All Egypt was waiting for the Muslim Sabbath today – not to mention Egypt's fearful allies – as the country's ageing President clings to power after nights of violence that have shaken America's faith in the stability of the Mubarak regime.

Five men have so far been killed and almost 1,000 others have been imprisoned, police have beaten women and for the first time an office of the ruling National Democratic Party was set on fire. Rumours are as dangerous as tear gas here. A Cairo daily has been claiming that one of President Hosni Mubarak's top advisers has fled to London with 97 suitcases of cash, but other reports speak of an enraged President shouting at senior police officers for not dealing more harshly with demonstrators.

Mohamed ElBaradei, the opposition leader and Nobel prize-winning former UN official, flew back to Egypt last night but no one believes – except perhaps the Americans – that he can become a focus for the protest movements that have sprung up across the country.

Already there have been signs that those tired of Mubarak's corrupt and undemocratic rule have been trying to persuade the ill-paid policemen patrolling Cairo to join them. "Brothers! Brothers! How much do they pay you?" one of the crowds began shouting at the cops in Cairo. But no one is negotiating – there is nothing to negotiate except the departure of Mubarak, and the Egyptian government says and does nothing, which is pretty much what it has been doing for the past three decades.

People talk of revolution but there is no one to replace Mubarak's men – he never appointed a vice-president – and one Egyptian journalist yesterday told me he had even found some friends who feel sorry for the isolated, lonely President. Mubarak is 82 and even hinted he would stand for president again – to the outrage of millions of Egyptians.

The barren, horrible truth, however, is that save for its brutal police force and its ominously docile army – which, by the way, does not look favourably upon Mubarak's son Gamal – the government is powerless. This is revolution by Twitter and revolution by Facebook, and technology long ago took away the dismal rules of censorship.

Mubarak's men seem to have lost all sense of initiative. Their party newspapers are filled with self-delusion, pushing the massive demonstrations to the foot of front pages as if this will keep the crowds from the streets – as if, indeed, by belittling the story, the demonstrations never happened.

But you don't need to read the papers to see what has gone wrong. The filth and the slums, the open sewers and the corruption of every government official, the bulging prisons, the laughable elections, the whole vast, sclerotic edifice of power has at last brought Egyptians on to their streets.

Amr Moussa, the head of the Arab League, spotted something important at the recent summit of Arab leaders at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. "Tunisia is not far from us," he said. "The Arab men are broken." But are they? One old friend told me a frightening story about a poor Egyptian who said he had no interest in moving the corrupt leadership from their desert gated communities. "At least we now know where they live," he said. There are more than 80 million people in Egypt, 30 per cent of them under 20. And they are no longer afraid.

And a kind of Egyptian nationalism – rather than Islamism – is making itself felt at the demonstrations. January 25 is National Police Day – to honour the police force who died fighting British troops in Ishmaelia – and the government clucked its tongue at the crowds, telling them they were disgracing their martyrs. No, shouted the crowds, those policemen who died at Ishmaelia were brave men, not represented by their descendants in uniform today.

 
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