Protesters in downtown Cairo on Monday morning were calling for a general strike. On Tuesday, they said they will launch a ‘million-person march,’ clearly with the aim of toppling the Mubarak government.
On Sunday, a multi-party coalition of oppositionists had formed a 10-man committee to head their movement. The leader of the committee, in turn, is Mohamed Elbaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Elbaradei came down to Tahrir Square in the city center and addressed the thousands assembled there, to rapturous applause.
The Muslim Brotherhood is among the parties in the coalition backing Elbaradei. Their leadership may feel that having a secular person as the face of the movement will cut down on the fears of budding theocracy and threats of Western intervention.
Also among the proposed steering committee is long-time Mubarak opponent Ayman Nour. He had run against Mubarak in 2005, and was promptly jailed when the official statistics showed he had only garnered about 8 percent of the vote. Nour, head of the Tomorrow (al-Ghad) Party, had earlier proposed that the major opposition parties form an alternative parliament, which could then oversee the transition to full democracy. Elbaradei now seems to be endorsing this idea.
Meanwhile, further statements from Hosni Mubarak and his regime give a sense of his current strategy. He implicitly blamed the Muslim Brotherhood for the sabotage and arson that has been committed against government institutions, including police stations. He contrasted the hooliganism of the Brotherhood with the peaceful aspirations of most Egyptians, and pledged to work for economic and social reform (while giving the pledge no content). Mubarak is attempting to split the movement against him by sowing seeds of doubt among its constituents. These include Coptic Christians, educated middle and upper middle class Muslims, and non-ideological youth, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood. By suggesting that the MB is taking advantage of the protests to conduct a campaign of sabotage behind the scenes, with the goal of establishing a theocratic dictatorship, Mubarak hopes to terrify the other groups into breaking with the Muslim fundamentalists. Since middle class movements such as Kefaya (Enough!) are small and not very well organized, Mubarak may believe that he can easily later crush them if he can detach them from the more formidable Brotherhood.
It is a desperate ploy and unlikely to work. Mainstream Muslim Egyptians and Copts do have some fear of the Muslim Brotherhood as a sectarian and fundamentalist tendency, but their dislike of the Mubarak government for the moment seems to overcome their anxieties about a theocracy.
The other part of the strategy of Mubarak and his VP Omar Suleiman may be to gradually take back control via the army, and then slowly squeeze the crowds out of public spaces. If that is their plan, the million-person march on Tuesday could turn sanguinary.
But as one Egyptian woman said, “If they fire on the Egyptian people, Mubarak is finished . . . And if they don’t fire on the Egyptian people, Mubarak is finished.”