Egypt protests: start of a new Middle East?

Egyptians are inspiring profound change across the Arab world. We ask Cairo protesters how they see their future.

By Anshel Pfeffer, February 3, 2011

The hundreds of thousands of protesters crowding Tahrir Square this week seemed to have little idea of what they wanted to happen next.

"We must have multi-party elections and then all Egyptians can decide what they want to happen," said Sayyed Nasri, a civil engineer from Cairo's Giza neighbourhood, who had come to the square every morning to join the call for democracy and the end of the 30-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak.

But who would he vote for and what kind of policies did he want the new government to pursue? Mr Nasri could not or would not say. "I just want for now, Mubarak to go. Then we can see what to do."

Mr Nasri's lack of vision for the future was echoed by many protesters in the square.

Even those who identified as members or supporters of one of the opposition parties seemed reticent about developments following the future elections.

We must have elections so all Egyptians can decide what they want

"What is most important now is the political reform that will allow real democracy for the first time in our future," said Dr Osaama al-Ghazali Harb, leader of the liberal Democratic Front Party.

"We will have time to make up our minds as to what policies we should pursue then."

Othman Rawadi, a teacher who said he was a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, said: "I of course believe in Islamic values but that is only my personal opinion, the people will decide in elections what the country should do as a whole."

Some critics of the democracy movement in Egypt and abroad said that many of the protesters are naïve while others are hiding their real intentions, only to stage an Islamist takeover of the largest Arab nation.

One Egyptian who held this opinion said on Wednesday that he was switching sides.

Having joined the pro-democracy protesters, the following night he discovered that "actually behind the scenes the Ichwan [Muslim Brotherhood] are in control.

"Now I'm supporting Mr Mubarak, it's better than chaos and these people taking over."

Whether or not the widespread protests in Cairo and other Egyptian cities that culminated on Tuesday's and Wednesday's events, is a façade for ulterior motives, the protesters most of the stuck to the same narrative. They wanted to get Mubarak out and afterwards let the Egyptian people decide.

Likewise, most felt that Egypt's relationship with Israel should be determined by the popular vote.

Mona Zadri, a law student, said on the square: "We want justice for the Palestinians but we don't want war with Israel and don't think that we should cancel the peace treaty."

"This is a matter for the future government," said Mohammed Hamad, a Muslim Brotherhood supporter. "But I don't think we should automatically break off diplomatic ties with Israel. We have to make sure of course that Egyptian interests are also taken care of within the framework of the agreement."

There were no burning of Israeli flags in the demonstrations or any other major mention of Israel. Among the thousands of anti-Mubarak posters held aloft in the square, a smattering portrayed him with Stars of David on his face. "That is because he is a client of the US and Israel," said the man holding the sign, "instead of the Egyptian people."

The main foreign country to be criticised by the protesters was America, for its continued support of the Mubarak regime.

The Arab League was also a target for criticism due to its silence over the events in Egypt, occasionally a protester shouted "Hosni go to Israel," but the cry of "go to Saudi Arabia" was much more prevalent.

There were virtually no Jews left today in Cairo, the Ibn Ezra synagogue in the centre of town an empty monument under heavy guard. A few dozen Jews remain in Alexandria. There were no reports of attempts to attack Jewish property or symbols over the last week.

On Saturday, shots were fired on the building housing the Israeli Embassy in Giza, and a policeman was reported killed. However, an Israeli diplomat in Cairo said that since the embassy was empty and there is no external symbol of Israel on the building, the assumption is that the shooting was part of the general looting and mayhem in Cairo over the weekend and not a direct attack.

Last updated: 2:26pm, February 3 2011