How Long Can Egypt's Protests Keep Going?

Pro-democracy protesters have thronged Egypt's town squares with even larger demonstrations this week, vowing to stay put until President Hosni Mubarak resigns and prompting the U.S. to call for swifter reforms. But with rallies in their third week, the question is whether the demonstrators have the stamina and resources to fight on -- or whether they'll retreat behind the few concessions Mubarak's regime has thrown at them.

Demonstrations defied expectations on Tuesday, packing Cairo's Tahrir Square with hundreds of thousands of protesters. Human Rights Watch has said 297 people have been killed in the Egyptian turmoil.

Many first-time participants said they were inspired by a Google executive, fresh from 12 days in Egyptian jail, who appeared on TV the night before describing his detention and weeping over "martyrs" killed in the past two weeks of clashes. Wael Ghonim's release and appearance in Tahrir invigorated the protesters ahead of another huge rally planned for Friday.

"It was just the most packed Tahrir has ever been," protester Mohamed Radwan told AOL News by phone from Cairo today. "I don't think the momentum is waning, I think it's building up. You'll see people taking a break today, but they are gearing up for Friday."

While protesters show little sign of exhaustion, the question is whether they'll achieve their aim -- to oust Egypt's leader of 30 years -- or whether they will increasingly become a fixture of life in downtown Cairo, cordoned off from a society that is largely returning to normalcy. As evacuees return and tour buses idle outside the famed Egypt Museum, tourists might snap photos of the protesters' encampment -- a novelty and remnant of revolutionary days gone by -- and then continue on their tour.
Protesters would likely be disheartened by a comparison to nearby Lebanon, where anti-government protesters flooded downtown Beirut in late 2006, seeking to peacefully topple the U.S.- and Saudi-backed government there. They stayed put for 18 months, and government business went on largely uninterrupted. Clashes eventually broke out and a new national unity government was formed, but under the same prime minister the protesters opposed.

"In Lebanon, the demonstrations didn't change anything. People power is overrated," Nadim Shehadi, a Middle East expert at London's Chatham House think tank, told AOL News. "But there's a big difference between Lebanon and Egypt, and Tunis for that matter," he said, referring to the popular uprising that toppled neighboring Tunisia's autocratic regime last month.

"In Egypt, there's all this stuff going on, but nothing much is changing. In the end, it could fizzle out, or people could realize this is the regime doing its old tricks again," Shehadi said. "This regime has been under pressure to reform since the early 1990s ... and they are very good at doing pseudo-reforms and fooling people -- doing cosmetic stuff that doesn't amount to much," he said. "But the people are also used to the same tricks."
Some of those so-called "tricks" by Egypt's government included deploying the secret police, in plainclothes, to attack unarmed protesters and journalists last week. The tactic largely backfired, sparking an outcry from foreign governments and aid groups alike. Afterward, the government begrudgingly announced more press freedoms, but no change has been seen yet.

All of this motivates Egypt's pro-democracy movement even more. But while demonstrators don't lack motivation, they do need some other things to sustain them: a bit of money, food and water during those long parched days in Tahrir Square.
"At one point, there was a shortage of food, but an immense show of support came out from people. They drove right up to the checkpoint with their cars, opening up their trunks and offloading food, medical supplies and water," Radwan said.

How long that makeshift supply chain can go on remains to be seen. At first, the pro-democracy rallies across Egypt were paired with a public sector strike, in which workers at factories and other government enterprises walked off the job. Those industries include government bakeries supplying the cheap bread on which Egypt's poor masses subsist, and the fear was that if the strikes went on much longer, food shortages could put lives in danger.

Most workers have now been back on the job for several days, and Mubarak's government announced a 15 percent pay raise for public sector workers on Monday. The salary boost is good news for Egypt's working poor, but many decried it as an attempt by the government to bribe workers for their support.
Some of the protesters are unemployed, and others said they consider themselves as such after two weeks off the job.

"I work for an Egyptian company, and I was told to try to make it to the office as soon as possible, but I haven't been yet," Radwan said, laughing. "I guess you could say I have my priorities." (Lauren Frayer - AOL Contributor)


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