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Why Tahrir Is Not Tiananmen

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In Tahrir Square, are we going to witness Prague in 1968 or Beijing in 1989? Many commentators are speculating about an eventual violent clampdown on the Egyptian protests. The signs are all there, however, that this is rather the Arab equivalent of the fall of the Berlin Wall. There may be uncertain days ahead, but we are undoubtedly watching a new awakening in Cairo.

The scenes in Tahrir Square on Friday were as moving as any we saw in Prague, Beijing or Berlin. Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians from all walks of life, united in a demand for the end of President Hosni Mubarak's 30 years of authoritarian rule, praying toward Mecca and chanting "Egypt! Egypt! Egypt!" They waved hundreds of Egyptian flags and sang the Egyptian national anthem: "O my homeland, to you is my love and heart." In pouring into the heart of Cairo, they braved the threats of pro-regime gangs that unleashed violence just two days earlier.

The sheer numbers of demonstrators and their remarkable courage make a convincing case that the Egyptian freedom march is irreversible. Covering protests in Egypt as a reporter since 1985, I rarely saw a demonstration until now where protesters outnumbered the security forces surrounding them. With the fear barrier broken, and filled with determination and hope, the protesters now surge through Cairo and other Egyptian cities like a flood after a dam burst.

The backward reeling of the Mubarak regime deepens a conviction that the people's voice will inevitably bring fundamental change. The rapid public reversals of a staunchly autocratic, military-trained president are breathtaking for longtime Mubarak-watchers. And even if they remain insufficient for the protesters thus far, they signal a swift and profound recognition by Mubarak that things may never be the same again:

--Mubarak steadfastly declined to name a vice president for 30 years, apparently to prevent a potential rivalry, and then to create an opportunity for his son, Gamal, to take the reins of power. Within 24 hours of the massive January 28 protest, Mubarak sacked his government, named a new prime minister, and finally appointed a deputy, intelligence chief Omar Suleiman.

--Although he has been cagey about it, Mubarak had left little doubt that he intended to run for re-election to a sixth term in 2011, and that he was grooming his son, Gamal, to be a potential future president. This week, he announced that he would not run for re-election. Suleiman later said that Gamal Mubarak would not be a candidate, either.

--Mubarak always refused to lift the ban on the Muslim Brotherhood, arguing that it could lead to an Islamic revolution. Suleiman has now publicly invited the Brotherhood, along with other opposition groups, to join a "dialogue" between the government and the opposition.

--Mubarak permitted reform, but within strict limits. Indeed, the regime recently tightened control over the political space further. This week, however, Suleiman declared that the protesters' reform demands were "legitimate and reasonable," and that immediate steps would be undertaken to amend the constitution for better popular participation in Egypt's governance.

None of the changes and promises mean anything if the regime's true intention is to crush the protests. It has a reputation for repression of the opposition, from regular mass arrests of Islamists to the harassment and detentions of journalists and bloggers. But within days of the Tahrir Square protests, a spokesman for the Egyptian military went on state television to announce that force would not be used to quell them. Apart from a bizarre buzzing of Tahrir Square by two fighter jets, the military has shown no inclination to turn the area into another Tiananmen Square. The protesters, in turn, have indicated their appreciation for the military's patriotism. Suleiman has explained that the police, for their part, had been under instructions not to use live ammunition, and that when the crowds of protesters grew too large, they returned to their barracks. Whatever role the regime played in unleashing the pro-Mubarak gangs against the protesters on Wednesday, neither Mubarak nor Suleiman showed any public sympathy for their actions. To the contrary, the government announced an investigation into the episode.

The standoff continues, with the protesters insisting on their primary demand that Mubarak step down immediately, and not just at the end of his term, and the president refusing to do so. The end of the crisis may thus ultimately swing on whether Mubarak stays or goes. If the question then is whether Mubarak will insist on retaining power at any cost, the words spoken by Mubarak and Suleiman in interviews on Thursday hinted that the 82-year-old ruler is not necessarily be the fighter that he has portrayed himself to be.

In an address this week, Mubarak indicated that he would not flee and intended to die on Egyptian soil. But later he told ABC's Christiane Amanpour that he was "fed up" with being president and remained on the job because Egypt would descend into chaos without him. Suleiman, speaking to Egyptian television, affirmed that Mubarak would remain in office through the end of his term. He also agreed that reforms could not be implemented without a leader remaining at the top. Yet unlike Mubarak, he seemed to stress the importance of institutions over personalities. "The youth must trust the state," he said. "Egypt is a strong state of institutions."

With Egyptians united in support of their country, and respect for its institutions, a resolution to the standoff can and probably will be found without the use of further violence -- or the chaos Mubarak fears.

Scott MacLeod, Time's Middle East correspondent from 1995 to 2010, is managing editor of the Cairo Review of Global Affairs and a professor at the American University in Cairo.