Beyond Tahrir: Two faces of Egypt
You only have to hear and see the two men for a few minutes to understand what is at stake in Egypt. On the one hand there is vice-president , with his clipped moustache and beautifully cut suits. Clearly intelligent, but also inherently slippery, his words are intended to be reassuring, but every now and then there is a hint of menace. He may well be less wily and less in control than he likes to appear, as our story today on the state of negotiations suggests, but this is still the face of a survivor, a fixer, and a believer in the authority over others of old foxes like himself which his own body language so obviously conveys.
Look at the other face, that of Wael Ghonim, the young activist who has some claim to have triggered the Egyptian uprising with his Facebook postings. It is almost bashful, even shy. There is no guile there. His insistence on the diverse nature of the protest movement and his refusal to grab at a leadership role show a pleasing modesty. His honesty in admitting that his own hopes had not initially included the removal of President Mubarak, his care to underline the fact that he was not ill-treated while in detention, and the emotion he displayed when shown pictures of some of those who died in Tahrir Square – all these speak of an open heart and an open mind.
His appearance on on Monday night is certainly one reason why protesters went to Tahrir Square on Tuesday in such numbers. On the very day when the old regime was hoping the revolution would run out of steam, it instead gathered fresh strength. But Tahrir is now as much a cul-de-sac politically as it has become physically. It cannot be abandoned by the protesters because it is symbolically too important, yet just being in Tahrir is not enough. On the other hand, the regime cannot clear the square by the use of force because that would be the wrong kind of victory for them. Some protesters now want to march to parliament or to the headquarters of . They may do so, but the real struggle is now as much about information as location.
In a quasi-authoritarian society like Egypt most people did not believe in the government-controlled media in any simple way. And they knew that they could expect little in the way of authenticity or sincerity there. But they studied it nevertheless for coded versions of what was happening. Now a stronger parallel media may be emerging, at the same time as those sections of the old media which had a degree of independence are getting bolder, and cracks are appearing even in the monolithic face of regime stalwarts like Al-Ahram. The return of to the Egyptian airwaves this week, a concession the regime almost had to make, will reinforce this process.
Suleiman's first reaction was to try to seize control of the political narrative. With his allegations of foreign interference, he attempted to portray the protesters as innocents being used by malign outside forces. With his accounts of harmonious encounters with opposition groups, implying a general agreement on how to proceed was just round the corner, he tried to suggest a process of reconciliation was well under way. With his constant references to the president's wishes, and his juggling with paper committees, he tried to project a non-existent consensus on the need for Mr Mubarak to remain.
Not everything Suleiman has to say is wrong, but the version of events which he, and the regime more generally, offer is tendentious. The fact that it is now so contested is a hopeful development. The allegations about army mistreatment of protesters which we report today, for instance, could shift popular understanding about the real position of the military and affect events in a way not possible before. The people of can now look from one face to another and decide on their own which they are most ready to trust.