As hundreds of thousands of Egyptians, perhaps even a million or more, converge once again towards Tahrir Square in Cairo the immediate question is whether once more they will be attacked by regime supporters and paid thugs.
Of course Tahrir Square is only the tip of the pyramid of protests that has built up across the country, especially on a Friday when people after gathering for prayer in the mosques necessarily return to the streets in numbers sufficient to form demonstrations. In spite of violent and vicious attacks by regime supporters against journalists covering events in Tahrir Square and elsewhere, Egyptian and foreign alike, events in central Cairo and the possible renewal attacks against peaceful demonstrators there will be covered and documented better than elsewhere in the country.
Representatives of the regime may have understood that such violence will weaken them even further internationally, but the question is whether they can and want to control numerous constituencies in the party, the policy and elsewhere who benefited from the regime and now fear the days of reckoning. After all, these constituencies may be needed later when some power sharing agreement with the opposition might be have to negotiated. The announcement of a day of loyalty serves the same purpose.
The larger question of course remain the future of the current regime, attempts to engineer the departure of president Mubarak and the transition to some yet undefined new regime that may well include people and forces associated with the old regime.
US, European and other official statements from abroad so far called for a transition, not openly for the departure of Mubarak. Under additional pressure from behind the scene he promised not to stand in the September presidential elections, nor to support his son Gamal as his possible successor.
His own view of the world, largely shaped by a long military career, may heighten his fear of chaos after his departure as relayed by Christiane Amanpour; it may also prevent him from understanding that his regime created the chaos in the first place and that his continued if perhaps only temporary presence at the helm of the state will also contribute to further chaos.
He has lost all trust among the opposition and therefore cannot be above the fray – the necessary condition to avoid or stop chaos.
Much continues to depend on the traditional pillars of the regime, in particular the army and the police; the latter equals the former in numbers and disposes of some important hardware. At the same time, the attitude of the army, no doubt divided internally, will ultimately depend on where it sees it future lies. It may at present be negotiating the terms of its support for transition and the early retirement of president Mubarak.
Firm promises of military aid and a political arrangement that guarantees its role and interests, including numerous economic interests, may help. A Brazilian solution would no doubt suit many of the officers. The trouble of course is that this may be a realistic rather than a democratic solution.
In the immediate future and the medium term any meaningful transition will also crucially depend on the capacity of the fragmented opposition to coordinate their action. It will quickly have to turn from a coalition against to a coalition for.
If Mubarak steps down today, the opposition will still need to press its demands and through number, determination, and unity impress the remaining or new representatives of the regime. Not only will the army try and defend its interests. Even moving from neutrality to outright support of the protests would not make it a pro-democratic force.
The police will not be disbanded, and should this be the case the results will be similar to those of the dismemberment of the Iraqi army and Baath party. Lots of angry people would be around with lots of weapons. Of course Omar Sulayman, the new vice president, also needs to be taken into account, be it only for his vast intelligence network. The officially legalized parties have not much clout nor influence as the regime never allowed them to do more than simply exist.
The Muslim Brothers remain internally divided but are no doubt the only established opposition force that enjoys significant support in the population.
The 8 April movement and other protestors of the facebook generation may face some coordination and collective action problems once they move from organizing gatherings and demonstrations to collectively respond to offers by the regime, be they serious or simply tactical.
They – like the opposition at large - will have to decide how to respond to Omar Sulayman’s offer of a national dialogue, produce an agenda for change and the future of the country, elect their representatives and so forth.
The high degree of decentralization that characterizes their mode of action need not but may lead to attempts by some to outbid others and more general difficulties to act efficiently.
If Mubarak steps down later their efforts to coordinate and unite may show more substantial results, but the longer the regime lasts the more it may attempt and succeed in dividing the opposition. Highly articulate and educated and able to mobilize relevant knowledge and skills the members of the 8 April movement are no doubt aware of these perils and needs. Still, they have to move quickly to back up their current success with a degree of institutionalization, specialized committees, spokespeople and an explicit political agenda. Considering their abilities the latter would no doubt be far more interesting and promising that the generalities repeated by the regime party, the officially recognized opposition parties or the Muslim Brothers.