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CAIRO - Hundreds of people instantly filled broad Qasar al-Eini Street, the site of the Egyptian parliament. Some pulled mobile phones from their pockets to photograph the scene. Some stood frozen as they watched firefighters attempt to extinguish with a single hose the fire that raged on the third floor of the parliament. Another small fire truck and another container of water arrived slowly, followed long minutes later by a helicopter, which hovered above the building. Then, another fire truck slowly made its way and another hose was opened. Everything took place as if filmed in slow motion. Very slow motion. And the public continued to stand in obedience, watching and taking pictures as the building that housed their nation's representatives went up in flames, covering Cairo with a thick, black cloud.

"An electrical short," the government told journalists, who faithfully recorded their words.

"How is it possible that the government can't put out a fire in its own building?" wondered a passer-by.

"It's not that the government can't put it out. They burned the building," pronounced another. "All of the evidence and corruption went up in flames. An electrical short. Right."

The following day, the government hastily announced the establishment of an investigative committee and Mubarak's commitment to restore the building during his term.

"Do you know the joke about Mubarak's term?" asked Osama, a banker and economics professor, whom I met one day after the fire. "In 2090, Mubarak delivers his 30th inaugural address. His family members are no longer alive. Nor are the people who watched the fire. And he tells the public, 'I told you this is not Syria. We do not pass the government down from father to son.'"

This fire was recorded in the public consciousness as a more disturbing symbol than major catastrophes like crashing trains, collapsing buildings or skyrocketing food costs. It was the parliament that was destroyed. The public's sense of alienation from, and frustration with, its government reached a new peak. One cannot measure such things by random prevailing opinion, but these feelings appear to be mounting.

A week before the fire, the relatively independent daily "Almasry-Alyoum" published an article by chief editor Majdi al-Jallad entitled "The problem with national security." It describes the editor's meeting with three educated young men - a pharmacology graduate, a law graduate and a business student. One of them said he had engaged in a conversation in which a fundamental question arose. "What would happen if Israel recaptured the Sinai Peninsula? Would you fight to defend the homeland?" One of them immediately said that, of course, he would. The second was also quick to answer that he would not. The third said, "I have to think about it. It's possible that I would not."

"I asked the one who said no to explain his statement," al-Jallad wrote, "and he answered that a man goes to war to defend a homeland which he feels is his own, a nation which provides him with warmth and security, and a government which implements justice and equality."

That article garnered many responses. Many of them agreed with the young men who said they would not go to war to defend the nation, while some disagreed. A few days later, the newspaper devoted an entire page to the question, "Are youth faithful to the homeland?" The question was posed to a few prominent, Egyptian intellectuals.

"This is a tragedy that has never before visited Egypt," says leading playwright Osama Anwar Okasha. He maintains that about 100,000 young Egyptians "are willing to work even in Israel to restore the honor that poverty and unemployment robbed from them." The possibility that a large number of Egyptians are prepared to "break from normalization" and work in Israel concerns the speakers.

A few days later, a newspaper editor asked me if I knew how many Egyptians live in Israel, and if they really serve in the army. When I responded that I did not know precisely how many Egyptians live in Israel, he insisted, "Are there tens of thousands or merely thousands?"

Farida al-Nakash, editor of the leftist, opposition "Al-Ahaly" newspaper, said in the same article that "the regime's security is thoroughly preserved. The current crisis is the security of the homeland. This regime is incapable of protecting anyone but itself, its people and their fortunes deposited beyond the nation's borders. Their planes are ready at any moment, and their palaces are buttressed... Thus, the profound gap between the public and the regime was created, while the public and particularly the poor are exposed to the cannons, the cannons of the high cost of living, the cannons of tragedies, and the cannons of unemployment."

This is a crisis of identity and consequently a crisis of identification. The article asks: "When the pen or the gum that children use is produced in China, and a young man wears a shirt printed with the flag of the United States and cuts his hair to suit the fashion of stars in Europe, why demand that he be an Egyptian and feel that he belongs to this nation?"

Veteran actor Hamdi Ahmed said, "The lack of identity has transformed the nation into a supermarket. Can you expect someone to sacrifice his life for a supermarket? Your only relations with the supermarket are that you a buy a few products there that you can acquire anywhere else."

"The problem is that the nation accustomed its citizens to expecting that it would fulfill all their demands," Osama the banker explained, "as if there is an agreement between the nation and its citizens that it would provide them with homes and places of employment, and they would supply it with obedience and silence. The real problem begins when young people understand that the nation cannot supply everything. It is too weak and too poor and they are willing to take the matter into their own hands. The meaning of that usually involves standing in line to obtain a visa in one of the consulates in order to leave for another country. But then they are accused of betraying their homeland, and the biggest betrayal is attempting to work in Israel. What does the editor of Almasry-Alyoum want, that the nation provide them with everything? That it continue Gamal Abdel Nasser's policy, which promised hills and mountains and caused a crisis?"

When I told an Egyptian friend what the banker had said, he listened attentively and responded, "That sounds like someone from the government party. Now, they are trying to shirk responsibility. They don't care that young people are leaving their homeland. The most important thing is that they don't blame them." By the way, his son is studying at a university in England."