egypt - AFP - February 6 2011
A wounded Egyptian anti-government protester joins fellow demonstrators for prayers at Tahrir Square on Friday. Photo by AFP
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One of the most interesting developments in Cairo's Tahrir Squre over the weekend was the request made yesterday by an Egyptian commander, who asked the crowds to disperse "to save Egypt." The general stood before the masses, in a scene free from violence or confrontation, imploring the people in the square to go home. But they refused his entreaties, responding with: "The people want Mubarak out."

Opponents of the regime, as well as the country as a whole, are entering a dangerous interim phase - one in which no dramatic developments or decisions will be made. Time is working against the opposition, and against Egypt itself. By deciding on Friday not to march on the presidential palace, and to stay instead in Tahrir Square, the opposition decided to forgo driving Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak out by force.

For its part, the army has allowed masses to assemble in the square and has not interfered there, on the reasonable assumption that the hundreds of thousands who gathered on Friday, which reduced to tens of thousands yesterday, will thin out to just thousands during the course of the week, until the protests there finally dissipate altogether.

But in the meantime, Egypt has been paralyzed. Every day that the country's institutions fail to function, the economy suffers huge losses.

The opposition is also in distress for a variety of reasons, of which exhaustion is only one. The demonstrations have already raged for 12 days, some more violent, some less. The most central problem for opponents of the Mubarak regime, however, is the absence of a unified central leadership that can set goals and strategies.

The former head of the IAEA, Mohamed ElBaradei, is not particularly charismatic and despite his efforts to portray himself as a future president, he has not managed to unite the opposition. Some see him as a foreign transplant, someone who jumped on the bandwagon and linked himself too quickly with the Muslim Brotherhood.

A clear divide is also apparent within the ranks of the opposition, between the small secular organizations represented in the parliament on the one hand, and the Muslim Brotherhood and 26 smaller organizations leading protests on the square on the other. While the organizations that participated in the elections have now agreed to negotiate reforms with newly appointed Vice President Omar Suleiman in advance of proposed September elections, the other camp has given no such consent. One of leaders of the demonstrations in the square, Mohammed Al-Hadiri, has said the protesters will remain in the square until Mubarak is driven out completely.

A group of young demonstrators has made an effort to close ranks by appointing a committee that will represent them - including ElBaradei, Arab League chief Amr Moussa and Nobel Prize-winnning chemist Ahmed Zewail - none of whom have concealed their desire to run for president at the appropriate time.

In addition, members of the so-called "moderate" opposition have also been exposed to the rhetoric of Muslim Brotherhood spokesmen, such as Rashad al-Bayoumi, who has argued that after Mubarak departs and a temporary government is installed, the peace treaty with Israel must be rescinded. Some secular opponents of the regime understand the price Egypt will pay "the day after" - in the form of the rising political power of the Islamic factions.