Massive protests continued in Cairo's Tahrir Square Tuesday in the drive to shatter the repressive rule of President Hosni Mubarak. But after 15 days of demonstrations, the regime, backed by the powerful and disciplined army, seemed more entrenched than ever.
The spontaneous and largely peaceful opposition has sparked hope around the world that a new wave of democracy was at last sweeping the Arab world's autocracies. But even as tens of thousands of Egyptians jammed into the square Tuesday -- the size of the crowd carefully controlled by army checkpoints -- it looked increasingly as if the regime has masterfully manipulated the country's deep demands for change.
A lot could go wrong in the days ahead: A critical concern is that rising frustration in the streets will elevate extremists who so far have not taken a leading role. But for now, many analysts say, it looks as if Egypt's "Days of Rage," and the hope for dramatic democratic change, will sputter to an inconclusive end.
"Despite the tenacity, optimism and blood of the protesters massed in Tahrir Square,
Egypt's democratic window has probably already closed,'' writes Joshua Stacher, a Kent State University political scientist, in the journal Foreign Affairs
. What seems to be under way in Egypt, Stacher wrote, "is more likely to usher in a return to the repressive status quo than an era of widening popular participation.''
In tacit recognition of the shift in their fortunes, the demonstrators renamed the "Days of Rage'' protest, calling instead for a "Week of Steadfastness.''
The regime, meanwhile, continued its efforts to co-opt the demonstrators, announcing Tuesday that Mubarak had selected a committee to help rewrite the constitution to accommodate demands for democratic change. The promised reforms include opening the process by which presidential candidates are chosen, a key demand of the protesters.
By offering such minor concessions -- Mubarak, 82, also has promised to step down in September -- the regime appears to have sapped the resistance of many ordinary Egyptians.
It is still possible that the man who has led Egypt for 30 years will meet the protesters' demand and leave earlier, a trump card Mubarak still holds. Played at the right time, a dramatic departure off center stage and into the wings could save the regime while significantly deflating the opposition.
But for now, the Mubarak government is working to present an air of normalcy
by opening banks, encouraging daily commerce, and announcing the Egyptian stock market will reopen Sunday. Traffic jams have reappeared in Cairo, raising their customary clouds of dust and clamor.
In another masterly stroke, the government promised a 15 percent pay raise to its six million employees -- but not until April, giving six million people a stake in the continued survival of the Mubarak regime.
Mubarak has also retained firm control of all state-run media
, using it deftly as a tool against the opposition. Egyptian TV, for instance, said the demonstrators in Tahrir Square were receiving free fast food, a false report that seemed likely to infuriate the vast majority of Egyptians who are not demonstrating but scrambling to work and feed their families.
As for the "orderly transition'' Mubarak promised, it is under the direction of Omar Suleiman, the Mubarak crony and former intelligence chief whom Mubarak named as vice president last week.
Speaking on state-run television Tuesday, Suleiman said Mubarak has named a steering committee to implement political reforms and ordered a commission of inquiry into the violence that erupted last week between pro- and anti-Mubarak demonstrators.
It is widely believed the government itself sparked the violence, sending squads of plainclothes police into Tahrir Square in several hours of bloody fighting, until the army intervened on behalf of the demonstrators. Throughout the days of protest, the regime has been careful to keep the demonstrations under control, while convincing the demonstrators that the army is on their side.
Suleiman said Tuesday that Mubarak praised the protesters, saying they deserve "national appreciation ... they should not be detained, harassed or denied their freedom of expression.'' And, he said, Mubarak "welcomed the national consensus,'' apparently referring to the discussions on potential political reforms he has engineered with selected members of the opposition. ''We are putting our feet on the right path to getting out of the current crisis,'' Suleiman quoted Mubarak as saying.
That confidence could be shaken, however, by the economic damage that grows the longer the demonstrations continue.
"The Egyptian economy is in free fall,'' said Salman Shaikh
, an expert on Middle East democratic reform at the Brookings Institution's Doha Center. He said the foundations of the Egyptian economy -- foreign trade, tourism, banking and trade services -- "have all been paralyzed,'' with some foreign investors having closed their Cairo offices. Egypt's credit rating has been downgraded to two levels below investment grade, he said.
Meanwhile in Washington Tuesday, the performance of the army as a force for stability won it kind words from Defense Secretary Robert Gates. He said the Egyptian military "has conducted itself in an exemplary fashion during this entire episode.
"Frankly,'' Gates told reporters at the Pentagon, "they have done everything that we have indicated we would hope that they would do . . . they have made a contribution to the evolution of democracy.''
Also in Washington, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs called again for "a process that takes place without delay and produces immediate and irreversible results.'' But when asked whether Mubarak should accelerate his departure, Gibbs repeated: "We are not here to determine who leads Egypt and when they lead Egypt. That's a -- that is a problem that only Egyptians can solve.''
But Gibbs also expressed confidence that the demonstrators will prevail.
"The people of Egypt are not going back,'' he said. "They've moved forward and they're going to continue to move forward and they're going to need to see progress from their government.''
But the ability of the Mubarak regime so far to hang on to power despite domestic and international pressure is not what the United States expected.