Caged yesterday inside a new army cordon of riot-visored troops and coils of barbed wire – the very protection which Washington had demanded for the protesters of Tahrir Square – the tens of thousands of young Egyptians demanding Hosni Mubarak's overthrow have taken the first concrete political steps to create a new nation to replace the corrupt government which has ruled them for 30 years.
Sitting on filthy pavements, amid the garbage and broken stones of a week of street fighting, they have drawn up a list of 25 political personalities to negotiate for a new political leadership and a new constitution to replace Mubarak's crumbling regime.
They include Amr Moussa, the secretary general of the Arab League – himself a trusted Egyptian; the Nobel prize-winner Ahmed Zuwail, an Egyptian-American who has advised President Barack Obama; Mohamed Selim Al-Awa, a professor and author of Islamic studies who is close to the Muslim Brotherhood; and the president of the Wafd party, Said al-Badawi.
Other nominees for the committee, which was supposed to meet the Egyptian Vice-President, Omar Suleiman, within 24 hours, are Nagib Suez, a prominent Cairo businessman (involved in the very mobile phone systems shut down by Mubarak last week); Nabil al-Arabi, an Egyptian UN delegate; and even the heart surgeon Magdi Yacoub, who now lives in Cairo.
The selection – and the makeshift committee of Tahrir Square demonstrators and Facebook and Twitter "electors" – has not been confirmed, but it marks the first serious attempt to turn the massive street protests of the past seven days into a political machine that provides for a future beyond the overthrow of the much-hated President. The committee's first tasks would be to draw up a new Egyptian constitution and an electoral system that would prevent the president-for-life swindle which Mubarak's fraudulent elections have created. Instead, Egyptian presidents would be limited to two consecutive terms of office, and the presidential term itself would be reduced from six to four years.
But no one involved in this initiative has any doubts of the grim future that awaits them if their brave foray into practical politics fails. There was more sniping into Tahrir Square during the night – an engineer, a lawyer and another young man were killed – and plain-clothes police were again discovered in the square. There were further minor stone-throwing battles during the day, despite the vastly increased military presence, and most of the protesters fear that if they leave the square they will immediately be arrested, along with their families, by Mubarak's cruel state security apparatus.
Already, there are dark reports of demonstrators who dared to return home and disappeared. The Egyptian writer Mohamed Fadel Fahmy, who is involved in the committee discussions, is fearful for himself. "We're safe as long as we have the square," he said to me yesterday, urging me to publish his name as a symbol of the freedom he demands. "If we lose the square, Mubarak will arrest all the opposition groups – and there will be police rule as never before. That's why we are fighting for our lives."
The state security police now have long lists of names of protesters who have given television interviews or been quoted in newspapers, Facebook postings and tweets.
The protesters have identified growing divisions between the Egyptian army and the thugs of the interior ministry, whose guards exchanged fire with soldiers three days ago as they continued to occupy the building in which basement torture chambers remain undamaged by the street fighting. These were the same rooms of horror to which America's "renditioned" prisoners were sent for "special" treatment at the hands of Mubarak's more sadistic torturers – another favour which bound the Egyptian regime to the United States as a "trusted" ally.
Another young man involved in the committee selections admitted he didn't trust Omar Suleiman, the former spy boss and Israeli-Palestinian negotiator whom Mubarak appointed this week. Suleiman it is, by the way, who has been trying to shuffle responsibility for the entire crisis on to the foreign press – a vicious as well as dishonest way of exercising his first days of power. Yet he has cleverly outmanoeuvred the demonstrators in Tahrir Square by affording them army protection.
Indeed, yesterday morning, to the shock of all of us standing on the western side of the square, a convoy of 4x4s with blackened windows suddenly emerged from the gardens of the neighbouring Egyptian Museum, slithered to a halt in front of us and was immediately surrounded by a praetorian guard of red-bereted soldiers and massive – truly gigantic – security guards in shades and holding rifles with telescopic sights. Then, from the middle vehicle emerged the diminutive, bespectacled figure of Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the chief of staff of the Egyptian army and a lifelong friend of Mubarak, wearing a soft green military kepi and general's cross-swords insignia on his shoulders.
Here was a visitor to take the breath away, waving briefly to the protesters who crowded the military cordon to witness this extraordinary arrival. The crowd roared. "The Egyptian army is our army," they shouted in unison. "But Mubarak is not ours." It was a message for Tantawi to take back to his friend Mubarak, but his visit was itself a powerful political symbol. However much Mubarak may rave about "foreign hands" behind the demands for his overthrow, and however many lies Suleiman may tell about foreign journalists, Tantawi was showing that the army took its mission to protect the demonstrators seriously. The recent military statement that it would never fire on those who wish to dethrone Mubarak, since their grievances were "legitimate", was authorised by Tantawi. Hence the demonstrators' belief – however naïve and dangerous – in the integrity of the military.
Crucially missing from the list of figures proposed for the committee are Mohamed ElBaradei, the former UN arms inspectors and Nobel laureate, and members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the "Islamist" spectre which Mubarak and the Israelis always dangled in front of the Americans to persuade them to keep old Mubarak in power. The Brotherhood's insistence in not joining talks until Mubarak's departure – and their support for ElBaradei, whose own faint presidential ambitions (of the "transitional" kind) have not commended themselves to the protesters – effectively excluded them. Suleiman has archly invited the Brotherhood to meet him, knowing that they will not do so until Mubarak has gone.
But al-Awa's proposed presence on the committee – and that of the Islamist intellectual Ahmed Kamel Abu Magd – will ensure that their views are included in any discussions with Suleiman. These talks would also cover civil and constitutional rights and a special clause to allow Suleiman to rule Egypt temporarily because "the President is unable to perform his duties".
Mubarak would be allowed to live privately in Egypt providing he played no part – publicly or covertly – in the political life of the country. He is regarded as a still-fierce opponent who will not hesitate to decapitate the opposition should he hang on to power.
"He is one of the old school, like Saddam and Arafat, who in the last two days has shown his true face," another committee supporter said yesterday. "He is the man behind the attacks on us and the shooting deaths." Mohamed Fahmy knows what this means. His own father has been in exile from Egypt for seven years – after proposing identical protests to those witnessed today to get rid of the Mubarak empire.
Egypt's day in brief
Cairo’s curfew has been reduced by three hours. People must be off the streets between 7pm and 6am instead of 5pm and 7am.
Al Jazeera offices torched
The Cairo offices of Al Jazeera were stormed and set alight. The broadcaster blamed supporters of President Mubarak for trying to hinder its coverage, adding that its website was also hacked. Last week, authorities closed the office and revoked credentials of its reporters.
Egypt economy slumps
Egypt’s economy has lost at least $3.1bn due to the crisis, investment bank Crédit Agricole said yesterday. The unrest has closed businesses and banks, and thousands of tourists have fled. The bank said the crisis is costing Egypt at least $310m per day, and said the Egyptian pound could depreciate by 20 per cent.
Obama criticises intelligence
President Obama sent a note bemoaning failure of US intelligence to predict crises in Tunisia and Egypt, AP reported.
What happens next?
If the President decides that the voices calling for his arrest, trial and even execution are gaining sway at the highest levels, he could take advantage of the rumoured offers of asylum, and disappear. But this is the least likely possibility. If he was ready to go, he would most likely have done so already, when the seriousness of the protests first became clear. His speech this week showed he was determined to go on his own terms.
The preferred solution of the Western powers, in particular the US, which has been leading demands that "an orderly transition must begin now". For Mr Mubarak to agree he would have to be convinced that he would be able to step down in a "dignified" fashion. The most likely catalyst will be the senior echelons of the army, especially now that Mr Mubarak has given the US short shrift. If he were to go, his Vice-President, Omar Suleiman, would take charge of a transitional government, including opposition elements, ahead of new elections.
Protests fizzle out
Some supporters of Mr Mubarak will be heartened that, for all the sound and fury of the protesters, they have so far failed to force the President's hand. The longer the protests go on, the less likely it is that he will exit suddenly. Even some of Mr Mubarak's worst enemies are arguing that he should be allowed to carry on until September. Those who want him out now will argue that a lot can change before his mooted departure – and may fear violent reprisals once they lose the protection of the army. Such a scenario could probably materialise only if the Egyptian military and the US conclude that it is the best case.
The clashes in Tahrir Square in central Cairo on Wednesday hinted at the bloodshed that could unfold if the regime decided it had a chance to cling on to power by crushing the opposition. But that possibility has probably diminished as the protests have widened. Any state-sponsored attack on citizens would meet with outrage and strong action from the West, probably including the withdrawal of the US aid on which Mr Mubarak relies.