Two days ago, no serious cloud marred the stable outlook of Hosni Mubarak's long-lasting pro-Western regime in Cairo.
Then, Wednesday, Jan. 26, Egypt had to place its security and intelligence services on Level D, the highest ever for the close to a million officers serving in these agencies, to control the violent anti-government riots shaking the regime since Tuesday from cities across the country.
This was the last alert level before the president, who is personally targeted by the protesters, faces his final option of calling in the army to restore order.
Armored divisions are already on emergency standby as the street battles flaring in Suez, the main port town of the Suez Canal, and Cairo carried over Thursday to those cities, Alexandria, Ismailia and for the first time crossed the Suez Canal to ignite the Sinai mining town of Bir Sweid. There at least one death is reported and several other casualties.
The authorities are braced for Friday (Jan. 28) when prayers in the mosques could dramatically swell the running street demonstrations by hundreds of thousands.
Security agents received their first order to fire directly into the crowds Wednesday after the helmeted riot police in Suez were pelted with makeshift stun and smoke grenades and petrol bombs were used to torch government buildings and the ruling party's local headquarters.
Dozens were killed or wounded – no official figures have been released for Suez, although one demonstrator and one policeman were reported dead in Cairo raising the fatality figure to six.
But the unrest was not quelled. Thursday, rumors of a police "massacre against civilians" drew angry demonstrators back to the streets of Suez. They burned down a police station after its inmates fled and mobbed a second one to demand the release of more than 70 relatives.
Our sources put the total number of detainees so far at 3,000 of which the government admits a third.
Armored divisions buttressed for Friday prayers
By employing an iron fist against journalists and foreign correspondents – including threats on their lives – Cairo has by and large managed to keep the full picture of the turbulence in Suez and other outlying towns out of the media.
But our sources report that the police, backed by large contingents of security personnel, fired live bullets Wednesday not only in Suez but in Cairo too, to stem the surge of thousands of protesters streaming toward Liberation Square that night. They explained the sounds of shots by claiming police fired into the air.
Egyptian defense minister, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, has meanwhile buttressed the two armored divisions transferred to Cairo with a third for Friday prayers (January 28) in the mosques.
In other parts of Egypt, long armored convoys were on the move, including tank carriers. But information from the street battles reported in southern Nile Delta cities and in the towns along the Red Sea coast is sketchy.
Mubarak this week dispatched the defense minister to Washington to ask for US backing for his embattled regime. According to our Washington sources, Tantawi's bid found the Obama administration in the process of pulling in its horns from the Middle East and therefore disinclined to respond.
The Mubarak regime, headed by an ailing 82-year president who has been in power for three decades and has no visible successor, is therefore on its own. He depends for survival on the answers to four big questions:
Will the military refuse to shoot protesters a la Tunis?
1. Who will cave in first – the leaderless opposition demonstrators or Egyptian security forces?
As of now, neither side looks like snapping. On the contrary, hundreds of demonstrators, mostly young people, continue to stream into the streets for the third day running, undeterred by mass arrests or prosecution for violating the official ban on public gatherings. Indeed, spirits were further inflamed Thursday by rumors of a police massacre of civilians in the port town of Suez.
Their numbers were still not large enough to veer out of the security forces’ control. The largest rallies in Cairo, Alexandria and Suez deployed between 15,000 and 30,000 protesters. But what happens in a country of more than 80 million inhabitants when the figures swell to hundreds of thousands, all on the streets at the same time – or even, in the big cities, to millions?
No one can answer that.
2. When will the security forces start cracking and officers begin jumping over to the protesters or refusing to fight them, as happened in Tunis?
3. How will the military respond to an order to march into the cities and battle the demonstrators?
Will all the unit commanders obey their supreme commander Field Marshal Tantawi who is after all a stalwart of the hated Mubarak regime, aged 76, ill and not popular with the young officers?
Or, again like in Tunisia, will they disobey orders to fire on the rioters?
The Muslim Brotherhood must decide if they are in or out
4. An even bigger conundrum is presented by the fence-sitting Muslim Brotherhood movement, the largest, best organized and most potent power on the Egyptian street. So far, its leaders have not come out in support of the protest movement or the government and its members are waiting to be told what to do. But, according to our sources in Cairo, if the protest momentum carries over into next week, the Brotherhood will be under pressure to take a clear stand between joining and staying aloof. Friday prayers may confront them with young worshippers pulled into the movement.
Missing the right moment carries the risk of secular forces taking control of an unfolding revolution and leaving the Muslims on the sidelines once again. The Muslim Brotherhood, which held one-fifth of the seats in the last parliament and lost its representation after the 2010 election, would again be left without real power in government.
On the other hand, the Brotherhood, which has never directly challenged the Mubarak regime until now, is powerful enough to seal its fate by throwing in its lot with the protesters.
LAST MINUTE BREAKING NEWS: The Muslim Brotherhood has just ordered its millions of followers to join the protest movement.