A DAY of prayer or a day of rage? All Egypt was waiting for the Muslim Sabbath today -- not to mention Egypt's fearful allies -- as the country's ageing president clings to power after nights of violence that have shaken America's faith in the stability of the Mubarak regime.
Seven people have so far been killed and almost 1,000 others have been imprisoned, police have beaten women and, for the first time, an office of the ruling National Democratic Party was set on fire. Rumours are as dangerous as tear gas here. A Cairo daily has been claiming that one of President Hosni Mubarak's top advisers has fled to London with 97 suitcases of cash, but other reports speak of an enraged president shouting at senior police officers for not dealing more harshly with demonstrators.
Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel prize-winning former UN official, flew back to Egypt last night but no one believes -- except perhaps the Americans -- that he can become a focus for the protest movements that have sprung up across the country.
Already there have been signs that those tired of Mubarak's corrupt and undemocratic rule have been trying to persuade the ill-paid policemen patrolling Cairo to join them. "Brothers! Brothers! How much do they pay you?" one of the crowds began shouting at the cops in Cairo. But no one is negotiating -- there is nothing to negotiate except the departure of Mubarak, and the Egyptian government says and does nothing, which is pretty much what it has been doing for the past three decades.
The barren, horrible truth, however, is that save for its brutal police force and its ominously docile army the government is powerless. This is revolution by Twitter and revolution by Facebook, and technology long ago took away the dismal rules of censorship.
Mubarak's men seem to have lost all sense of initiative. Their party newspapers are filled with self-delusion, pushing the massive demonstrations to the foot of front pages as if this will keep the crowds from the streets -- as if, indeed, that by belittling the story, the demonstrations never happened.
But you don't need to read the papers to see what has gone wrong. The filth and the slums, the open sewers and the corruption of every government official, the bulging prisons, the laughable elections, the whole vast, sclerotic edifice of power has at last brought Egyptians on to their streets.
There are more than 80 million people in Egypt, 30 per cent of them under 20. And they are no longer afraid.
And a kind of Egyptian nationalism -- rather than Islamism -- is making itself felt at the demonstrations.
January 25 was National Police Day -- to honour the police force who died fighting British troops in Ishmaelia -- and the government clucked its tongue at the crowds, telling them they were disgracing their martyrs. No, shouted the crowds, those policemen who died at Ishmaelia were brave men, not represented by their descendants in uniform today.
This is not an unclever government, though. There is a kind of shrewdness in the gradual freeing of the press and television of this ramshackle pseudo-democracy. Egyptians had been given just enough air to breathe, to keep them quiet, to enjoy their docility in this vast farming land.
"We are proud of the Tunisians -- they have shown Egyptians how to have pride," an Egyptian colleague said yesterday. "They were inspiring but the regime here was smarter than Ben Ali in Tunisia. It provided a veneer of opposition by not arresting all the Muslim Brotherhood, then by telling the Americans that the great fear should be Islamism, that Mubarak was all that stood between them and 'terror' -- a message the US has been in a mood to hear for the past 10 years."
But the vast number of arrests, the police street beatings -- of women as well as men -- and the near-collapse of the Egyptian stock market bear the marks of panic rather than cunning.
And one of the problems has been created by the regime itself -- it has systematically got rid of anyone with charisma, thrown them out of the country, politically emasculating any real opposition by imprisoning many of them.
The Americans and the EU are telling the regime to listen to the people, but who are these people, who are their leaders? This is not an Islamic uprising -- though it looks like becoming one with indications yesterday that the Muslim Brotherhood was joining the demonstrations -- it is just one mass of Egyptians stifled by decades of failure and humiliation.
But all the Americans seem able to offer Mubarak is a suggestion of reforms -- something Egyptians have heard many times before.
Interestingly, there seems no animosity towards foreigners. Many journalists have been protected by the crowds and there has not so far been a single US flag burned. That shows you what is new. Perhaps a people have grown up -- only to discover that their ageing government are all children. (© Independent News Service)