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Beyond Tahrir Square, a turning point for Egypt awaits Add to ...

Ahmed Saleh never imagined that an uprising he helped foment would see hundreds of thousands of Egyptians take to the streets demanding their freedoms from a regime that once frightened them into silence by brutal force.

What happens next could mean the dawn of a true democracy or a descent into violence as demonstrators fear their sacrifices will result in the regime reasserting its power, said Mr. Saleh, who helped organize the uprising on Jan 25 along with dozens of other activists.

"It is a precarious situation," said the independent secular activist and former member of the April 6 Youth Movement.

"It can be a wonderful victory if we achieve a secular democracy based on equality between all people, institutions and a parliamentary republic. This would be an incredible example that would sweep through all the other Arab countries and even other Muslim countries. If this doesn't happen, if it fails, what is the option when non-violence fails? Only violence. Then we are not looking at a prosperous future, we are looking at a disastrous future for us and the whole world."

Mr. Saleh is part of a loose coalition of secular, middle-class democracy activists based in the Egyptian capital who for years have been speaking out against the regime on the Internet, in Cairo's independent press and abroad. He does not claim to be a leader of the movement, but one of the dozens of activists who helped organize the march on Jan. 25 that kicked off the protests.

The outcome of the uprising depends on Mr. Mubarak and his supporters in the international community, Mr. Saleh said.

Mr. Saleh expressed disappointment at the lack of strong support from U.S. President Barack Obama's administration, which appears to have softened its stand toward Mr. Mubarak in recent days.

"The international community must take its moral responsibility to compensate Egyptians for all the decades of support that was given to this dictatorship," he said, alluding to the $1.3-billion in military aid the United States sends Egypt every year.

The West must hold the regime to a timetable of change for a transitional government that includes all political groups, a new parliament and a rewritten constitution with consequences if it fails to do so, he said.

"Everything that is happening now is an attempt by the regime to gain time and to keep power. We need to start with a clean slate," he said, referring to the 15 per cent pay hike for the government employees that Mr. Mubarak announced earlier this week.

Tahrir Square has become the embodiment of the protesters' achievements, and Mr. Saleh said they will not go home without winning their primary demand for Mr. Mubarak to step down.

Mr. Saleh was thrown in jail on Jan. 25 and held for three days, during which he says the police broke his nose. He has a rubber bullet lodged in his head one centimetre above his ear, but cannot get medical treatment because the hospitals are full of injured protesters.

"They are spreading rumours about us that we are agents of Hamas, Iran, Israel, America. It is ridiculous, but on the other hand, 40 per cent of Egyptians are illiterate, so it could harm us."

The dozens of activists, many of them under 35, who started the uprising on Jan. 25, largely via the Internet, are trying to organize themselves into a unified structure to take on the government, Mr. Saleh said.

They are holding meetings with protesters, the political opposition, trade-union activists and leftists.

"We are trying to find a mechanism to represent people not just in Tahrir Square but all over the country that can be fair," Mr. Saleh said. "We want to build a true co-ordination. All those who are protesting, sacrificing their lives receiving stones and bullets, there has to be a co-ordination between them so no one hijacks their victory. It is no longer ours, we were only the starting point."

The movement has been largely leaderless, although prominent international figures such as the Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei and the Arab League's secretary-general, Amr Moussa, as well as the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood have thrown their support behind it.

Mr. Saleh and dozens of other activists helped begin the uprising in the days before Jan. 25 by distributing leaflets, spreading the word in person, on Facebook and via Twitter.

"The plan was to start with as many nucleus points as possible and in different areas from the back streets of Cairo. Then we moved from those back streets, chanting for others to join the rally, and the march grew bigger. What started with 20 or 30 activists turned into tens of thousands. It brought tears to my eyes. We were trying to make it the beginning of something, not actually the revolution itself."

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