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Protesters react in Tahrir Square to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's televised speech in Cairo February 1, 2011. Mubarak, responding to huge popular protests demanding the end of his 30-year rule, said on Tuesday he would not seek re-election in a ballot scheduled for September but would stay in office until then to respond to demands for reform. An effigy of Mubarak is hung up at the centre of the square. (Dylan Martinez/Reuters/Dylan Martinez/Reuters)
Protesters react in Tahrir Square to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's televised speech in Cairo February 1, 2011. Mubarak, responding to huge popular protests demanding the end of his 30-year rule, said on Tuesday he would not seek re-election in a ballot scheduled for September but would stay in office until then to respond to demands for reform. An effigy of Mubarak is hung up at the centre of the square. (Dylan Martinez/Reuters/Dylan Martinez/Reuters)

On the brink of revolution, some Egyptians dread an uncertain future Add to ...

In many ways, they are carbon copies of the fiery young Egyptians driving protests across their country - ambitious, educated and fed up with a regime they blame for dead-ending their dreams.

Rather than venting their frustrations in Tahrir Square, however, they have been hunkered in their homes, filled with dread as they anxiously watch the fate of their country unfold on network news.

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While hundreds of thousands of Egyptians have taken to the streets in angry defiance of President Hosni Mubarak, thousands are paralyzed with concern over what will happen when his regime melts away.

Intellectually, they agree with the protesters' broad goals of seeking reform, but in practical terms they want to protect the hard-fought gains they have managed to carve out under the umbrella of Mr. Mubarak's 30-year rule - jobs, homes, cars and social standing.

The prospect of Mr. Mubarak suddenly stepping down - the protesters' core demand despite the President's promise not to seek re-election - has sown a mixture of fear and uncertainty.

To them, it remains unclear who will take his place, and how they will find their footing in the gaping hole that currently feels like Egypt's future.

Mohammed Gaafer, a cherubic 23-year-old commercial analyst for a British energy company, is typical of the young people who have shunned the protests. He is simmering at having his life put on pause.

"Generally, the prospect of Mr. Mubarak stepping down is great, but we are not structured enough for him to step down just yet. It feels too fast," he said quietly, sitting on a shady bench in Nasser City, where he lives with his parents.

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Three months from now, he is meant to marry Maya, his girlfriend of three years, who works for the Arab League.

He bought a brand new blue Renault, and borrowed the equivalent of $25,000 from the bank for a down payment on a breezy, two-bedroom flat in Giza.

She chose her dress - a strapless white gown purchased online. This week the couple were planning to choose a wedding hall - the Hilton or the Intercontinental - before mailing out embossed invitations to 150 guests.

Now, they say, everything is on hold until they see what happens next. Mr. Gaafer worries sudden regime chance could cost him his job, along with everything else.

"I'm not sure what's happening now," he trailed off. "It's really hard to feel like you are locked up inside. I am trying to calm Maya down, but she's going crazy. We don't know what follows this revolution, or whatever you call it," he said.

"The demonstrators have made their point," he added. "I wish they would stop."

Last night, in the wake of Mr. Mubarak's attempt at political concession, others echoed him. The overwhelming majority of the demonstrators vowed to keep agitating until the President steps down. But others believed the protesters had achieved enough, and want life to return to a new normal.

The protests have interrupted Cairo life in a profound way. With schools closed and businesses shuttered, the city is in lockdown. Young men have formed vigilante checkpoints - partly out of boredom and partly for fear of their families' safety. Mothers worry about the scarcity and the rising price of food.

"I do not want Egypt to be like Iraq. There is no clear picture of what will be next," says Maha Azmy, a 45-year-old mother of two grown children who lives in Nasser City. She sympathizes with the protesters' aims but worries about her family's future and security.

Some of her slightly wealthier friends have hired private security guards to stand sentry outside their homes.

"I don't want these protests to be the way we win our freedom," she says. "It's not the right way to do it."

When she ventured, briefly, out to the market earlier in the day, she was dismayed to see the price of a kilo of tomatoes had nearly doubled, to the equivalent of about $1.70.

Ms. Azmy's life is relatively comfortable. Her husband was able to retire early from the distribution company he owns. They can afford a lovely flat, private-school education for her children and family holidays abroad.

Still, she has watched her children struggle to find jobs and worries about their long-term prospects. Her son, 24-year-old Fady, just landed a job as a "solutions specialist" at Microsoft for which he was interviewed five times, beating out hundreds of competitors.

He gets paid the equivalent of $1,500 a month, a fraction of the cost of his four-year, $80,000 degree at the American University of Cairo. He still counts himself lucky compared with many of his friends.

"It was tough for me to find a job," Mr. Fady says, his unshaven face crinkling at the memory. He has not left his own neighbourhood for a week. The idea of Egypt without Mr. Mubarak at its helm is beyond the borders of his imagination.

"The people who are at the demonstrations don't know what they want after Hosni [Mubarak]steps down," he says.

His 19-year-old sister, Mariam, who is studying economics at AUC, is savvy enough to know her dream of becoming an economist will only be realized "outside of Egypt."

The protests have cleaved her group of friends in half - those who go to Tahrir Square, and others who, like her, prefer to stay home.

"You cannot force change to take place between day and night," says Miriam, whose face is framed by a curly fringe and studded with a diamond nose ring.

"Those people on the streets are under the poverty line. Their lives will never change. Whatever happens, the people of our standard are the ones who are going to feel it," she reflected.

She worries Egypt's next chapter will feel like a time warp, casting her country back 30 years.

"I am just beginning my life," she said, "and I don't want to rewind."

For the past week she has been glued to her television, but feels strangely disconnected from the 24-hour news that has become the backdrop to her life.

"These protesters are so fascinated by the sight of their own feet marching in the streets," she said, "they have forgotten to look 10 steps ahead."

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