Tahrir Square is not Egypt

I’m sorry to spoil the party, but I’m troubled by some of the reporting on the upheaval in Egypt, with the focus essentially on the protesters in Tahrir Square. The breathless reporting — including by what seems to be every columnist ever employed by The New York Times — has neglected what’s been going on in the rest of the country. Al Jazeera’s wanton exaggeration of the number of people on the square, which I saw with my own eyes, reflects that channel’s particular agenda.

I’ve been thinking about something I was told when I was in Cairo the day after hundreds of thousands of people flocked to the square. That night, Mubarak went on TV for one of his speeches, in which he said he would go, but not until September. That remains his position, as we saw again in his rambling and self-deluded address yesterday.

“A hundred thousand people are not 80 million,” a middle-aged professional Egyptian told me last week. He said that the majority of the people wanted stability and to get back to work. Although I spoke to students who were demonstrating alongside their parents, I met others whose parents stayed at home. For them, Mubarak’s concessions were enough.

It’s wonderful that Egyptians have lost their fear. I was in Cairo during the abortive “Cairo spring,” after which the pressure-cooker lid was slammed shut again by the Mubarak regime. But the scale of these demonstrations, which are clearly a popular uprising, is truly inspiring. One of The New York Times’s columnists was rejoicing recently that Egyptians were happy to be quoted with their full names. This is something that I remember from Tiananmen Square, where for an exhilarating month, we were happy to write down the full names of protesters who thronged to the square. Today we have that on our consciences, as we know what happened to many of them, after we threw caution to the winds.

We still don’t know what will happen in Egypt. We must hope for the best but prepare for the worst. It would be most significant if the rest of the country joins the protesters in Cairo in rejecting the pharaoh. Until that happens, we must be cautious.

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