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Protesters in Egypt have the attention of the world today. They've brought the most populist country in the Arab world to a standstill. The uncertainty has affected world stock markets, which are down today. The protesters prompted foreign governments to start bringing their citizens out of Egypt. They prompted President Hosni Mubarak to change his government. What we don't know is exactly when or exactly how the protesters can succeed in pushing Mubarak out the door.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson has been following almost a week of protests in Cairo.

(Soundbite of protest)

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: The unprecedented nature of Egypt's ongoing protests was clear from the first few hours. Chants like this one in Cairo that pronounced the people's determination to topple the government clearly sent a chill up officials' spines.

Joe Stork is a deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa Division of Human Rights Watch.

Mr. JOE STORK (Human Rights Watch): You know, it was only in 2003, 2005 you started to hear people chanting about Hosni Mubarak, but actually ripping down his pictures and stuff in a very public way, and the demand for Mubarak to resign, get on the plane to Saudi Arabia, these kinds of chants - this is, this is new.

NELSON: Egyptian police and security forces were sent in to end the unrest. Then last Friday the government took the unprecedented step of shutting down the Internet and cell phones across the country to stop protestors from communicating with each other or the outside world, but the moves failed to end the uprising.

(Soundbite of protest)

NELSON: The number or protestors swelled in several major cities. Residents watching from their balconies and passersby on the streets joined in.

Many of these new protestors, like Nagla Rezi of Cairo, were quite angry.

Ms. NAGLA REZI: We need liberty, we need freedom. Internet is closed today and mobile phones, we can't connect to anyone. This is freedom? This is democratic that they say? Nothing, nothing is happening, just the image.

NELSON: Historian Mahmoud Sabit says Mubarak was caught off guard. Reached on his cell phone after service was partially restored, Sabit explains that by imposing continuous martial law and refusing to share power, Mubarak lost touch with the people he claims to represent.

Mr. MAHMOUD SABIT (Historian): After 30 years of repressing the Egyptian people, perhaps the leadership is rather contemptuous of their people, okay (unintelligible) and because of that they may have underestimated them in all this. But certainly it's a situation that they need to address soon.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

NELSON: The government tried and failed with a final violent crackdown at Cairo's now famous Tahrir Square.

President HOSNI MUBARAK: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: Mubarak's announcement on television that he was dissolving his cabinet but would remain in charge didn't satisfy protestors either.

(Soundbite of car horn and vehicles)

NELSON: The arrival of the army in Cairo's streets Saturday morning proved a turning point.

(Soundbite of cheering)

NELSON: The protestors were elated. And the soldiers quickly made it clear they were not there to interfere with the demonstrations.

Again, historian Sabit.

Mr. SABIT: The army is, after all, the defender of the state, not necessarily the defender of the regime. There is a difference.

NELSON: Sabit and other observers say it cost Mubarak a heavy political price to have to ask the army for help. For one, he took the unprecedented step of appointing a vice president, Omar Suleiman. He's considered a Mubarak confidant, but has close ties to the military. Suleiman was widely viewed as the army's preferred successor to Mubarak over his son Gamal, whom the president is said to have wanted.

Also, the new prime minister named by Mubarak is a former Air Force commander. Some observers say at this point the president is likely negotiating a graceful exit rather than trying to retain control.

Again, historian Sabit.

Mr. SABIT: I think he's got about a day or two, frankly, to make up his mind, really.

NELSON: Analysts say there are signals from the government that a transfer of power could well be underway. Some here say ideally the new vice president would head a caretaker government that incorporates some opposition figures. The police are also being redeployed but have not clashed with protestors again, at least not yet. And it's clear the Egyptian military, with its vast presence here and repeated flyovers by jets and helicopters, remains in charge of the streets.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Cairo.

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