CAIRO - The protesters who spilled onto Egypt's streets this week have given the opposition movement here characteristics that it long lacked: spontaneity and roots in many segments of society.
The demonstrations, which continued Wednesday despite a strong police presence and hundreds of arrests, drew experienced activists and those who had never marched before. There were secularists, socialists and Islamists all walking together and demanding change with a unity that for years eluded Egypt's opposition.
The new face of the opposition poses a significant challenge for President Hosni Mubarak, who has imposed sharp limits on his critics during his 30-year rule. Poor health has raised questions about Mubarak's ability to remain in office and prompted speculation that he is grooming his son to succeed him.
Marina Ottaway, director of the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, said that there is "a great amount of discontent in Egypt" but that until now it had been "compartmentalized in three different movements" that didn't work together: a labor movement, a pro-democracy political movement and the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group.
"Is there any indication the three groups are beginning to merge [in the demonstrations]? That is the crucial question," she said.
Tuesday's protests were called for by a number of opposition groups through social media, which had drawn only a few dozen or few hundred people when they issued similar calls in the past. This week, only a few hundred people turned up at the start. But the numbers grew quickly, as Egyptians used social networking sites to organize and drew inspiration from the fall of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali this month in nearby Tunisia and, on Wednesday, by images of their own people defying Egypt's repressive police Tuesday.
"The psychological barrier of fear has been broken," said Shadi Hamid, director of research for the Brookings Doha Center. "80 million Egyptians saw [Tuesday's protests]. They saw that it's okay to come out and that there is safety in numbers."
Egyptians' anger has been simmering for years in this police state, where opportunities are scarce and the gap between the poor and a small elite is growing...