CAIRO (Reuters) - Hagg Mohamed the cobbler is shocked, as is the man who sells newspapers around the corner, just down the street from the offices of the Egyptian prime minister.
“These protesters in Tahrir Square don’t want good for Egypt. They are out to destroy the country,” said the cobbler, who had pulled down the metal shutters of his tiny workshop to keep out the tear gas wafting down the street on a light breeze.
“Do you agree with what’s happening in this country?” asked the newspaper man, accosting the first customer he could find to vent his wrath against protesters who attacked three riot police trucks turning down a nearby side street on Saturday morning.
Abdel Fattah Nasser, a 42-year-old lawyer and spokesman for a Facebook group called the Silent Majority Coalition, says such people are part of his natural constituency: Egyptians who put stability before politics and whose voice is sometimes drowned out in the raucous debate between competing political factions. “Our main aim is to bring about stability,” he told Reuters.
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which has ruled Egypt since President Hosni Mubarak lost power in February, is gambling that such people really are the majority.
With their credibility on the line, their performance widely disparaged and even ridiculed, the generals maintain that the tens of thousands of Egyptians publicly demanding they quit do not represent the majority view of more than 80 million Egyptians.
The interim head of state and chairman of the council, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, last week offered to hold a referendum on whether the council should stay in power to see through the long transition process the generals envisage, apparently confident that the people would support him.
But if this purported majority is silent, it is also so inactive that it’s hard to assess its real size.
When Nassar’s Facebook group, which has some 13,000 “like” endorsements, called for a mass rally in support of the military council, several thousand did show up, in a city of some 15 million, but the crowd was a fraction of the throng that flocked to Tahrir Square that day to call on the council to go.
Reliable opinion polls are few and far between in Egypt. But one survey of 750 Egyptians in October, conducted by Brookings and Zogby International, found that 43 percent thought the military authorities were slowing or reversing the gains of the revolution. Only 21 percent thought the opposite.
The past 10 days of unrest, in which more than 40 protesters have been killed in clashes with security forces, have further eroded support and sympathy for the military, at least among the significant political forces competing in this week’s elections.
The silent majority, if it exists, has not coalesced into a large political party. Former members of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party have regrouped into small parties but they have few election posters or stickers and rarely appear on television. Opinion polls conducted since February have hardly registered their existence.
The discourse of the silent majority, as expressed at rallies or on the Internet, bears a striking resemblance to that of Mubarak’s supporters during the last throes of his reign in February, with an emphasis on foreign conspiracies and the need for law and order to abort them.
The Silent Majority Coalition says in an official statement on its website that the West is hatching a plot to weaken and isolate Egypt by using its local agents to install an extreme Islamist government, which the West could then turn against as a threat to international peace and security.
“Through its agents throughout Egypt, the West will encourage strikes and sit-ins everywhere, in order to ensure that production does not return to full capacity ... so the government will have to seek loans from international organizations subject to the United States and the Zionist lobby,” it adds.
Members of the military council have likewise accused some of the Tahrir Square revolutionaries of receiving finance from Western countries. Writer Alaa el-Aswany, who supports the revolutionaries, in turns accuses the generals of turning a blind eye to Gulf financial support for Islamist groups.
Ironically, while Western aid to the Tahrir Square groups is either unproven or very indirect, the military council itself still receives more than $1 billion a year from the United States, in what Egyptian generals have described in Wikileaks documents as the price for maintaining peace with Israel.
The size of the purported silent majority may not even matter, especially if it fails to vote in parliamentary elections starting on Monday.
Doctor Ahmed Hassan, who treated wounded demonstrators at a field clinic in Tahrir last week, dismissed the notion of a silent majority. “We call them the Couch Party. They will never get up off the couch, so we just have to press on,” he said.
Editing by Alistair Lyon/Ruth Pitchford