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Across dusty Egypt, anxiety has filled the air

By Joe Sterling, CNN
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Egypt: Alexandria quiet for now
  • Away from Cairo, life in towns and villages appears, on the surface, to be calm
  • "Nothing is happening" on the streets, innkeeper says, but there is a sense of anxiety
  • Egyptian opinion is "notoriously difficult to gauge," Brookings research director says
  • Poll taken in 2009 highlighted distress that has boiled over in Cairo, one pollster says

(CNN) -- The streets are calm in the far-off western Egyptian town of Siwa, but one resident says the social unease gripping the country's capital can be felt just the same.

Mohamed Aziz is general manager of Siwa Safari Paradise Hotel & Tourist Village, whose name conjures a different world from the tumult in the the boiling-mad crowd in Cairo's Tahrir Square.

He said the atmosphere in the town of Siwa is normal and safe, and "nothing is happening" on the streets there. But he said there's a sense of "anxiety" over daily life and the prospects for the future among citizens in the town.

Observers trying to get a handle on Egyptian public opinion say that kind of unease appears to reflect the dissatisfaction with the economic quality of life and the political uncertainty in Egypt, home to more than 80 million people.

It's a mood that appears to pervade the villages, towns and cities where not everyone is taking to the streets and where protests aren't confrontational.

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Shadi Hamid, director of research for the Brookings Institution's Doha Center, said that while public opinion is "notoriously difficult to gauge" in Egypt, he says the "undercurrent of anger and frustration isn't limited to a minority."

"I think the protesters capture a real building sentiment that has grown and grown over the last decade. They are expressing a widespread public outrage at the current state of affairs," he said. "There's an overwhelming sense that things have gone wrong."

Hamid said Egypt has had some of its best growth in recent years, but that growth has served to generate "popular discontent."

He said people have been upset that economic dividends have not been evenly distributed and "the middle class feels it wants and deserves more."

He said the people who are driving the uprising aren't poorer people from rural areas, where people tend to be a bit more fatalistic and latently supportive of the status quo.

They are middle-class and urban people with high expectations who believe they should be employed, but aren't.

Some pro-Mubarak demonstrators were also in Tahrir Square on Tuesday morning and some residents said they were opposed to the protests.

"I am upset with the revolution in Tahrir Square," said Muna al-Mahdi, her voice trembling as she spoke in her middle-class Cairo neighborhood.

"It doesn't represent us. It doesn't represent our opinion. We are here sticking with Hosni Mubarak only. Give him two months, give him time to work. And then he can go peacefully."

Hamid said it's hard to precisely explain how the masses of people feel about Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak or his regime.

He has never heard "full-throated support" for Mubarak when he was in Egypt and said the president is "very much a hated figure" among a lot of people.

But the discontent is complicated, he said, noting that dislike for him doesn't necessarily mean his detractors would "want him to go tomorrow."

Explain it to me: Arab unrest
  • Egypt
  • Hosni Mubarak

Adam Pechter, president and CEO of Pechter Middle East Polls in Princeton, New Jersey, said a 2009 poll asked Egyptians what they think is the most important challenge for the government.

Many economic issues -- such as inflation, unemployment, poverty, and poor economic conditions -- emerged, he said: all those concerns foreshadowed the underpinnings of the uprising.

There was also distress in the poll over poor education, social problems like drugs, poor health services, and corruption.

Hisham Hassan, a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Egypt, said he feels more urgent anxiety and uncertainty.

In sprawling cities like Cairo or Alexandria, "everybody is actually stocking up on things, fearing that something bad might happen," he said.

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