Political protests may be rocking Egypt with a new, nonideological force, but President Hosni Mubarak and his allies have not veered from a playbook they have followed through nearly three decades of one-party rule.

As always, the government has responded to the unrest primarily as a security issue, largely ignoring, or dismissing, the core demands of those who have taken to the street.

“My analysis is, the government will leave them until they reach a level of exhaustion,” said Abdel Moneim Said, a member of the President's ruling party and the director of the government-owned newspaper and publishing house, Al Ahram.

The Egyptian leadership, long accustomed to an apolitical and largely apathetic public, remains convinced that Egypt is going through the sort of convulsion it has experienced and survived before.

The leaders see in the protest an experience similar to the events of 1977, when Anwar el-Sadat, then the President, announced plans to end subsidies of basic food items, setting off 36 hours of rioting across the country. They see a repeat of the threat the government faced from Islamist militants in the 1990s, which it violently suppressed. And so the leaders have fallen back on a familiar strategy, deploying security forces, blaming the Islamists and defining their critics as driven by economic, not political, concerns.

“I can't think of anybody that I know that has any concern about the stability of the regime,” Mr. Said added. But the Egyptian playbook is not just calling for a strategy that runs on the fumes of history. Like the protesters, Mr. Mubarak and his allies appear to have learned lessons from Tunisia's popular revolt.

The main one appears to be not to give an inch.

While Tunisia's ousted president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, went on television and offered his now frequently mocked concession “I understand you”, Mr. Mubarak has remained silent, leaving it to his proxies to try to calm the unrest. That may be because neither side in this fight has much room to manoeuvre.

The opposition does not have an available political path to change, other than protest. And Mr. Mubarak has little to offer because he has systematically eviscerated civil and political institutions, creating a system that allows change to come only through his party and his allies, said political analysts here.

The Mubarak administration is blind to this weakness, however, seeing itself as strong and having the support of the majority.

“Egypt's system is not marginal or frail,” Interior Minister Habib al-Adli told a Kuwaiti newspaper. “We are a big state, with an administration with popular support. The millions will decide the future of this nation, not demonstrations, even if numbered in the thousands.”

Loyalists, like Mr. Said of Ahram, remain committed to a view that sees the nation's different constituencies as divided by ideology and demands, and therefore easily picked off with simple offerings like a pay raise or a Cabinet shuffle. Change, the party line goes, will come slowly, and only from the inside.

So far, there is virtually no recognition, at least publicly, that Egypt has already changed. — New York Times News Service

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