Egypt took a deep breath yesterday after nearly two weeks of unprecedented protest. While most Egyptians returned to work, thousands of demonstrators remained in Tahrir Square; Hosni Mubarak remained the president. For both the protesters and the president, the pause has provided an opportunity to see that few of the underlying conditions that helped to spark the demonstrations have been addressed.
Egypt's economic future is decidedly dimmer than when the protests began. The instability has cost the economy an estimated $300 million a day. Until foreign investors believe that the country's institutions have been repaired, they will remain wary. To respond to its growing debt, Egypt is likely to take measures that will lower the value of its currency, causing food prices, one of the central reasons for popular discontent, to go higher. Stocks of food and medicine, already limited, would come under greater strain. Even wealthy Egyptians - and many of those who have benefited from Mr Mubarak's leadership - would feel the effects.
An interim agreement between the government and opposition groups, setting a schedule for elections and a review of the constitution, would do most to ease tensions. Here too, there remain significant obstacles.
While the new Egyptian vice president Omar Suleiman initiated a dialogue yesterday with opposition figures, including members of the Muslim Brotherhood, reports in the state media that a "consensus" had been reached were widely dismissed. Parties within the opposition argued that the group of so-called "wise men" who met Mr Suleiman, were not representative of their interests.
The opposition's divisions are now more evident than on the "day of departure" that brought thousands to the streets last Friday. As Zyad Elelaiqy, a young lawyer who organised protests on the internet, told journalists: "They are more close to negotiating, but they don't have access to the street ... The people know us. They don't know them."
A dichotomy between "us" and "them" also featured in the remarks of Mr Suleiman, who blamed Islamism for Egypt's unrest. Islamist groups, however, have not played a leading role in the protests. In fact, it is a lack of leaders and unifying demands from the opposition that has created much of the current vacuum.
If there is one belief that unites the opposition, it is that the status quo is no longer viable. The costs to Egypt's future will mount the longer a stalemate persists. There is perhaps one man who can break it: Mr Mubarak himself.
The president has some reason to worry that instability would result from his resignation. But if he were to introduce a framework for an interim government and constitutional review, inviting as many parties to the table as possible, along with his resignation, Egypt would have the best chance to get back on its feet. Egypt's problems and divisions are not all of Mr Mubarak's making, but there is no one who can do more with one act to address them.