Inspired by Tunisia, Egypt's protests appear unprecedented
Egypt's protests today appear to be the largest public call for democratic reform and an end to the Mubarak regime for years.
Dan Murphy is a staff writer for the Monitor's international desk, focused on the Middle East. Murphy, who has reported from Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, and more than a dozen other countries, writes and edits Backchannels. The focus? War and international relations, leaning toward things Middle East.
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Though tens of thousands took to the streets of Cairo in 2005 calling for democratic reform, today's protests are far beyond the action in the capital. Reporters and activists on the scene in Cairo say there was a spirit of anger and defiance in the crowds and there were protests of varying sizes in at least a half-dozen Egyptian cities.
By late afternoon, thousands of protesters converged in Tahrir Square, not far from the US embassy, the Interior Ministry, and the five-star hotels looming over the Nile. Police water cannons and tear gas barrages did little to deter them.
For now, it's hard to imagine the aging Mr. Mubarak and the apparatus of the state being swept from power in the same way that President Ben Ali was chased from Tunis. Egyptian military spending is much higher than in Tunisia and the circle of people who have everything to lose if the system is upended much wider.
But the riveting images beamed into millions of Egyptian homes of the Tunisian uprising appear to have led to a shift in the public consciousness, at least for today. A small group of leftists and democracy activists have been trying to organize protests like today's for years, but have generally failed to get large numbers out on the streets. Average Egyptians, mired in poverty and afraid of the consequences of participating in protests they suspect are doomed to failure, have stayed away.
That clearly changed today. Activists were reporting on their Twitter feeds (until Twitter service was shut down in Egypt at about 3:30 pm local time) that thousands from working-class neighborhoods like Shubra, a warren-like neighborhood with millions of mostly poor residents, joined the protest marchers as they passed, and joined in shouts for Mubarak, his son and presumed heir Gamal, and Interior Minister Habib el-Adly to be driven from power.
Monitor correspondent Kristen Chick is among the crowd in Tahrir Square, where marchers from at least three different locations converged by mid-afternoon. She says it briefly got ugly, with protesters tearing up pavement and throwing rocks as the police brought tear gas and water-cannons to bear, but that the police soon backed off, ringing the square but leaving the protesters unmolested for the moment.
"I’ve seen middle-aged women with expensive jewelry, women in niqabs (full black Muslim veils), guys with suits and briefcases, young people from the poor neighborhoods," she says. "They're demanding their rights, and end to unemployment, poverty and torture."