Stronger sense of Egyptian identity emerges among protesters

Tens of thousands of pro-democracy protesters flooded Egypt's Tahrir Square today to press for the departure of President Mubarak. 'I'm here for Egypt,' said one middle-aged man.

By , Staff writer

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    Coptic Christians show solidarity by forming a human chain around Islamic protesters during Friday prayers in Tehrir Square on Feb. 4.
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For the second Friday in a row, tens of thousands of Egyptian protesters calling for the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak and the establishment of democracy here gathered in Tahrir Square in a largely peaceful and joyous scene.

Today's event was branded as a "day of departure" for Mubarak by overoptimistic organizers. That wasn't forthcoming, but the effort, which appeared to be the largest antigovernment gathering so far, remains a stunning success nonetheless.

This past Tuesday, bowing to demonstrators, Mubarak promised not to run in a presidential election scheduled for September. The next day, pro-regime thugs were unleashed on demonstrators in Tahrir Square, leaving at least eight people dead and hundreds injured.

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Exclusive Monitor photos of Egypt's turmoil

On Thursday, there was a coordinated crackdown on the foreign press – particularly against satellite TV stations like Al Jazeera, which has been streaming live footage of the protests into millions of Arab and Egyptian homes. Meanwhile, state television was broadcasting reports suggesting that protests were part of a foreign plot.

The increasingly presidential-looking Vice President Omar Suleiman, the former intelligence chief who stepped out of the shadows for the first time last night with a national address, complained that the democracy protesters appeared to be serving a "foreign agenda." He also urged protesters to immediately go home.

All of this appeared to point to another crackdown today, and protesters were prepared for the worst.

"We had 200 casualties coming through here every half-hour on Wednesday. I'm frightened that this afternoon [Friday] could dwarf that," says Mohamed Riad, a doctor volunteering at the makeshift hospital protesters have set up in an alley close to the American University in Cairo. "I think they're going to come down and try to crush this."

His dire prediction wasn't realized, but this morning there were fewer women and children among the protesters than on Wednesday, a testament to the fear sowed by this week's violence. As the afternoon wore on and violence did not materialize, thousands of new protesters poured in to the square, more women and children among them.

The international condemnation of the pro-regime violence this week and the intimidation of the press probably contributed to the peaceful protests today. In Tunisia, a violent crackdown against demonstrators spurred on the opposition, so regime figures may be hoping protests will eventually dwindle on their own before fundamental democratic change is made, particularly after the concessions of this week.

What's next for Cairo?

As night fell, protesters began heading home – some disappointed that Mubarak remains Egypt's leader, at least officially, others murmuring that perhaps they had accomplished enough and it's time for Egypt to return to normal.

The coming days will likely prove a test of wills between Mubarak and the protesters. Mubarak told ABC News last night that "chaos" would break out if he stepped down and vowed to die on Egyptian soil. It remains to be seen if the demonstrators can maintain momentum in what so far remains a largely leaderless revolution.

"I'm with the people – I'm not from any party," says one of the volunteer civilian guards helping to check protesters for weapons as they pour into Tahrir Square.

A burly middle-aged man inside the square says: "I'm here for Egypt. This is Egypt. I'm not from the Muslim Brotherhood, I'm not from Kifaya [a secular pro-democracy] group, I'm just from Egypt."

The lack of a single obvious figurehead or organization behind the protests has been a source of strength. No simple roundup of leaders is likely to decapitate this movement. But if the regime avoids violence and refuses to bow to unmet demands, what comes next? Nobel Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei didn't join the protesters today and hasn't shown signs of galvanizing the opposition.

To be sure, the demonstrators on the square are sharing pride in being Egyptian – the common thread that they insist will push them forward.

"I'm 22 years old and I've never been able to stand up for my rights before," says Gehad Salman, who works in a Cairo hotel. "They're trying to trick us, to exhaust us. But we won't stop until Mubarak goes."

The Muslim Brotherhood's role

Some abroad, particularly in the US, have pointed with alarm to the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group that long ago eschewed violence, as the possible winner of Egypt's struggle for change. Leaders from the group, Egypt's best organized opposition movement, say they have no current designs on the presidency or senior government posts, and insist they are committed to democracy.

Mubarak sought to play up on fears of the Brotherhood in his interview with ABC News's Christiane Amanpour yesterday, saying they were behind the protests, and that they would take over and lead to "chaos" if he steps down.

The Brothers have certainly been present at the demonstrations, but they've largely taken a backseat to a broad spectrum of Egyptian society, as was clear today.

The Brothers were there, or at least seemed to be (men with longish beards and trimmed mustaches, women with veils covering their faces). But so were girls with stylish sunglasses and flowing hair, looking like they'd just stepped out of a Cairo nightclub, not into the midst of a popular revolution. Ranks of Coptic Christians linked arms to provide symbolic protection to Muslims while they prayed at noon.

Little boys were there, carried on their fathers' shoulders. There were laborers from factories in the delta, waiters from the five-star hotels along the Nile, small business owners, career dissidents, and men so poor they looked one step from living on the street. There were capitalists, socialists, and people who boiled down their political philosophy to wanting "freedom."

Amr Moussa, a popular former Egyptian foreign minister seeking to muscle his way into the succession conversation, was there, too. He's currently head of the Arab League, and has said in recent days that he's willing to act as a leader if the people demand it.

Exclusive Monitor photos of Egypt's turmoil

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