Riot police in blue helmets stomped past in lock step as protesters beat bongo drums. When a young man at the government-sponsored march burned an American flag and onlookers chanted that President Bush was like "Dracula trying to suck the blood of the Arabs," dozens of plainclothes security agents smiled.
Some human rights activists called Egypt's largest demonstration so far against a US-led war against Iraq a massive charade. In contrast, the government praised its "half-million man march" Wednesday in downtown Cairo as an overwhelming success, although the crowd was estimated at 200,000 people.
Even as Egypt's security forces have detained over a dozen anti-war activists in recent weeks, the Egyptian government is trying to co-opt the rising tide of anger against a possible US invasion of Iraq and use it to prove that Egypt is still one of the strongest voices of reason in the Arab world.
Elsewhere in the Arab world, protests have grown larger as war approaches, challenging the authority of regimes from Morocco to Bahrain. In Sudan last week, thousands of riot police escorted a rally of some 500,000 demonstrators. In Yemen this week, a mob of 20,000 led by rowdy students turned away from their march on the US Embassy after security forces threatened to open fire on them.
"These Arab governments are in a serious dilemma," says Professor Gary Sick, the director of Columbia University's Mideast Institute. "On the one hand, most of the views opposing US action in Iraq represent the government's own view. But many Arab regimes, like Egypt, do not trust their own people and if they let people have their say, they risk having folks turn on them."
Despite widespread opposition to a war in Iraq, protests in the Arab world have been small compared with those in Europe and even Turkey. Governments in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and several small Gulf states keep a tight lid on public expression. In Egypt, gatherings of more than four people are normally forbidden under the law.
Since early February, Egyptian authorities have rounded up organizers who do not come from within the ranks of the government.
In one high-profile case, activist Kamel Khalil, the director of Cairo's Socialist Research Center left home on Feb. 19 but never returned. Journalists who know Mr. Khalil say that he earlier received a phone call from security forces inviting him for "coffee and a chat," the ubiquitous notice for a police interrogation here in Egypt, but he turned down the offer. Two other leading activists have also been detained and not heard from.
"The Egyptian security apparatus has a momentum and life of its own," says Hisham Kassem, a leading human rights activist and also the publisher of the Cairo Times, a weekly news magazine. "Even of you have a small demonstration of 600 people in one area, the security forces will still pick through the crowd to look for someone to arrest. It is just another example of how security concerns have almost completely replaced real politics in Egypt."
Middle East analysts say that authoritarian Arab regimes are more worried about Washington's plans for "regime change" than they are concerned about the ability of mass demonstrations to overthrow their own governments.
Beneath the surface, they also must contend with the real possibility that a US-led war against Iraq could inspire more young men to sign up with terrorist organizations.
But Professor Sick says that regimes like Egypt and Saudi Arabia by "bottling up public concerns and not letting them out, risk turning more people into a radical opposition. After all," he adds. "It was from this kind of oppressive environment in Egypt that Al Qaeda's no. 2, Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri and other leading radicals rose up."
At Cairo University in recent weeks, thousands of young people have massed inside the gates to demonstrate, but security forces wielding batons and manning water cannons have not allowed the growing crowds to spill out into the streets.
Ten days ago, Egyptian police actually locked some 3,000 Egyptian and Arab lawyers in a Cairo conference hall to prevent them from joining a rally outside the offices of the Arab League. Some would-be protesters still managed to climb out of windows.
Wednesday's mass rally, only half the size that the government had planned for, lacked the excitement and determination of more spontaneous protests elsewhere around the world, particularly in Europe.
Egyptians in the crowd accused the government of doing little to avert a possible US-led war, while pretending to lead the country's opposition to it.
"The problem is that our leaders are incompetent," says Mohammed Hassan. "We need to push against this war like France and Russia, but our politicians do nothing. They should have been pushing three and four months ago when the US was putting down troops. Now it is probably too late."
Mr. Hassan accused the government of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak of clamping down on both public and religious expression. "The Islamists in our country now have no voice even though they are the only ones speaking for real peace and economic growth. President Mubarak's government tries to control the situation because, in truth, he is working hand-in-hand with the Americans."