In central Cairo, thousands of people – young and old, rich and poor -- converged on Tahrir (Liberation) Square with a confidence unleashed by the popular uprising that forced Tunisia’s president of 23 years to flee to Saudi Arabia earlier this month. When police shot tear gas into the crowd, youths ripped up the sidewalks and hurled pieces of cement at police, turning the square into a battle zone. Several times when the police tried to advance, the crowd surged forward and forced them to retreat.
“This is the result of the pressure that has built up inside us from the corruption, from the repression, from the lack of freedom,” shouted student Abdallah Al Fakharany as protesters rushed by him, fleeing clouds of tear gas and police batons. “Look – our government is fighting their own people. Those who are supposed to protect us fight us instead, because we want democracy in Egypt.”
The protest, called a National Day of Wrath and held on Egypt’s national Police Day, started to gather steam on Facebook before Tunisia’s uprising had turned into a revolution. But the toppling of an Arab autocrat through the power of a grassroots revolt broke a psychological barrier for many Egyptians, making them believe the same is possible in their nation and leading thousands to participate. That newfound energy will be troubling for Mubarak, a stalwart United States who receives about $1.5 billion in American aid each year.
Political analyst Mustapha Kamel Al Sayyid said Tuesday’s protests were unmatched in Egypt since the bread riots of 1977. The fact that the protests took place across the nation, and were not led by a particular political movement or opposition party, set them apart from demonstrations in the last decade, he says.
“This time it is really a national movement,” he says. “It’s quite remarkable that the slogans raised by the demonstrators were not typical of any political party. They were general slogans about democracy, ending the state of emergency, and lowering prices. This is the beginning of a process.… The government will not respond favorably so I think the continuation of the protests is almost certain.”
After darkness fell in Cairo, thousands of protesters remained in the square and pledged to camp out until their demands are met. The regime's next move is uncertain.
Gas and grenades
During the day, police in Cairo used tear gas and what appeared to be concussion grenades, and battled protesters with sticks and batons. But they allowed the demonstrators to gather and march, showing a rare restraint likely engendered by the situation in Tunisia, where violent police crackdowns on demonstrations energized opposition, leading to a month of sustained protests that eventually pushed the president from power.
“Egyptians have a right to express themselves,” said Egypt’s foreign ministry spokesman, Hossam Zaki, in a statement. The Ministry of Interior released a statement saying it exercised restraint and was “committed to securing and not confronting these gatherings.”
Organizing themselves on a Facebook group that attracted more than 90,000 followers, the protesters in Cairo met at various points in the city, then converged on the central square, where the atmosphere was electric. A statement from the Ministry of Information put the numbers downtown at 10,000.
“Down with Mubarak!” they yelled, then said “Down with Gamal!” referring to Mubarak’s son, who is seen as being groomed to succeed his father. They urged Mubarak to join Ben Ali in Saudi Arabia, and yelled “Freedom! Freedom!”
The crowds skirmished with police at times, surging toward the cordon ringing the square, at one time pushing police far back down the road that leads toward the Parliament building, before police regrouped. Some captured the bamboo sticks and riot shields and helmets of police, taking photos with the souvenirs. When police shot tear gas, some young men stood defiantly among the wafting clouds in the street, raising their hands as if daring the police to do more. Police picked up the rocks protesters had hurled at them and threw them at the crowds.
Not just activists
Egypt’s opposition parties have long struggled to attract a cross-section of society to participate in either politics or demonstrations. Tuesday’s protest succeeded where they had failed. Though many of the protesters were young and middle class, they drew from every sector of society. A woman wearing the head scarf typical of low-income neighborhoods shouted slogans next to a middle-aged woman in expensive jewelry and chic clothes – now spattered in mud from the water cannons police aimed at protesters. There was a man in a suit and carrying a briefcase, men in traditional robes, and a retiree wearing a tweed jacket. Some even brought their children.
“I want to teach my son how to attain his rights, how to fight for his freedom,” said Nagi Bashad as he marched with his young son. “I want him to have a better future. If we all participate like in Tunis, we can achieve a revolution.”
One protester held aloft a sign that said “In the beginning, Tunis. And now, Egypt.” Egyptians Tuesday said over and over again that Tunisia’s uprising had given them hope. “What happened in Tunis made me more motivated,” said one woman who didn’t want to give her name. “I have hope now, when before I had only a little. I want Mubarak to leave as Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali left. What happened here is enough – I’m talking about corruption, dictatorship. We need freedom.”