But when the prayer ended, first one voice and then thousands shouted, "The people want the regime to fall!" They poured out into the street, broke through a police cordon, and joined forces with other protesters to present the gravest threat to the regime of President Hosni Mubarak since he took power nearly 30 years ago.
By mid-afternoon, tens of thousands of Egyptians, braving tear gas and water cannons, were converging on Tahrir Square in central Cairo and protests were taking place across the country. Similar scenes were played out in hundreds of mosques in Cairo, Alexandria, and the gritty industrial towns of the Nile Delta.
A middle-aged woman in a Cairo crowd who had never participated in a demonstration before summed up the mood of a populace that, at least for today, has reached a breaking point.
“We didn’t just come here because of inflation or rising food prices. We came because we want freedom, because we’re tired of oppression, and because we hate the regime,” she says.
In Cairo, there were reports of increasingly savage beatings of protesters. In Suez, there were reports of a police station being burned to the ground. The son of Ayman Nour, an opposition activist who spent years in jail for challenging Mubarak, told Al Jazeera that a rock thrown by a policeman had sent his father to the hospital.
"If I’m understanding how this is unfolding, on Jan. 25 the government let them protest and blow off steam. Then after dark and the end of the news cycle, they went after people. And that pissed people off,” says Josh Stacher, a political scientist who studies Egypt at Kent State. “This is one of the first times in Egypt I’ve seen people out protesting for different reasons. In Suez, it’s police repression. In Mahallah, it’s economics. In Cairo, it’s political freedom. The Interior Minister said the other day the ‘Egyptian regime is not fragile.’ Well, when you say those kinds of things, it means you’re in trouble."
Citizens have broken a barrier of fear
How this all ends remains uncertain. But autocracy in the Arab world’s largest country is looking shaky. Protesters are seeking to build a wave of momentum that could sweep away a regime, a move that would dramatically alter regional policies and complicate US interests in the Middle East.
Mr. Mubarak is unlikely to be swept away as easily as President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia was driven out of his country. But it’s clear that citizens have broken through a barrier of fear in the Arab world’s largest country, a nation that serves as a regional cultural capital and as a model for the security states that dominate the region.
“For the first time, we felt as if we can breathe. We can say no. So we came today to fight for our rights," says Usama el-Wardany, an upper class Egyptian who became politically active when his friend of Khalid Said was beat to death at the hands of police last year. “I think they’re going to kill us today, but I feel this is how I will achieve my rights, so I’m not scared.”
Illusion of stability shattered
The illusion of stability, that an authoritarian state that takes little feedback from its citizens that can sustain itself indefinitely, has been shattered. The outcome of a presidential election scheduled for September, widely expected to be engineered to either return Mubarak to power or perhaps to install his son Gamal as successor, now looks very much in question.
Will other members of the ruling elite dump the Mubaraks and promote another from their ranks in the hopes of mollifying the people? Will street power continue, and be rewarded with a meaningful political opening towards democracy?
These questions, which would have seemed absurd just two months ago after rigged parliamentary elections in November wiped out the formal opposition to Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, are now being asked in regional capitals, in Washington, and by citizens from Algeria to Damascus wondering if their voices, too, can now be heard.
“There’s only one way this gets resolved [and that] is by the massive of use of force, and I don’t think it’s going to work,” says Joshua Stacher, a political scientist at Kent State who studies the authoritarian systems of Egypt and Syria. “Even if this is a furious burst of hot air and it stops [soon], if they try to install Gamal in September, they will get an enormous backlash.
"Everyone talks about the prowess of Egyptian security. Well, they’ve never really been tested," he adds. "Maybe the [police] are getting tired and spread out. I don’t want to call this an inevitability, but it’s looking bad for the regime.”
Why the stakes are higher in Egypt than Tunisia
Political analyst Mustapha Kamel Al Sayyid says 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.
“This time it is really a national movement. 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.... The government will not respond favorably so I think the continuation of the protests is almost certain.”
For the US and many others, the stakes in Egypt are much higher than they were in Tunisia. Ben Ali presided over a small country with just 10 million people and with one of the weakest Islamist movements in the region.
Egypt is home to 80 million people, it is one of only two Arab states to make peace with Israel, and has been closely allied with the US, giving free passage to US warships through the Suez canal in wartime, policing militant infiltration into and out of the Gaza Strip, and receiving billions of dollars in US aid over the years in return.
The US views the country as a crucial partner for pushing for Israeli-Palestinian peace. And Egypt is home to the Muslim Brotherhood, the large Islamist opposition group that would like to eventually make Islamic law the law of the land.
'We want these words to reach the West'
In Cairo, security forces were making a desperate stand today, but protesters were determined to press on. As the protesters from Mustafa Mahmoud mosque made their way through toward the Qasr el-Nil bridge that leads to Tahrir Square, there were people standing on their balconies waving to the people, waving flags, giving them thumbs up. The protesters down below were shouting, “Come down, come down and join us.”
When they reached the bridge, they were confronted by riot police and armed personnel carriers as they massed to cross the bridge. They repeatedly surged forward, trying to break the police cordon, and then retreated amid billowing clouds of tear gas only to surge again.
One demonstrator held aloft a sign that read "Game over." It was written, like other signs, in English. Why? Protesters responded, “We want these words to reach the West.”
Dan Murphy reported from Boston.