In Cairo, Egypt, a street-eye view on a day of 'revolution' and high hopes

Cairo witnessed extraordinary scenes of protest today. One Egyptian demonstrator consoled a sobbing young policeman, saying, 'You are one of us now.'

Lefteris Pitarakis/AP
Egyptian anti-government activists, some standing on a burned police car, challenge riot police officers, not seen, during clashes in Cairo, Egypt, Friday.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak responded to the massive uprising that swept Egypt Friday, breaking his silence to announce he had dissolved the government but that he would not step down. The president said he understands the frustrations and aspirations of the people, and said that protests were possible only because of the increased freedom he had given the people.

But he criticized the protesters for unleashing chaos and said the path to reform is through national dialogue, adding that his government was committed to reform.

"I have a firm belief and conviction that we will continue our economic, political, and social reforms," Mr. Mubarak said, echoing a trio of concerns voiced earlier by White House press secretary Robert Gibbs. "May God save Egypt, its people, [may He] guide our steps, and may peace be upon you all."

But his televised address is unlikely to appease the protesters who refused to back down as they poured into streets on Friday and clashed with police, resulting in at least 1,000 wounded and 11 dead.

They finally unleashed the anger they had held inside for three decades as Mubarak presided over an increasingly oppressive and unpopular regime, and they were clear about one thing: they want Mubarak out.

As Friday drew to a close, Tahrir Square in Cairo’s downtown area resembled a war zone. Police cars lay overturned and burning. A blaze at the headquarters of the president’s ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) sent billows of dark smoke into the night sky.

The smoke mingled with the tear gas police shot at protesters, forming a dense cloud over the square. Youths darted through it to pull down fences and topple police structures, dragging them into the street to form barricades.

'Our freedom is near'

The protesters have accomplished the unthinkable toward a regime that rules with the backing of a huge security apparatus: they rose up, overwhelmed the police, and took power into their hands.

The incredible scenes in Cairo, unimaginable a month ago, underlined that the demonstrations have crossed a line. The people have gone from believing that revolution is possible, thanks to Tunisia, to believing that it is imminent – and they say they won’t leave the streets without achieving some sort of change.

“We feel our freedom is near,” says Ahmed Satar in Tahrir Square Friday evening as he watched people cheer the arrival of Army vehicles. “People have started to wake up. No one can stop them anymore.”

Hijabs, track suits, Nikes, and cheap sandals

The protests today started quietly at Friday prayers. After a day of unprecedented protests Tuesday, activists had called for another demonstration Friday. Despite the government’s attempts to stop it by cutting off Internet and cellphone service throughout the country, thousands gathered at Mustafa Mahmoud mosque in the middle-class neighborhood of Mohandiseen.

They spilled out onto the sidewalk as they performed their prayers, the eerie silence filled with anticipation.

As soon as the prayer ended, they jumped to their feet and erupted into shouts of, “The people want the fall of the regime.” They broke through a police cordon that had formed around the mosque and began marching toward Tahrir Square where the demonstrators had gathered Tuesday.

At the entrance to a bridge across the Nile River, they met their first obstacle: a row of security forces several men deep blocked their path with armored vehicles. As the crowd of thousands surged forward, the police fired barrage after barrage of tear gas.

The people fell back, then surged forward determinedly, battling the police for more than an hour on the bridge. Women in hijabs stood alongside men in track suits, people wearing Nikes stood next to people in cheap sandals: None gave up.

The demonstrators passed around onions, which decreased the effects of the gas, and one man ran from person to person as they stumbled out of the gas, pressing the end of his red scarf – which was covered in vinegar, another salve – to their noses.

With a final surge, the people forced the police to retreat.

Protester consoles sobbing young policeman

Then the protesters stopped to form orderly rows facing east to perform afternoon prayers, their voices echoing off nearby buildings.

As they finished, another group of thousands that had marched from Giza arrived, and the air was filled with exuberant cheers as the two groups embraced.

Reinforced, the crowd marched onto the bridge, gathering around two troop carriers the police had been forced to leave behind, along with several of their members. A crowd surrounded the policemen angrily, but some protesters pushed them back.

“This is a peaceful protest,” they yelled. “Don’t hurt them!”

A young policeman walked past, sobbing uncontrollably on the shoulder of a protester.

“It’s OK, you are our brother, you are with us now,” said the protester.

Tear gas canisters 'Made in USA'

The crowd surged once again toward its goal, meeting its final obstacle in the form of another row of police blocking the last stretch of Qasr el-Nil bridge. Another battle ensued.

Young men began to pick up rocks and tear down municipal signs, but protesters gathered around them, forcing them to stop, and yelling, “Peaceful! Peaceful!”

As the tear gas canisters fell around the crowd, young men picked them up with bare hands, throwing them back toward the police.

As the battle raged, the protesters picked up some of the spent canisters. One after the other, they saw the words, “Made in USA” in blue.

“Is this American democracy?” demanded Mohamed Hassan El-Hussein, a middle-aged man in a brown sweater as he held up the canister. “America supports Mubarak with bombs against us. Clinton says on television that Egypt shouldn’t hurt its people, and at the same time they send bombs to Egypt to be used against us.”

“Where’s the American pressure on the Egyptian government for democracy? Why does Obama support Mubarak when he kills his people?”

Protester after protester pointed out the words “Made in USA” on the canisters, expressing their anger at decades of American support for the Egyptian regime.

The US had placed its bets on the regime, wagering that though oppressive, Mubarak would be able to guarantee stability.

It ignored warnings that Egypt’s growing youth population and increasing repression of the regime could upend that stability, and now those warnings were coming to life.

'Now is the time'

Now the crowd began to run. Pressing forward with cries of Allahu Akbar! – God is great – the unarmed protesters were overwhelming the police who have cowed them for decades.

In an extraordinary scene, thousands pushed onto the bridge, pushing the riot police and armored vehicles backward. The crowd was euphoric as it marched across – mothers and sons, men and women, young and old.

“Finally, the Egyptian people begin to feel,” said furniture salesman Shadi Mohamed, as he marched triumphantly over the bridge. “Finally, they’re feeling that they have no rights and they must demand them. Injustice has a loud voice, but the voice of justice is even greater.”

He might have been speaking about himself – today was the first time he has participated in his entire life. “Now is the time.”

'It's a revolution'

As darkness fell, the thousands of people entered Tahrir Square after five hours of marching. They banged on metal signs and fences, the deafening rhythmic beat punctured by volleys of tear gas and bullets.

They cheered as Army vehicles entered the square. “The Army is with the people,” they shouted.

It is unclear whether that is true, but the protesters believed Friday night that just as they had been able to overwhelm the police and make it to Tahrir, they would also be able to change the nation.

“It’s a revolution,” said Motaz Fouad. “I think Hosni Mubarak has to step down after this. We won’t stop. It’s gone too far now. I think we will never stop.”

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