The area of ground separating them was just a few hundred yards but the political divide between the two sides who were raining down rocks and stones on each other may now be impossible to bridge. I was standing on the edge, at Tahrir or ‘Liberation’ Square. One of Cairo’s most famous landmarks is now a battleground. The pro- and anti-Mubarak demonstrators have been engaging in running street battles for days. Automatic gunfire punctuated the screams and shouts and the sound of the sidewalk being broken up for ammunition. I was on the frontline of that battle with the young men, demanding that President Hosni Mubarak goes. They had just breached the barricades of the pro-Mubarak camp, which many here believe are government security men dressed in civilian clothes. They poured through the cracks between the burnt-out cars and trucks lying on their sides on the road. I ran through with them. Men holding their bleeding heads or carrying their unconscious comrades staggered past in the other direction. Tanks now stand where hawkers used to sell postcards to passing tourists. This is Cairo today. The city that spawned one of the world’s greatest civilisations is now lurching towards barbarity.
So after 30 years of putting up with President Mubarak, what finally pushed people over the edge? How did the region’s most stable country get dragged to the edge of the abyss? The roots of this week’s uprising can be traced back to January 25, when small protests were held around the country on national police day to protest against police brutality. Without a trace of irony, the reaction of the police to the protests was...police brutality. Some protesters were killed, many more were beaten up. And so they in turn responded with calculated fury.
People rule Tens of thousands of protesters stoned and confronted anti-riot policemen in Cairo, Jan 28. Within days, the police melted from the streets...and for a while the looters took over.
“Made in US, look! Made in US you see, you see,” he screamed at me, the only foreigner he could find, his eyes running with tears, his face red with anger. There wasn’t much use pointing out that the same gas canister had also had me coughing and gasping for air on the side of the street as riot police charged hundreds of protesters along the banks of the river Nile. But this was last Friday’s ‘Day of Rage’ and there was a lot of it to go around. Egypt and its capital Cairo have always seethed in frustration. It is a virtual police state. Hundreds of thousands of people are employed to snoop on, harass, intimidate and torment this nation of 85 million people. But not today. Now the people owned the streets and soon they had the police on the run.
Their anger had two targets. The larger one was still President Mubarak but not too far behind was the Egyptian regime’s strongest ally. “America we will change you,” read one home-made placard. By the end of the day, I was being jostled and pushed by a mixture of looters and protesters as I watched flames consume the ruling National Democratic Party headquarters. As it burned, young men ran in and out of the building stealing chairs, tables, filing cabinets, anything that was not nailed down. The police, who hours earlier had been fighting pitched battles on the streets, had melted into the night. They had been told to go home just as somebody was making it rather easy for all the prisoners from the city’s four largest jails to escape, all at the same time. The mains roads into town were littered with their discarded uniforms. Some of them were undoubtedly here grabbing what they could. But many more were beginning to prey on the middle-class suburbs that dot the city. Throughout the night they ransacked homes, terrifying and sometimes attacking their middle-class owners.
It could have torn the society apart, instead it built a more formidable force of opposition against Mubarak. The fear recreated local communities in a city where people had adopted the western urban trait of never having met the family living next door. Suddenly neighbours who’d never talked began swapping telephone numbers, rotas were created to allow people to go to Tahrir Square to protest while other looked after their homes. Walking around the city during curfew meant being stopped every 50 paces at vigilante checkpoints staffed by educated middle-class people warming themselves from the winter chill by chopping up and burning the local police post. One weary housewife, who was spending her nights in the street outside her home armed with her best kitchen carving knife, told me, “Someone who if you see in the street you wouldn’t know, now you are trusting him to secure your family while you are protesting. This is amazing.” And so their confidence came flooding back and they poured it into their “Million-Person March”.
Short work A Mubarak effigy ‘hangs’ in Tahrir Square as the people rejoice, Feb 1
“We have already achieved more than we dreamed our children could achieve,” Angay, a middle-class mother of two boys, had told me on the bright February 1 morning. It was going to be an incredible day in the capital and the men and women and yes, boys and girls, were smiling and waving their home-made placards. This was a secular protest; it was not driven by the Muslim Brotherhood, much as the government might have hoped the outside world would think. When the call for mid-day prayers began, barely a quarter of the crowd knelt to pray. People had started streaming into Tahrir Square from early morning. They had said they would bring a million demonstrators onto the streets of Cairo. In the end they didn’t manage that, but they did produce the largest show of defiance against the government for a generation. The mainstream political parties would never have been able to organise something like this.
So how did it happen? “We were inspired by Tunisia, I think this was the first flame...and we were ready,” Sherine told me as she shaded her eyes against the mid-day sun. She was standing in the exact same spot where two days earlier I’d had to walk around the smouldering hulk of a burnt-out armoured personnel carrier. Now the square, which had resembled a war zone in the aftermath of the ‘Day of Rage’, looked more like the setting for a carnival. Well, a carnival with two tanks parked at the entrance.
An anti-government activist kisses a riot police officer after they back down, Jan 28
“It’s a young person’s revolution,” a woman told me. “You would see in the demonstrations people with the hippy look, the men with a little bit long hair and you think, ‘what are they going to do, you sissy generation?’ You cannot tell the men from the women but then look what they did.” The ‘sissy generation’ was already celebrating what they thought was their inevitable victory. “All the Egyptian people hate Mubarak but we (were) afraid, they told us if anyone want to say anything, the police they will take you and put shoes on your head,” one young man told me. “But now I smell the Egyptian air, I smell Egyptian freedom, I say everything about Mubarak and all his people, I think it is the best day of my life.”
The most popular slogan was “Game over, Mubarak”, something that could only have come from a generation weaned on video games and the Internet. But they weren’t alone. Young and old, mums and dads and their kids continued to pack into the square until they had become more than 1,00,000 strong. “I left my wife and my two daughters, I didn’t tell them where I was going because they would cry, they would fear for me,” said Ali Ahmad Ali, an English teacher. “But I am not afraid, all the people here are not afraid, we laugh together.” There was a mood of hope. Youssef, a 42-year-old engineer, was grinning from ear to ear. “We live like Third World people but we are first world people, we want to be able to show that we have all the capabilities to be the first world people. We have been here for 7,000 years but people in Europe you think that I have the camel in front of my house and I’m living beside the pyramid. Even the poor people, they are civilised. The people (in the square) are cleaning the streets.”
Scenes from a protest Egyptian riot police attack protesters in Cairo in the initial days
And by the end of the day, they had won their concessions. President Mubarak went on national TV to declare he would not stand again for this year’s presidential elections. He promised constitutional reform. It was just what the intellectuals had been demanding for years. They would have taken it in a flash just a week ago. But they thought they had the old man on the ropes, they wanted more. Driven by the infectious optimism of the youth that surrounded them, they shouted, “NO!”, he must go now. But when you corner an old military man, chances are he’ll come out fighting and that’s just what happened. At the time of writing, it’s just too unclear to say how this will end. Pitched battles have been going on throughout the night. Smoke swirls around the museum that houses the world-famous Egyptian mummies, which is now the frontline for the battling youth. But it’s not only Egypt’s history that is under threat, at the moment its future is looking shaky too.
(Paul Danahar is the BBC’s Middle East Bureau Chief)