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A day with Egypt's protesters
Ahmed Moor spent one tumultuous afternoon with protesters in central Cairo, where he found that the 'Arabs are alive.'
Last Modified: 26 Jan 2011 11:27
Tens of thousands of Egyptians took to the streets calling for President Hosni Mubarak to resign [EPA]  

The skies in Cairo were gray and a stultifying mist enveloped Tahrir Square when I got there on Tuesday. It was about 10:00 in the morning, and the protesters I had come to join were not around. But there were riot police on every corner, blocking off all of the side streets.

The notorious mukhabarat – the secret police – were around too. It is easy to identify them; they are invariably thuggish looking and they do a good job of making themselves look conspicuous. I guess they are not so secret, but they do not have to be in this police state.

Within five minutes of arriving, two members of the mukhabarat approached me. They did not identify themselves as anyone with authority and began to interrogate me straight away. I was standing in front of the enormous, dark Mogamma bureaucratic building. It was gifted to the Egyptians in 1950 by the Soviet government, and that is exactly what it looks like. The building was built to project power and permanence, but it has been neglected and now only projects decay.

"What are you doing here?" they asked in Arabic, with characteristically hunched backs and wet lips.

"I don't speak Arabic," I replied in English.

They made a motion for me to move on. I turned and walked 30 or 40 meters before settling into another spot. And then it happened again – only it was regular riot police who shoved me along this time. An American friend of mine showed up shortly after that and we pretended that we were tourists the next eight or nine times it happened. Everyone was being shoved along, sometimes with a smile, but more often than not with a threat. It was about 2 pm now, and the sun had burned most of the mist away. I was sweating around the collar and growing frustrated.

There still were no people in the streets. And I bristled at the looks the security apparatus wore. They gloated and joked and I grew depressed and more frustrated. Where were the Egyptians? Where was al-shaab – the people? Did they not want this badly enough?

I wore my disappointment heavily.

According to Al-Masry Al-Youm, an independent newspaper, 4,000 members of the regime's life support apparatus were deployed in Tahrir Square and the surrounding area. By 2:15 pm they had pushed everyone out and cordoned the massive space off with their bodies. Tahrir Square – Liberation Square, the busiest district in Cairo – had been liberated of its human element.

Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!

I milled about for a half-hour trying to surreptitiously snap pictures of the scene when I heard the first dim shouts to my right. I shot across the street to get a look and saw a large group of riot guards forming a two-man thick cordon around a group of about 30 demonstrators.

They were tightening their human noose when some of the protesters pushed back and broke through. Fifty of us joined in and within minutes 300 people were marching down the street away from the square.

A chant went up: Hurriya! Hurriya! Hurriya! - Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!

I was jubilant.

The riot police approached from the rear and formed a barrier several men deep. Ahead of us, a group of sour-looking Mukhabarat men tried to block the group of several hundred protesters in – but we pushed and overwhelmed them. 

Someone holding a cellphone to my left yelled in a heated voice that there were more protesters by the museum. The men at the head of the protest, the ones leading the chants, began to run breathlessly around the corner and we followed, also breathless. I panted as I ran, disbelieving what was happening. Rounding the corner, I came face to face with a crowd of more than 1,000 demonstrators and my heart swelled and my head spun.

Within 20 minutes there were several thousand of us on the streets, and by the end of the hour several more thousand. The police decided to try to take control at that point and personnel carrier armed with a water cannon tore through the crowd. We split in two and demonstrators began to attack the vehicle. Hundreds of men chased after the truck but rejoined the main protest minutes later.

'An opportunity to turn the tide'

I heard a few times over that we were going to try to take the parliament building. We swelled in that direction and broke through another police cordon, and another. That was when they started with the tear gas.

At first they shot the canisters out of a gun but they were landing far away and dispersing the people 150 meters back. At the front, we were only 10 metres away from the riot police who formed a four-man-deep cordon. They adapted and started to throw the canisters at us by hand, but demonstrators kicked them back and forcing the police cordon to dissolve; they were not wearing gas masks. At this point, demonstrators began to pelt the riot police with bottles and flagstone fragments. And the riot guard turned and began to run.

We chased them for 100 metres and halted at a four-way intersection. It was clear that they were going to try to split the crowd with personnel from either side as soon as we crossed the intersection and we paused. That provided the police with an opportunity to turn the tide, and they began to pelt us with stones and clubbed some of us with their nightsticks.

The back and forth between Tahrir Square and the building housing the parliament, or Shoura Council, happened several more times with neither side gathering enough momentum to break the impasse. Many of the protesters took up chants – Silmiya! Silmiya! – calling on others to avoid violence and stone-throwing.

At around 6:30 pm, there were many thousands of people in the square and several thousand riot guards blocking them off on three sides. There was no more violence, but the crowds remained energetic. The men whose throats had grown hoarse found others to take up freedom's call.

And Hosni Mubarak quaked. And he continues to quake.

When I left the protest at 7:00 pm to file this report, there were still thousands of people in the square. I was tired, but not more tired than the people who have waited 30 years for the opportunity to breathe. They know how precious today was; they will not let this opportunity slip by.

I saw today that the Arabs are alive. And the Arabs are hungry.

Ahmed Moor is a Palestinian-American freelance journalist based in Cairo. He was born in the Gaza Strip, Palestine.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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Al Jazeera
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