CAIRO, EGYPT – Tuesday was billed as a game-changer, the day of a “Million March” that would swell the crowd in Tahrir Square, along with its spirits, as protesters promised a decisive action that would deliver the message to Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, that no concession aside from his abdication would satisfy Egypt’s widespread unrest.
Final estimates of the size varied widely, but it was probably the largest demonstration modern Cairo has ever seen, and the message from Tahrir echoed clearly from the chants of the enormous crowd: “He’s going, we’re not going.”
Throughout the morning, the Egyptian army fulfilled its promise to protect the civilian populace, providing an outer cordon of security and ushering demonstrators through barbed wire and concrete barriers with little or no resistance.
But it was often ordinary citizens – the protesters themselves – who performed the most stringent security checks, patting down young men, checking ID cards, and ushering away those who seemed to be a threat.
Inside, the atmosphere was jovial, and there was a palpable buzz in the crowd. The army had already promised not to use force against unarmed civilians, and there was little concern among the demonstrators that other security forces would attack. Though police had reportedly deployed again throughout the city, they were nowhere to be seen in the vicinity of Tahrir.
So protesters were free to wave signs, deliver impromptu speeches, chant slogans, and hold forth on politics. They sang the Egyptian national anthem, “My country, my country,” in unison several times.
“Our requirement now, it is to do a power-sharing with all the people in Egypt,” said Said Mustafa. “The Muslim Brotherhood, al-Wafd, ElBaradei, all the people sharing in this, with the army.”
It was a slightly surreal experience, talking politics with Egyptians in the middle of Tahrir Square, a place that – until a week ago – was the heart of Egypt’s authoritarian government. The hulking Mogamma building, an edifice that has long symbolised all that was corrupt and dysfunctional in Egypt’s bureaucracy, looms always in Tahrir’s background.
But there was none of the reluctance that once characterised political conversations; all of them were eager to share their views. In the streets surrounding the Mogamma, burned out cars sat like carcasses. Several young men lounged inside one, snacking on pastries.
On a side street near the old American University in Cairo, Nawal el-Saadawy, a well-known human rights activist, engaged in informal debates and talks with the crowd that had gathered around her.
Mohammed Abdelrady, who said he belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood, pursued Saadawy doggedly, questioning her thinking on the role of religion in life. Abdelrady argued that Egyptians have been a thoroughly religious people for thousands of years, since the time of the Pharaohs, and that while he and Saadawy likely agreed about much, she was pressing for too many “religious freedoms” and pushing women’s rights too hard for Egyptian society.
Saadawy, after taking the man’s number and before being ushered away by the group accompanying her, pointed out to Abdelrady that the constitution makes all Egyptians equal, regardless of sex or sect.
One group of men in Tahrir debated whether prominent families – like the billionaire Sawiris clan, which controls Orascom Telecom – would support a new government or stand with Mubarak. Several talked about Gamal Mubarak, the president’s son, wondering what his future role would be.
All of them agreed, though, that it was time for Mubarak to go.
“Thirty years he’s been with us. Enough!” said Abu Hassan, an elderly man sitting in the center of the square who waved a reporter over to chat. “Nasser died. Sadat died. And we had this president for 30 years? Enough.”
Anger at the United States and Israel – seen as Mubarak’s two staunchest allies – was palpable. Dozens of people held signs criticising the US for backing the president, and one demonstrator carried a “leave, Mubarak” sign written in Hebrew. “It’s a message for Netanyahu,” he said, referring to the Israeli prime minister. Another protester held a sign that said, “I hate Mubarak and I hate Israel.”
Several protesters blamed the current government for stoking sectarian unrest in Egypt, which has seen several ghastly acts of communal violence in recent months – the bombing of a Coptic church in Alexandria earlier this month, and a drive-by shooting outside a church in Nag Hammadi last year.
Tuesday’s protest was an antidote of sorts to those tensions: Egyptians from all walks of life – Muslims and Christians, some devoutly religious, others not – chanting the same slogans.”The Egyptian government has created these tensions,” said Mustafa Haddad. “There never used to be problems between Muslims and Christians, Christians and Muslims. There is no conflict within the sha’ab [the Egyptian people].”
Egyptian state television, meanwhile, took a slightly softer line on the rallies, which it had ignored up until last night. It still tried to minimise them, showing grainy out-of-focus shots of Tahrir Square and pictures of side streets which held only a handful of demonstrators. But several state-owned networks sent reporters to Tahrir Square, and they described the protest as peaceful, praising the army’s role in providing security.
The rest of their coverage focused on the new government, which has been widely scorned by protesters across the country. One channel carried an interview with the new prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, talking about the new government’s priorities; and a story about Mahmoud Wagdy, the new interior minister, announcing his “Police Serving the People” programme.
Outside, chants of “No Mubarak, No Suleiman, No Shafiq” echoed across Tahrir Square, and several demonstrators held signs comparing the police to terrorists.
By evening, the crowd had thinned somewhat, but the rally will continue into the night, with many demonstrators pitching tents and starting campfires to keep warm. Mubarak’s announcement tonight, in which it’s anticipated he will announce his intent not to run again for president, is unlikely to satisfy them.