CAIRO – The demonstrations calling for the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak have transformed the city from an overcrowded metropolis with chronic traffic jams to a battlefield of wills between the protesters and the president’s men, those charged with beating back the demands for change.
The battle seemed to reach a climax of sorts on February 10, as millions of people around the world were glued to their television and computer screens waiting for an expected announcement that Mubarak would step down. But that did not come to pass. Instead, Mubarak announced that he had merely appointed two committees to look into amending six articles of Egypt’s constitution, allowing for free and fair elections, and that he would lift the emergency law once the security situation improved. In Tahrir Square, shock quickly turned to anger, as hundreds of people took off their shoes and began waving them at Mubarak’s face on the huge screen playing his speech.
Earlier in the day, a military commander in Cairo, Gen. Hassan al-Roueini, had raised hopes that the end of Mubarak’s reign was near when he told tens of thousands gathered in Tahrir, “All your demands will be met today.”
Enraged by Mubarak’s refusal to leave, hundreds of thousands turned out again on Friday, filling not only Tahrir Square but marching on the presidential palace and the state media headquarters. By the end of the day, Vice President Omar Suleiman announced on state television that the president had resigned and handed over power to the army.
I was in Cairo’s Tahrir Square during the second week of demonstrations, a crucial turning point, when the massive crowds of protesters were met by organized thugs from state security, which resulted in a battle that only invigorated the protesters.
On the evening of February 1, the atmosphere in Tahrir was electric. Tens of thousands of protesters huddled in the square, carrying handwritten signs, displaying banners and chanting. “Mubarak—you must leave! We will not leave!” they yelled, and “Mubarak, you coward, you American collaborator!” The mood was almost celebratory, with people serving Styrofoam cups of black tea to each other and posing happily for photographs.
“It’s like Hyde Park meets Woodstock,” one Egyptian-American who attended the demonstrations put it. In between the chants, many in the crowd whistled and clapped. “I can’t believe this is our country,” one man said, his voice filled with amazement. In a corner, a row of veiled women held an impromptu concert, singing: “We say no to injustice/We say no to oppression/Freedom will always be the essence of life."
Groups of men lined up for sunset prayer. The people were happy to defy the government’s 3 pm curfew. A banner declared, “The curfew applies only to Mubarak." Protest organizers, wanting to ensure that their rally remained peaceful, ordered volunteers to search attendees for weapons and required everyone entering the square to present identification. The atmosphere was controlled and civil.
That evening, Mubarak went on state television to announce his intention to complete his term before stepping down in September. “On this land I will die,” he vowed, dismissing the demand that he leave the country. The following day, Mubarak’s supporters unleashed their attacks against the protesters. Groups of young men, believed to be plainclothes members of the country’s vast security apparatus, arrived in buses and marched to Tahrir Square armed with clubs, knives, rocks and Molotov cocktails. Some of them entered on horseback and camels, determined to beat back the protesters they accused of bringing the country, and its economy, to a standstill. They called the democracy advocates “traitors” and accused them of being driven by foreign elements, an erroneous claim that had been constantly trumpeted on state television.