My neighbor, who like many Egyptians prefers not to see his name in print, asked me about my nationality the morning the war broke out. “French?” he inquired hopefully. American, I told him. He made a playful grimace. The US-led invasion of Iraq, he argued, could only be an attempt to take Arab oil–he couldn’t believe the problem was really Iraq’s weapons, because every day on television he saw progress in the inspections. He’s upset that his government is not doing anything to stop the war, but he doesn’t know how to make his voice heard. “The people of Egypt are like this,” he said, choking his throat with his hand.

Few Egyptians have anything good to say about Saddam Hussein. President Hosni Mubarak, though nominally opposing regime change by force, has tried to deflect popular anger onto the Iraqi leader, declaring on television that Saddam must take full responsibility for the crisis. Nonetheless, the afternoon the war began, several thousand protesters took over Tahrir Square in the center of Cairo to demonstrate against both the US war and their own government’s inaction. The rally might not have been much by global standards. In Egypt, however, martial law has been in force continuously for more than twenty years, and the usual street protest sees a few hundred activists surrounded by a phalanx of riot police so that they do not mix with the public.

Some of the more radical demonstrators, chanting “Burn down the embassy and throw out the ambassador,” tried to break through to the mammoth US diplomatic compound a few blocks away but were stopped by water cannon. For the most part, however, the protests were free of violence–organizers shouting “Peacefully! Peacefully!” blocked one flurry of stone-throwing by dashing in front of the riot police. Elsewhere, Islamists, Nasserite nationalists, leftists, Egyptian and expatriate students from the nearby American University in Cairo, government employees, street children and others marched and mingled. Development worker Adam Awny remembers nothing like it in Egypt. “It was fantastic, a tremendous spirit of people power, of taking control.”

That was Thursday. On Friday, police tried to break up protesters who had gathered outside the 1,000-year-old al-Azhar mosque after Friday prayers. One group of several hundred was pushed downtown, where it rapidly snowballed into many thousands. Security panicked, turning water cannon and club-armed plainclothes “militias” loose on the crowds. The result was the largest street riot central Cairo has seen in twenty-five years. The morning after, police went about the city rounding up everyone they suspected may have been involved–from known activists to teenagers who happened to be wearing Palestinian kaffiyehs.

The streets have been quiet over the past few days. The state’s willingness to crack down, combined with a generally ineffective opposition leadership, means that Egypt’s protests have a way of flaring and dying. Nonetheless, the few Cairenes lucky enough to have been near Tahrir Square on the afternoon of March 20 got a sense of what an Egypt free of martial law could be.