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.
They also targeted journalists, threatening anyone seen holding a notebook or recorder and physically attacking photographers. The Committee to Protect Journalists has documented at least 140 attacks on journalists and news facilities since January 30. I was mobbed after I snapped a picture of a Mubarak supporter who’d been injured. He was unable to walk on his own, so two of his friends held him up. He approached me and yelled at me to delete the photograph at once. Later, at the hotel where I was staying, about a two-minute walk from the square, a waiter approached me and told me that he had seen me taking photographs of the protesters in Tahrir. When I asked him if he had been there to protest, he responded, “No. I was there to watch,” before walking away. Secret police swept through all the hotels in the area looking for journalists and seeking to seize their equipment. Many reporters were prevented from leaving their hotels to cover the events, and they were eventually told they could not enter the square without applying for local press credentials, a lengthy bureaucratic process.
Near the rock-throwing pro-government youth, a group of men approached me to share their side of the story—one, they said, that had been under-reported. “We lived here in Egypt in security for thirty years. In six days, we’ve lived without any security,” said Adel Syed, 45. “There is corruption. I won’t dispute that. But Mubarak told them everything they want to hear, and they’re still not happy."
The government supporters blamed outside influence for the protests, claiming, without providing any evidence, that they were organized, in part, by Hamas, the Palestinian movement that controls the Gaza Strip, in order to ensure the opening of Egypt’s Rafah crossing with Gaza. They also blamed Iran, the United States and the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, for having a hand in the massive demonstrations.
“The protesters want Egypt to collapse, but it won’t. It never will,” said Tarek El-Doussouky, a 46-year-old lawyer wearing a beige suit. “The Egyptian people are aware of the foreign intervention.”
Hazem Abdul Wahd, 35, who also works as a lawyer, agreed. “There are outsiders trying to implement a foreign political agenda,” he said. “Those people are not real Egyptians. They are Egyptians living abroad. There are Iranians and Palestinians in there,” he added, referring to the square. “There are 85 million Egyptians,” El-Doussouky said, “and you’re not hearing from them. The majority agrees with us." As I prepared to leave, the group started chanting, “We will die and Mubarak should live. We will die for him."
On February 3, Liberation Square looked like a war zone, with rubble strewn everywhere and shell-shocked survivors distributing sandwiches and bottled water. Evidence of the running battles between supporters of Mubarak and the protesters trapped in the square overnight was all around. Some of the protesters were eager to share their stories. Others looked like zombies, dazed and traumatized by the night’s events. There were many people with bandages on their heads, faces and arms.
Eman, a protester and volunteer who had spent the previous week at the square, stood guard at one of the square’s entrances, across from the Qasr al Nil Bridge. With tears in her eyes, she recalled the events of the past day. “Look around,” she said, pointing to the large pieces of concrete littering the ground. “We’ve been here for days, and this destruction never happened. We always made sure to keep this place clean. We’re peaceful protesters. But Mubarak’s hired thugs came here to drive us out. They didn’t succeed. We’re here to stay, because we have a cause. They don’t."
At least six people were killed and 800 injured in the battle of Tahrir, according to the Ministry of Health. People in the square are now trying to make sense of the deaths, calling those who gave their lives martyrs. Fathi Abdul-Rahman of Alexandria said he came under attack from plainclothes police officers on February 2. He pointed to his head, where he had just gotten seven stitches. He said Mubarak’s supporters called him a traitor, a collaborator and an infidel before they started pelting him with huge rocks. “They only stopped after they thought I died!” he said. Around him a crowd began chanting, “The people want the execution of the butcher,” referring to Mubarak.
“Please tell the world that the protesters in Tahrir Square spent a night in which not a single one of them thought they would see the next day because of what those mad people did,” said Muhammad Abdel-Monim, a teacher from the governorate of Ash Sharqiya. “The police, who are supposed to protect the people, killed the people. This is the regime of Hosni Mubarak, which said it would bring safety and security to Egyptians."
The protesters were convinced that the pro-Mubarak crowd was bought and paid for. Muhammad Farooq, 23, of Helwan, which sits on the Nile south of Cairo, said in his neighborhood he saw security officers distributing money and chicken dinners to anyone who agreed to disrupt the protests in Tahrir. "My mother was shocked. The whole neighborhood was. People said ‘You sold your country for forty pounds.’ They are traitors."
Ahmed Al-Sawy Ali, a doctor who treated many of the victims, said he had no doubt that the perpetrators were hired guns. “They are of course free to express their opinions, but they physically attacked us. Where would regular protesters supporting Hosni Mubarak get Molotov cocktails? Where did they get all the weapons and camels from, the knives?” he said referring to the weapons the government supporters used. "There were people, among the protesters, who supported the president after his speech on Tuesday,” Ali said. “But after yesterday’s events, they’ve turned against him. But what happened to us—these are war crimes that Mubarak should be tried for."
Ali, 26, from the governorate of Asyut in Upper Egypt, said he joined the protest on January 28 to demand change in Egypt, where he lacks opportunity as a doctor earning 350 Egyptian pounds, or $60, a month. He said he could not afford to get married. “I spent six, seven, years in medical school and my salary is so low. As soon as Hosni leaves, I told my fiancée, we’re going to get married in Tahrir Square."
Throughout the morning of February 3, there was a sense of foreboding in the air. The wounded were treated in a makeshift clinic, while the crowds chanted defiantly. “Oh Mubarak—wake up. Today is the last day!" Hours later, Mubarak’s supporters were back, replacing the chanting voices with bursts of gunfire. But that didn’t seem to break the protesters’ momentum. Mustafa Al-Suroor, an engineer, said he joined the gathering in Tahrir precisely because of Mubarak’s violent response. “When I heard that my countrymen were being slaughtered, I said, How could I live in the country after this? I have to joint them in support.” The more brutal the government response, the more people will come out to join the demonstrations, he said. “This is a popular movement fighting a dictatorship,” he said. “We want democracy. Either our demands are met, or we will die here.”
Since those days, the crowds in Tahrir have only grown, as the veteran protesters who have been camped out for over two weeks were joined by thousands of striking workers, including doctors, lawyers and bus drivers.
As the movement grew this week, many demonstrators were increasingly optimistic that Mubarak’s departure was imminent. But they made clear that they would not stop at the president’s resignation. “No concessions or surrender until the entire regime falls,” they roared on February 10. After they heard Mubarak’s defiant speech, their chants, too, became more defiant. “Thawra thawra hatta el nasr/ thawra fi kul shwari’ masr.” Revolution, revolution until victory. Revolution in every street of Egypt. Their resistance has now, finally, swept Mubarak from power. It remains to be seen whether his departure will bring about a genuine democracy.