By Kareem Fahim and Mona el-Naggar
The New York Times
January 25, 2011
CAIRO — Tens of thousands of people demanding an end to the nearly 30-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak filled the streets of several Egyptian cities on Tuesday, in an unusually large and sometimes violent burst of civil unrest that appeared to threaten the stability of one of the United States’ closest Arab allies.
The protests, at least partly inspired by the toppling of the authoritarian government in Tunisia, began small but grew all day, with protesters occupying one of Cairo’s central squares. Security forces, which normally prevent major public displays of dissent, initially struggled to suppress the demonstrations, allowing them to swell.
But early Wednesday morning, firing rubber bullets, tear gas and concussion grenades, the police finally drove groups of demonstrators from the square, as the sit-in was transformed into a spreading battle involving thousands of people and little restraint. Plainclothes officers beat several demonstrators, and protesters flipped over a police car and set it on fire.
Protests also flared in Alexandria, Suez, Mansura and Beni Suef. There were reports of three deaths and many injuries around the country.
Photographers in Alexandria caught people tearing up a large portrait of Mr. Mubarak. An Internet video of demonstrations in Mahalla el-Kubra showed the same, while a crowd snapped cellphone photos and cheered. The acts — rare, and bold here — underscored the anger coursing through the protests and the challenge they might pose to the aging and ailing Egyptian leader.
Several observers said the protests represented the largest display of popular dissatisfaction in recent memory, perhaps since 1977, when people across Egypt violently protested the elimination of subsidies for food and other basic goods.
It was not clear whether the size and intensity of the demonstrations — which seemed to shock even the protesters — would or could be sustained.
The government quickly placed blame for the protests on Egypt’s largest opposition movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, which is tolerated but officially banned. In a statement, the Interior Ministry said the protests were the work of “instigators” led by the Muslim Brotherhood, while the movement declared that it had little to do with them.
The reality that emerged from interviews with protesters — many of whom said they were independents — was more complicated and reflected one of the government’s deepest fears: that opposition to Mr. Mubarak’s rule spreads across ideological lines and includes average people angered by corruption and economic hardship as well as secular and Islamist opponents. That broad support could make it harder for the government to co-opt or crush those demanding change.
“The big, grand ideological narratives were not seen today,” said Amr Hamzawy, research director of the Carnegie Middle East Center. “This was not about ‘Islam is the solution’ or anything else.”
Instead, the protests seemed to reflect a spreading unease with Mr. Mubarak on issues from extension of an emergency law that allows arrests without charge, to his presiding over a stagnant bureaucracy that citizens say is incapable of handling even basic responsibilities. Their size seemed to represent a breakthrough for opposition groups harassed by the government as they struggle to break Mr. Mubarak’s monopoly on political life.
Security officials said a soldier in Cairo, along with two protesters in Suez, were killed in circumstances that were not immediately clear. Scores of demonstrators and more than a dozen soldiers were injured in the Cairo clashes, which lasted hours and included bouts of rock-throwing by both protesters and the police.
There were mixed signals about how the authorities planned to handle the unrest. In contrast with other recent political demonstrations in Cairo, thousands of security officers seemed content at times to contain rather than engage the protesters — especially when it became clear that the demonstrators would not retreat from Tahrir Square. In a statement, the Interior Ministry said its policy had been “securing and not confronting these gatherings.”
But there were signs of other containment tactics. Several times Tuesday afternoon, cellphone networks appeared to be blocked or otherwise unavailable for people calling from Tahrir — or Liberation — Square. Many people had trouble getting access to Twitter, the social networking tool that helped spread news of the protests. Twitter confirmed that its site had been blocked in Egypt, Reuters reported.
By early Wednesday, the police appeared determined to clear protesters from the streets, leading to more clashes.
On a bridge, drivers stopped their cars and some joined the protesters, chanting, “The people want the downfall of the regime.”
In the days leading up to the protests, more than 90,000 people signed up on a Facebook page for the “Day of Revolution,” organized by opposition and pro-democracy groups to be held on Police Day, a national holiday. The organizers framed the protest as a stand against torture, poverty, corruption and unemployment. The Muslim Brotherhood said it would not officially participate, though some members were among the protesters in Cairo.
But many people said they did not belong to any particular group and were attending their first demonstration. They included Ramy Rafat, 25, who said he lived in El-Marg, an impoverished neighborhood in north Cairo. Mr. Rafat, who has a master’s degree in petroleum geology and is unemployed, said he learned about the protest on a Facebook page for Khaled Said, 28. Mr. Said’s family says police officers fatally beat him last year.
“There are a lot of things wrong with this country,” Mr. Rafat said. “The president has been here for 30 years. Why?”
Aya Sayed Khalil, 23, brought her sister, her mother and her father to the protest. “I told them the revolution was coming,” she said. Asked about their political affiliation, Ms. Khalil’s mother, Mona, said, “We’re just Egyptians.”
The marchers came from all social classes and included young men recording tense moments on cellphone cameras, and middle-age women carrying flags of the Wafd party, one of Egypt’s opposition groups. A doctor, Wesam Abdulaziz, 29, said she had traveled two hours to join the protest. She had been to one demonstration before, concerning the treatment of Mr. Said.
“I came to change the government,” she said. “I came to change the entire regime.”
What began as a small demonstration outside Cairo’s Supreme Court building around noon Tuesday quickly swelled. Hundreds marched through winding streets while security officers shadowed them in a moving cordon. Scuffles broke out as the officers tried to halt the march by linking arms and forming lines.
“Freedom, freedom, freedom,” the protesters chanted. “Where are the Egyptian people?”
By midafternoon, groups of people had converged in Tahrir Square, where they met security forces in full riot gear and a water cannon truck. Several people said the clashes began in earnest after protesters tried to take control of the water cannon.
In front of the Mugamma, a towering administrative building in the square, young men threw rocks at the police as older demonstrators tried to stop them. Several young men were carried away from the clashes, clutching bloodied tissues to their heads.
As night fell, the crowd grew larger. An older man with a bullhorn appealed to his more Internet-aware counterparts, asking them to spread the word to railway workers and dockworkers. Many people said they planned to sleep in the square.
After midnight, the security forces, using concussion grenades and tear gas, renewed attempts to disperse the protesters.
Since Jan. 14, when President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia fled his country during a popular revolt, autocrats throughout the region have fretted about responses by their own restive populations who shared many of the grievances that toppled Mr. Ben Ali: rampant corruption, injustice, high unemployment and the simple lack of dignity.
It was unclear whether the day of demonstrations would lead to any broader social unrest. “I think it is the beginning of the process,” said Mustapha Kamel al-Sayyid, a political science professor at the American University in Cairo.
“Some of the demonstrators are still in Tahrir and said they will not leave until their demands are met by the government,” he said, hours before they were forced out of the square. “Their demands will not be met by the government, but they will not give up.”
Liam Stack and Dawlat Magdy contributed reporting.