Tear Gas on the Streets of Cairo

Egypt's largest demonstrations in decades have rocked Hosni Mubarak's regime to the core. But can the protesters keep it going?


CAIRO, Egypt — Only time will tell if Tuesday’s "Day of Rage" protests in Egypt produce the sort of long-lasting social upheaval that would threaten President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year reign.

But whatever the long-term outcome, the protests have already moved the Arab world’s most populous nation into uncharted waters, proving that nothing in the Middle East may be the same again after the waves of civil unrest that drove Tunisian dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali from power in one breathtaking month.

For starters, there was the sheer size of the turnout, which was larger than anything I’ve seen in 13 years of covering Egyptian protests. Tuesday was the first time I’ve ever been in a situation where the protesters potentially outnumbered riot police on the ground.

The Egyptian government’s standard operating procedure is to overwhelm any public protest with a massively disproportionate wave of black-clad police. As a result, most protests tend to boil down to the same 500 noisy hard-core activists hopelessly penned in by thousands of riot cops.

But today those numbers were reversed, and the police, at times, seemed completely confused and struggling to keep up. In one confrontation outside the Supreme Court building in downtown Cairo, the riot police attempted to lock arms in a human chain to block the protesters’ path. Their effort, however, proved hopelessly ineffective — waves of marchers simply overwhelmed them and continued on their path.

When all else failed, the police turned to tear gas in an attempt to control the swelling crowds. At one point, I was caught up in an acrid cloud of gas as protesters fled, doused their heads with water, and tended to those who had collapsed. In a surreal moment, I found myself on a sidewalk surrounded by both protesters and riot police — all of them gagging from the gas.

The makeup of the crowd — a true mishmash of young and old, male and female, Christian and Muslim — was also different from protests past. One woman in her mid-50s, who declined to give her name, said she had never before gotten involved in politics. But today she came out with her two teenage sons "to show them that it’s possible to demonstrate peacefully for change."

I spent the day moving throughout downtown Cairo trying to keep track of a dizzying series of fast-moving events. It started with a lesson on how a new generation of activists — dismissed ahead of time by Interior Minister Habib al-Adly as "a bunch of incognizant, ineffective young people" — is using electronic means to stay one step ahead of the authorities.

Organizers announced long ago that the protesters would gather outside the Interior Ministry downtown, prompting police to lock down that area. But shortly after noon, it became clear that was a clever bit of misdirection, as a whole new set of gathering points was distributed via Facebook and Twitter.

Egyptians used the #jan25 Twitter hashtag to spread news and encouragement about the course of the protests. "If Mubarak goes down, there are going to be enough presidents in Saudi to make a soccer team!" read one representative tweet by @MinaAFahmy. Other tweets linked to Facebook groups that listed a series of new meeting spots and contact numbers.

As the day progressed, the series of scattered protests moved through different parts of the city, growing in strength as they joined up with other groups and induced onlookers and residents to join in.

In a memorable moment, the 150-person-strong protest I was following met up with a much larger protest coming the opposite direction. The two sides embraced in the street amid raucous cheering and began marching together.

At one point, more than a thousand people stood outside a building on along the Nile belonging to Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party, chanting "illegitimate" and "Oh Mubarak, your plane is waiting for you" — a reference to Ben Ali’s abrupt flight into exile less than two weeks ago.

Similar protests were reported in Alexandria and in the rural Nile Delta village of Mahalla — a hotbed of political and labor activism. Among the protesters’ demands are that Mubarak step down, presidential term limits be implemented, and the country’s notorious "emergency laws" — in place for Mubarak’s entire three decades in power — be repealed.

By late afternoon, many of the protesters had converged on Tahrir Square, the traditional heart of the city. A massive deployment of black-clad riot police used water cannons, tear gas, and batons to repel the protesters, who pushed through police cordons and established dominance over the entire square, just one block away from the Egyptian Parliament.

As of early evening, the situation downtown was tense and uncertain. The police alternately advanced behind a hail of tear gas canisters, then gave ground once the crowd regrouped. protesters were planning to sit in overnight, and were appealing to supporters to bring food, water, blankets and cigarettes. The crowd still numbered several thousand, spread out across the massive public square that houses the Egyptian museum.

One of the most impressive aspects of Tuesday’s protest is its success at producing massive numbers without the direct organizational assistance of the Muslim Brotherhood. The venerable Islamist group is normally the only opposition force that can bring thousands into the streets. But the Brotherhood announced earlier this week that it would not directly participate as an organization, though it did allow individual members to take part.

"The people have to come out and take control of their own destiny," said Ahmed Eid, who has been unemployed since graduating from law school three years ago. "If we continue like this, we will change things, we just have to commit."

That level of commitment will be sorely tested in the coming days. Today’s events mark a genuine watershed in Egypt’s political history. However, there have been similar, albeit smaller, spikes of public frustration over the years. They were typically followed by a retrenching of the regime, a crackdown, and a return to the status quo.

What brought Ben Ali down wasn’t a one-day mass protest, but a solid month of uncontrollable political activity throughout the country. It remains to be seen whether Egypt’s Day of Rage will produce enough sustained pressure to produce the same result.

Ashraf Khalil is a Cairo-based journalist. This article is an edited excerpt of his book, Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation.