Such is the extent of political repression in Egypt that when tens of thousands of people took to the streets to decry the 29-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak, nobody was more surprised than the protesters themselves. "I didn't expect this many people," said businessman Ahmed Osama as he took in the crowds bearing antigovernment posters and chanting anti-Mubarak slogans in Cairo's central Midan Tahrir, or Liberation Square. Even Zeinab Khalifa, an artist who has spent much of her adult life campaigning for political reform, was astonished by the turnout. "This is the biggest protest I've seen in this era," she said.
The protesters flooded Cairo's streets on Jan. 25, dubbed the Day of Wrath by opposition groups. They shut down major thoroughfares and clashed with phalanxes of riot police. Demonstrations also broke out in other cities across the country, most violently in Suez, where three protesters died in confrontations with security forces. The Mubarak government tried to head off more unrest the following day by deploying riot police, troop carriers and police trucks equipped with water cannons at obvious locations for protests. But demonstrations broke out anyway, with fierce clashes erupting between young, mostly male protesters and police.
Over the past five years, the Mubarak regime has pursued an economic-growth plan of rapid liberalization, promising to deliver jobs and modernity in the process. Increasingly, however, Egyptians complain that unemployment is higher than ever, that the cost of living has risen while wages have stayed the same and that government corruption and repression have come to permeate all aspects of society.
The demonstrations alarmed the Obama Administration, which regards Mubarak as an important ally in Middle East peace negotiations and the fight against Islamic extremism, but they transfixed Arab audiences who, for the second time in a month, watched on TV and YouTube as a popular uprising took on an authoritarian regime. The success of Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution, which ended the 23-year rule of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali on Jan. 15, inspired smaller uprisings from Algeria to Yemen, but the drama unfolding in the streets of the most populous Arab nation was of a higher magnitude. "This means that the region's so-called stability was an illusion," says Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center. "These regimes are not, in fact, stable and are going to fall if not now, then later."
Other Arab autocrats, already shaken by Ben Ali's ouster, have sought to placate their angry populations by cutting the prices of food and fuel and promising jobs and handouts. Now they will take their cue from Mubarak. If he is able to extinguish the protests by brute force, expect others to follow suit. But if the protesters force their ruler into making major political concessions, it will be hard for other Arab states to deny the same to their people. And if Mubarak goes the way of Ben Ali, expect panic in presidential palaces from Algiers to Sana'a.
At the end of two days of protests, there was no indication that Mubarak was packing his bags. Nor were the protesters in any mood to back down. "I think the Egyptian people are alive, and they are inspired by the Tunisian revolution," said Osama, the Cairo businessman. "I think this is just the beginning."
Like the Jasmine revolution, the protests in Egypt began abruptly, with many participants spurred by online postings on social-networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. (The government was able to block Twitter feeds for much of the afternoon and evening of Jan. 25, and it blocked Facebook access the next day. But it was too late: the wrath was already in the streets.) And just as in Tunisia, most of the protesters were apolitical. "I'm not part of any group or party," said Khalifa, the artist. "We've all just had enough."
The government tried to pin the blame on an old bogeyman: the Muslim Brotherhood. But it's an allegation that participating groups call bogus. Shadi Taha, a member of the liberal Tomorrow Party, says most protesters were first timers. "We used to call them the silent majority the majority that is not involved in politics, who have never been involved in politics and who definitely are not involved in the Muslim Brotherhood."