Thousands of protesters flooded Cairo's streets on Tuesday, shutting down major thoroughfares and clashing with tens of thousands of riot police, in an unprecedented condemnation of the authoritarian rule of President Hosni Mubarak. "I didn't expect this many people. But I think the Egyptian people are alive, and they are inspired by the Tunisian revolution," says Ahmed Osama, 33, a business owner. "I think this is just the beginning."
With a regime known for repressing most protests before they move even one city block, the turnout and fluidity of street action seemed to surprise the demonstrators. "This is the biggest protest I've seen in this era," says Zeinab Khalifa, an artist who has spent much of her adult life protesting. It was an event that many here say signifies a cumulative expression of mass discontent that stretches beyond political parties or trade unions. "I'm not part of any group or party," Khalifa adds. "We've all just had enough."
Prominent opposition figures could be seen marching with the crowds on what was dubbed "Revolution Day" on Facebook. But it was not the elite protest of politicians and die-hard activists that Egypt is more accustomed to. Ordinary people fed up with the economy joined the throng. "Gas in Egypt has gotten so expensive. People can't afford health insurance. There are people here because they can't find jobs or get married," says Ahmed Khairy, a public-health worker, echoing the complaints of other demonstrators who had materialized en masse along the Nile and in city squares. Thousands more demonstrated across Egypt's northern cities of Alexandria, Suez, Mansoura and Mahallah al-Kubra.
For many, it was their first protest. Throngs of chanting young people said they got word through Facebook and e-mail; older generations said they heard about it in newspapers, on TV or from friends. But the anger rooted in economic and political hardship spanned the age gap. "We came here for a reason: to tell Mubarak that we don't want his corrupt regime," says Ahmed Mossad, 22, a translator, as he marches through the Cairo neighborhood of Shubra. "I came with three of my friends because we're all educated we're all protesting for our jobs, for our rights; to get married; and for the future of Egypt." (Marriage in the Middle East is traditionally linked to financial stability, and Egyptians often complain that high unemployment and the rising cost of living has made marriage increasingly unaffordable.)
Economic frustration has been a common thread in the street protests that have rippled through North Africa in the wake of the Tunisian uprising. But the Egyptian government has been keen to distinguish its strategy and its citizens' woes from those of Tunisia. A recent spate of copycat self-immolations was dismissed by Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif as resulting from "personal problems." And on Tuesday, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry tried to draw attention in a statement to a relatively "open environment of freedom of expression" and a police commitment to protecting demonstrators "in notable contrast to recent situations in the region." According to the statement, "Egyptians have the right to express themselves."
Indeed, for the Egyptian police force, its strategy would shift as the day lengthened, a marked difference from previous practice. Typically, cops respond to protests here by encircling demonstrators with shields and batons, restricting their movement and numbers. But early on Tuesday, police allowed the crowds to pulse through the capital, moving from neighborhood to neighborhood and even pushing through police cordons when they formed. "People are expressing their feelings," says a police captain with a shrug when asked about the new, restrained stance. "People want freedom." But as the crowd turns and pushes toward another line of shields, he adds, "We can contain them at any time."
By sunset, the shift in crowd control began as the thousands who had convened on different Cairo landmarks throughout the day made their way toward Midan Tahrir "Liberation Square" in the heart of downtown, near the Egyptian parliament. What had largely been a tolerant response for much of the day turned aggressive. Police pounded on their shields, and tear gas began to rain down. Protesters engaged in a rush-and-retreat pattern with hordes of truncheon-swinging police.
Even as men who were clutching head wounds or being carried by friends returned from the front lines, the crowd continued to chant, its ranks bolstered by hundreds more who flowed into the square from nearby bridges and side streets as the light grew dim. "Tomorrow Egypt will follow Tunisia's path," the crowd chanted. "Get out, Mubarak! Saudi Arabia is waiting for you," others yelled, referring to Tunisian President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali's choice of refuge.
At one point, a cheer erupted: demonstrators had begun to throw the tear-gas canisters back at the police, setting one group of riot shields on its heels to retreat a few blocks. It was a turnaround that sent more youth rushing into the fray. "Not everyone is afraid," says Mustafa Mohamed Nufal, 13, gas-induced tears streaming down his face.
That kind of push and pull between police and protesters may prove to be dangerous for the regime. Sidney Tarrow, an expert on revolutions and social movements at Cornell University, says it's inconsistency in a security force's conduct the combination of repression and ineffectiveness that becomes one of the most crucial ingredients of a mass uprising. "You tend to get mass rebellions not at the lowest level of repression or the highest level of repression you tend to get mass rebellions when there's a combination of an opportunity and a threat," Tarrow says. "If the Egyptian regime responds with ruthless repression and is effective at it, then I think they will put a stopper in the movement. But if they respond repressively and it's ineffective, I think you'll see a repetition of what happened in Tunisia."
Meanwhile, the Associated Press reported that three people were killed, including two protesters in Suez and a police officer who was hit in the head by a rock in Cairo. In the industrial hub of Mahallah al-Kubra, where two years ago violent labor protests inspired a wave of youth activism, demonstrators reportedly tore down a large portrait of Mubarak.
In a sign of nervousness in the regime, there appeared to be no live network broadcasts of the protests, and Twitter which was apparently shut down earlier in the day remained inaccessible to many. Still, reports of downtown protests continued, and some demonstrators promised to spend the night there. Meanwhile, the state-run networks Nile News and al-Masriya devoted their evening hours to a discussion of the unrest in Lebanon.