Egypt Revolution: Inside a Cairo Street Protest

Egyptian demonstrators flash V-signs next to a burning police vehicle in as protests erupt in Cairo on January 28, 2011. Mohammed Abed / AFP-Getty Images

After a day of historic protests, Cairo has entered a restless night as youths continue to fight police in the city's central square and the national party headquarters and national museum burn.

An overnight curfew has been declared in Cairo, with President Hosni Mubarak calling in the army after a day of increasingly dramatic clashes between protesters and security forces.

The roar of the crowds and the beat of tear gas canisters being fired had reverberated through the Egyptian capital all day Friday. Inspired by the Tunisian revolution and fed up with Mubarak's 30 years of authoritarian rule, thousands of protesters attempted to converge on the city's central Tahrir Square to send a message that the time for change has come.

Meanwhile, the country was plunged into a telecommunications black hole, as the government took the unprecedented step of shutting down the Internet, cellphone service, and even most international telephone lines.

Early Friday morning, in a house in the middle-class neighborhood of Agouza, a group of young activists watched Al Jazeera and waited anxiously for the revolution to start.

Several of the young people in the room were members of Nobel laureate and would-be presidential candidate Mohamed ElBaradei's Campaign for Change. Many of them also have links to the We Are All Khaled Said protest movement, which was formed after a young Egyptian man of that name was apparently beaten to death in police custody last year.

Sally, 32, is a psychiatrist who just moved back to Cairo from London, partly because, she says, "I want to see change."

Salma and Omar, 19 and 22, are the niece and nephew of a political opposition figure. Salma, a slight, soft-voiced brunette, has already been arrested once for her political activism. She and her brother both say, matter-of-factly, that they're ready to die to "free Egypt from this terrible regime."

Ziad, 30, whose home this is, is a human rights lawyer and longtime activist. His mother, Ekram, a journalist, was one of 50 student militants arrested by President Sadat after Egypt's 1977 bread riot—the last time Egyptians revolted this dramatically against their government. Today Ekram laid out a big breakfast of bread, olives, jam, eggs, and fruit juice. "Eat up," she told her son and his friends. "You're going to be running around all day." She, meanwhile, would stay home to man the precious working land line.

All of the activists were surprised by the success of last Tuesday's "Day of Rage" protest, when thousands of demonstrators roamed freely through the city, easily overwhelming a seemingly flabbergasted security apparatus. Nobody expected it to be that easy Friday. Indeed, everyone expected violence. "These dictators, they never learn their lesson," said Ekram. "They understand—like Ben Ali—too late."

Friday's demonstrations were coordinated by groups across the spectrum of Egypt's political opposition, including young members of the Muslim Brotherhood, who had agreed, however, not to chant religious slogans. But activists were deprived of all the tools they have used so far to organize—Twitter, Facebook, and SMS service on cellphones were shut down Thursday. By Friday morning, Internet and cellphone service across the country was gone. The activists had to resort to traditional organizing: designated land lines and safe houses; face-to-face meetings; pre-arranged rendezvous.

The plan was for large groups to gather, right after Friday prayers, in four or five Cairo neighborhoods.

At 1:15, we headed out of Ziad's house. In groups of twos and threes, we walked along nearly empty streets toward a large square on the eastern side of the Nile. Along the way, we passed many groups of plainclothes police.

In the square, a crowd of about 2,000 people materialized. Protesters waved Egyptian flags and called out, "Hey Egyptian...Get down here!" and "We want...the fall...of this regime!"

While Ziad and his friends are mostly seasoned political activists, many of the demonstrators I spoke to were out on the street for the first time. That was the case of Doa', a veiled 34-year-old who works in a supermarket and was at a demonstration for the first time. She'd never joined before, she says, because "I was not believing any change will happen." But she was outraged by the deaths of seven protesters over the last three days. In Egypt today, "People are treated in a very bad way and poverty is increasing," she said.

Doa' was part of a joyful crowd that included professional and working-class Egyptians, Muslims, and Christians, men and women, and whole families from toddlers to grandmothers. But today many of the fist-time protesters like Doa' have experience the state's heavy-handed tactics. The government mobilized a massive security presence Friday: 450,000 central security troops were resportedly dispersed across the capital. They fired tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters.

ElBaradei was greeted with water cannons and tear gas when he and his supporters exited Friday prayers. He is now under house arrest.

Meanwhile, Tahrir Square was the scene of pitched battles. By 3 p.m., protesters say, the authorities had started firing rubber bullets at them. Demonstrators carried the wounded across nearby Kasr Al Aini bridge, then flagged down taxis and called ambulances. Minutes away, in one of the five-star hotels along the Nile, foreign tourists asked frantically whether they could place calls outside the country.

At dusk, the authorities announced a curfew. The headquarters of Mubarak's National Democratic Party were reportedly on fire. All communication networks were still down. Ekram, Zaid's mother, still had no news of her son or any of his friends. "God protect them," she said.

What seems clear after Friday is that Egypt seems well past any possible compromise on negotiation. Mubarak's regime sees the protesters' calls for a change as an existential threat and has responded with overwhelming force. But the demonstrators, who in the last few days have glimpsed an alternate future for their country, don't seem ready to back down. No one here knows what tomorrow will bring.

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