CAIRO, January 2 (JMCC) – Just one week earlier, thousands of police had stood here in riot gear, pressing back the crowds. But by Tuesday, Tahrir Square in central Cairo was filled with roaring masses calling for Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak to step down.
By many counts more than a million people took to Cairo’s streets in a moving peaceful protest. Crowds filled the square and the main boulevard stood packed with bodies as far as the eye could see.
“Leave! Leave! Leave! Down with Mubarak!,” the crowds chanted in unison, drowning out a military helicopter circling overhead. “Get out Mubarak!”
An elderly man mustered the power in his voice to speak to a journalist. “Our children cannot work. We cannot say what we want. We have suffered for 30 years under this government.”
Hundreds burst into rousing song, their voices lifting up into the air. “This is a great day,” said a woman, emotion in her voice.
‘HE THOUGHT HE WAS ALONE’
Protesters were discovering a new solidarity, they said. “In a café, my friend told me that he had always hated Mubarak,” said 24-year-old Amr Saleh, “but he thought he was alone.”
Samer Sobhi agreed that a veil had been lifted. “The regime made you believe that if you went into the streets to protest then you would be the only one,” he said.
Now, with the police cordon gone, crowds gathered around journalists, eager to have their voices heard. Tell Europe, Tell America, they said, we want our freedom. We won’t go until Mubarak goes.
Handmade banners displayed the words “Get out, Mubarak,” in countless languages. A man held a small black kitten with a placard around its neck scrawled with the same message.
The walking wounded posed gravely for photographs, holding empty shotgun cartridges and spent ammunition that had been used against them by Egyptian police in earlier protests.
A stuffed effigy of Mubarak swung by the neck from a lamppost in the center of the square as protesters flung their shoes at it. The anger of the crowd was raw.
WEALTH IN THE HANDS OF A FEW
“He destroyed the middle classes,” said doctor Ayman Hasem of Mubarak. “My brother is a qualified orthopedic doctor, but he only earns $100 in his job.”
A man with “Get out Mubarak,” emblazoned on his forehead said, “I studied English for 17 years, and now I work in a supermarket.”
A taxi driver repeated this litany of woes. “I have four children but we all live in one room,” he said. “I can barely afford to eat.”
But protesters were careful not to depart from their solitary message against the regime. We don’t want foreign aid, they said repeatedly. We are a proud country with a history of 7,000 years, but our wealth is in the hands of a few.
The massive march in Cairo and other Egyptian cities capped a week of demonstrations that have been dubbed a revolt of middle class students. Tuesday’s protests saw every walk of life represented, however.
Over 100 women wearing hijab made their way across the square, chanting. Children could be seen crawling over army tanks that ringed the square.
“I am not afraid. I will stay here until the president leaves,” said Ahmed, a seven-year-old boy.
By Tuesday night, hours after a military curfew went in place designed to clear people from the streets of Egypt’s cities, over 10,000 people remained at the square. A roar of anger went up from the crowd as President Mubarak announced his intention to step down – but only after the end of his term in September.
The move was the latest in a series of steps Mubarak has taken in an effort to quell the protests, first sacking his cabinet and then naming a vice-president, former intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, for the first time in nearly 30 years of leadership.
But protesters, inspired by Tunisian protests that brought down the government of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, said it wasn’t enough.
“We will stay here,” said protester Tarek Mahmoud. “The students marched for 30 days to make Ben Ali leave. We will march for 30 years.”
“Nothing has changed,” says professor Ala Ashaal. “This is a technocrat government. People are interested in the ousting of Mubarak and his regime; they don’t recognize Suleiman and his government.”
The international community is watching the events in Egypt closely. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went on record on Monday saying he feared that Egypt could become a radical Islamic power.
But inside Egypt, observers were unswayed. “Netanyahu says he worries about Islamists,” says Ashaal. “I say this is really our business.”