-Taken from the Guardian
-Cairo - January 2011
- See all the Guardian's live updates on the protests here, including audio footage
Central Cairo was the scene of violent clashes tonight, as the biggest anti-government demonstrations in a generation swept across Egypt, bringing tens of thousands onto the streets.
Shouting ‘down with the regime’ and ‘Mubarak, your plane is waiting’, protesters demanded the end of President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year dictatorship and said they were fighting back against decades of poverty, oppression and police torture. The protests had been declared illegal by the authorities and were met with a fierce police response, as teargas and water cannons were fired into the crowd and rocks were hurled into the air by both demonstrators and security forces.
In the capital thousands of protesters from separate demonstrations converged on Tahrir Square, the central plaza. Demostrators waved Egyptian and Tunisian flags, hauled down a billboard for the ruling NDP party and chanted "depart Mubarak" at the 82-year-old leader, who will face elections later this year. One policeman died in the Cairo violence and two demonstrators were reported to have been killed in Suez, east of Cairo.
"This is the first day of the Egyptian revolution," said Karim Rizk, at one of the Cairo rallies. The protests against decades of poverty, oppression and police torture had been declared illegal by the authorities and were met with a fierce response. Teargas and water cannons were fired into the crowd and rocks were hurled into the air by both demonstrators and security forces.
"We have taken back our streets today from the regime and they won't recover from the blow," said Rizk.
Protests also broke out in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria, where posters of Mubarak and his son Gamal were destroyed. Roads were also blocked in the Sinai peninsula, and large rallies were reported across the Nile delta and the Suez canal region.
The protests were called by a coalition of online activists, who promised 25 January would be a "day of revolt". Apparently taken by surprise at the size of the crowds, police initially stood back and allowed demonstrators to occupy public squares and march through the streets, unprecedented in a country where political gatherings are outlawed and demonstrations normally shut down quickly.
But as the marches grew, the government moved to isolate them. Access to internet, phone and social media networks was shut down, spreading confusion among protesters and temporarily sealing the largest Arab country off from the rest of the world. Access was later restored, although services remained intermittent.
"This is what freedom feels like. What a great day for Egypt," said Ahmed Ashraf, a 26-year-old bank analyst attending his first ever protest. "It was impossible to rally like this before, but today I knew I had to come out. This is our Tunisia." Demonstrators excitedly urged passersby to join them; many obliged. "Egypt is waking up," shouted one coffee shop owner who spontaneously merged with a throng of protesters in Shubra, northern Cairo.
Breakaway groups attempting to reach the parliament building fought running battles with armed police, whose cordons were broken several times. Police fired teargas canisters into the crowd and released sound-bombs to try to disperse protesters. Many demonstrators were seen with blood pouring down their faces. The clashes came on a public holiday dedicated to saluting the achievements of the police force.
Today's events were a litmus test for the strength of a new generation of anti-government activists, who have rejected the moribund landscape of formal politics and begun organising online.
After parliamentary elections in November which handed the ruling NDP a 93% majority and were widely thought to be rigged, this "day of revolt" was seen as the best chance yet for youthful dissidents to prove they could command widespread support on the streets.
As reports came in of large rallies breaking out around the country, several different demonstrations in Cairo headed towards Tahrir Square, where a carnival atmosphere quickly took hold despite violent skirmishes with police breaking out on the fringes. Tahrir Square was last occupied during protests against the Iraq war in 2003, but witnesses declared today's rally to be even bigger.
As night drew in the security forces intensified their teargas bombardment and begun charging protesters on Qasr el-Aini, one of the main roads leading to the square.
Protesters surged forwards again and again in the face of attacks, at one point causing hundreds of police to flee leaving riot shields, helmets and barricades in their wake, which were soon commandeered by demonstrators.
Government forces quickly regrouped and took back the street, forcing protesters back into the main square – now littered with rocks that had been thrown back into the crowds by policemen and pools of water fired in by police water cannons.
As sound-bombs rang out by the Nile, demonstrators chanted "terrorists" at the oncoming police, though also called on them to join their ranks.
"What is happening today is a major warning to the system," said Nabil Abdel Fattah, a political analyst. He said the uprising would continue to gather momentum unless the government swiftly addressed demands for reform.
*12.25 AM UPDATE*
As midnight approaches in Cairo thousands of protesters are still occupying Tahrir Square, vowing to remain in place until the government falls. News has reached Egyptians here of deaths in Suez and the capital, as well as unconfirmed reports that Gamal Mubarak – the president’s wildly unpopular son and presumed heir apparent – has fled to London, and they appear more determined than ever to hold their ground.
“We will stay here all night, all week if necessary,” said Youssef Hisham, a 25 year old filmmaker. “There are too many people on the streets for the police to charge – if they did, it would be a massacre. I came here today not as the representative of any political party, but simply in the name of Egypt. We have liberated the heart of the country, and Mubarak now knows that his people want him gone.”
As fresh waves of protesters broke through police cordons to join the throng in Tahrir, a festival atmosphere took hold – groups were cheered as they arrived carrying blankets and food, and demonstrators pooled money together to buy water and other supplies. “The atmosphere is simply amazing – everyone is so friendly, there’s no anger, no harassment, just solidarity and remarkable energy,” added Hisham.
Drums were banged and fires started as night moved in; having established their lines, hundreds of security forces stayed put and kept their distance, although alarmingly police snipers were seen to be taking up position on nearby buildings. “They are waiting for numbers to dwindle, and then they will switch off the street lights and charge,” warned Ahmed Salah, a veteran activist.
“We must hold Tahrir through the night and tomorrow, so that every corner of Egypt can take us as an inspiration and rise up in revolt,” claimed Salah. “It’s a matter of life and death now – what happens over the next 24 hours will be vital to the history of this country. It’s a very emotional moment for me.”
Pamphlets widely distributed amongst protesters declared that ‘the spark of intifada’ had been launched in Egypt. “We have started an uprising with the will of the people, the people who have suffered for thirty years under oppression, injustice and poverty,” read the Arabic-language texts. “Egyptians have proven today that they are capable of taking freedom by force and destroying despotism.”
They went on to call for the immediate removal of President Mubarak and his government, and urged Egyptians nationwide to begin a wave of strikes, sit-ins and demonstrations across the country until these demands were met. “Long live the struggle of the Egyptian people,” the pamphlets ended.
Cut off from telephones, the internet and social media – all of which have been shut down by the authorities in an attempt to isolate protesters – several of those rallying appealed to the foreign press to make their voices heard. “We want you to broadcast what is happening here to the world,” cried Haisam El Tawed, a 26 year old software engineer. “This is my first protest, but it won’t be the last. The social suffering of our people cannot go on, and the Tunisians have shown us that change is possible. The parliamentary elections were a fake, our only option is to stay here until the regime falls.”
His colleague, Mohamed Mamdouh, went on to criticize the government’s attempts to restrict communications on the ground. “It’s futile; in the 21st century, you can’t stop people sharing and organising information,” he said. “It just shows to the world how desperate and afraid Mubarak is – closing down telephones and the internet is a last resort, the act one carries out when he is preparing to flee.”
News continued to filter through of other occupations throughout the country, where offices of the ruling NDP party were said to have been stormed. A huge cheer swept through the crowds as the first editions of Al Masry Al Youm, an independent Egyptian newspaper, passed into the square – its front page carried a single photo of protesters massing in front of Mubarak’s security forces, with the headline: ‘Ultimatum’.
A remarkable day in Egyptian history, one that could have vast ramifications within the Arab World and beyond. Observers are now asking themselves how long the international community will continue to back Mubarak – a key western ally, despite his penchant for torture and human rights abuses, and the recipient of more US financial aid than any country in the world except Israel. However things play out tomorrow, it’s clear a crucial fear barrier has been broken today in Egypt; if that emboldens the millions of Egyptians who have long harbored latent hostility to the government and yet who have thus far been too afraid to confront it openly, then regime change could be closer than we think.
The death of 28-year-old Khaled Said in the port city of Alexandria in June last year has proved a potent rallying point for the opposition in Egypt and human rights activists elsewhere. Graphic pictures of his injuries after a fatal beating allegedly by police quickly appeared online. Witnesses claimed Said, who had earlier posted a video of local officers apparently dividing the spoils from a drugs bust, was assaulted at an internet cafe near his home.
He was kicked, punched and had his head smashed against a marble staircase in the lobby of a building next door. His body was dragged into a police car and later dumped by the roadside. Security officials at first claimed Said died of asphyxiation after he swallowed a packet of narcotics hidden under his tongue. The United States and EU called for a transparent investigation. A trial of the two police officers charged with brutality is expected to resume next month.