By Emad Mekay
As I write this, thousands of Egyptians are demonstrating across the country in what increasingly looks like unrest of unprecedented size and ferocity. The protests saw factory workers, university professors, political activists and even women and teenage girls braving oncoming riot police and taking to the streets across the Egypt. Many were chanting against the 82-year old Western-backed President Hosni Mubarak.
What was initially expected to be yet another Cairo day of small protests that police could easily crush is fast turning into massive protests in almost all major towns and cities in the Arab nation of 85-million. There are reports of live shots fired at demonstrations in some cities and towns, on top of the usual Egyptian police tactic of tear gas, clubs and water canons. Several injuries have been reported.
In downtown Cairo, I’ve seen young and elderly women taking part in the protests,many of them challenging riot police face-to-face. That sight encouraged some men to follow suit. And that was when police were showing restraint in the first half of the day.
Video: Mondoweiss contributor Ahmed Moor took this footage of protesters driving back riot police.
Later on, things turned a bit ugly. Police, clearly surprised by the growing numbers of people who turned out, started to act nervously, firing tear gas and using water canons. One young man jumped over an armored police vehicle to try to stop the water canon. The scene again encouraged protesters to throw stones at the police.
As the day progressed, police became more violent and tried to be more restrictive. Riot police blocked all entries to downtown Cairo and stopped several cars at check points. Protesters say they will sit-in throughout the cold night in Midan Al-Tahrir, the Liberation Square, Cairo’s most central area. The police are issuing an ultimatum for them disperse and for citizens to not to take part. Local television stations are broadcasting the warning non-stop.
The government has already blocked several websites that monitor and report on the unrest minute-by-minute. The authorities, which controls all communication in Egypt, started blocking websites beginning late in the afternoon as things on the ground heated up and it became clear that many protesters were using the internet for information.
Aldostor.org, the website of the privately-owned newspaper which often carries articles by opponents of the regime, was blocked. I turned to the site throughout the day for fast developments before it became inaccessible. Alwafd.org, a website for the opposition daily, Alwafd, was also blocked after it reported the death of a protester. (I wasn’t able to verify the report.) And of course the usual suspects: Twitter has been blocked for hours.
These demonstrations are different in many ways from their predecessors:
1 – They happened in so many cities and towns at the same time including Cairo, Alexandria, Tanta, Mahala, Suez, Mansoura, some parts of Sinai and elsewhere. The local Al-Mehwar TV station reported just an hour ago that the only areas that didn’t see protests were Luxor, Aswan and the distant Western Desert city of Al-Wadi Al-Gadeed. By some counts, this the largest protest Egypt has seen since Mubarak took office in 1981.
2 – This the first time I’ve seen so many women involved; young and old were taking part. One protester told me that she came to protest after she heard of the demonstrations from a 15-year-old “Facebook blogger.” A 30-year-old woman in Mahala told me over the phone that she encouraged her husband to “wake up” and go out with her to take part in the protests. She said she only left after she heard shots from the police. “I think they have orders to shoot and kill,” she told me.
3 – The protesters are clearly not afraid of the police. Many threw stones, while others sat on the ground to stop armored police cars from advancing against protesters. The police couldn’t scare them away as they used to in the past. This may be be a result of the Tunisian revolution which eventually toppled the president there.
4 – The protesters were chanting against Mubarak himself. In several instances I saw protesters pulling down pictures of Mubarak.
5 – Twitter, facebook, mobile phones, blogs and the Internet in general are the real heroes of the protests so far. Young people are shooting videos of the protests and posting it everywhere. This is how they are communicating.
Emad Mekay is a contributor to IPS based in Cairo. We’ll continue to post updates from him as they become available.