Patience is a virtue – maybe even the supreme one in Egypt’s popular hierarchy of values, but patience also has its limits and, now, at last, it seems as if we’ve arrived at ours. And fittingly, it’s the young of the country who are leading us. They’ve had enough of unemployment, deteriorating education, corruption, police brutality and political impotence.
As is now well known, they organised Tuesday’s protests over Facebook and in closed virtual and actual meetings. Talk about grassroots! “They” is some 20 groups that have sprung up over the last five years. The question has always been how and when will they coalesce? They did on Tuesday; they fused, and with them multitudes of Egyptians young and old – inspired by what happened in Tunis.
They organised protests from Assiut in the south, to Sheikh Zuwayyid in Sinai, and Alexandria, Suez and other cities the length and breadth of Egypt. For Cairo they chose three locations: Shubra, Matariyya and Arab League Street. These were strategic choices: naturally crowded neighbourhoods, with lots of side streets off the main road. Young activists started their march in nearby areas, collected a following and by the time they reached, for example, Arab League Street, they were 20,000 marching.
The Central Security Forces were in chaos; when they formed cordons the people just broke through them. When they raised their riot shields and batons the young people walked right up to them with their hands up chanting “Silmiyyah! (Peaceable) Silmiyyah!”
In Tahrir Square, in the centre of Cairo, on Tuesday night Egypt re-found and celebrated its diversity. The activists formed a minor part of the gathering, what was there was The People.
Young people of every background and social class marched and sang together. Older, respected figures went round with food and blankets. Cigarette-smoking women in jeans sat next to their niqab-wearing sisters on the pavement. Old comrades from the student movement of the 1970s met for the first time in decades. Young people went round collecting litter. People who stayed at home phoned nearby restaurants with orders to deliver food to the protesters. Not one religious or sectarian slogan was heard. The solidarity was palpable. And if this sounds romantic, well, it was and is.
Then, 1am, Central Security attacked. Ferociously. Within five minutes more than 40 canisters of tear gas were thrown into the crowd. When they did not disperse, the special forces went in with batons, water cannon and finally rubber bullets. People were grabbed and thrown into police trucks. Hundreds were driven off to police stations and detention centres. Private cars chased round after the police trucks to keep track of where they were taking people.
The phone lines set up by legal aid and humanitarian organisations started to ring. Lawyers on standby headed for the detention centres. The government started to block the emergency lines and interfere with the net. Blocking communications. This continues today.
For some time, Egypt has felt as though it is under occupation. Today, downtown Cairo was under siege. Appropriately, it was the legal and media area that was clearly worrying the regime most. Twenty personnel carriers lined Rameses Street, and lines of security forces were three deep around the lawyers’s syndicate, the judges’s club and the journalists’s syndicate.
About 100 protesters were standing on the steps of the journalists’s syndicate, with banners. A young woman with a mike was addressing the soldiers: “Relax!” she called, “Relax! We’re not the enemy!”
The protest strategy since the 26th has been flash demonstrations that gather quickly and disperse when attacked. Their aim is to keep the security forces on their toes and not allow them to rest – until Friday. Friday, after prayers, is the classic protest time and everyone is waiting.
There is a level of organisation springing up here that can best be described as solidarity in action. At various centres round the capital young activists are manning phones, documenting injuries, setting up impromptu clinics.
At the Hisham Mubarak (no relation to the President) legal centre people have not slept for 48 hours. They have documented, since 25 January, eight people killed, 24 injured and more than 800 detained. But the hotlines published on the websites have now all been blocked so fewer calls are coming in. But information keeps coming: they detained a ninety-year-old man in Suez. He used to be a leader of the resistance in 1956. And he’s in the protests now.
• Ahdaf Soueif is the bestselling author of The Map of Love and many other books. She lives in Cairo and London.