As tens of thousands of Egyptians gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square today for a forceful show of protest against the country’s military regime, Khaled Mansour was reminded of the atmosphere in the city nine months earlier. “I have a lot of memories of this place,” he said, as demonstrators marched across the Kasr Al Nil bridge, site of a famous battle between activists and police on Jan. 28, Egypt’s "Day of Rage." That day, as protesters battled to reach "Liberation Square," Mansour had helped scoop up tear-gas canisters to lob back at police; when people around him were injured by gunfire, he had helped drag them to safety. Now Mansour and the other marchers passed calmly across the bridge. No police were in sight.
In the week leading up to the protest, Mansour had worried less about reaching the square, and more about how the protests would come across to outside observers. Sitting in a coffee shop in downtown Cairo on Wednesday night, Mansour—a Salafi youth group organizer—said he was focusing on making sure the protest didn’t appear to be predominately Islamist. “We don’t want to appear that we are hijacking the scene,” he said. Mansour insisted that today’s protest needed to be a “global” one.
With elections in 10 days and concerns running high that Egypt’s military—which has ruled the country since the departure of former president Hosni Mubarak in February—might yet forestall the day of voting, today’s protest was billed as a unified warning shot to the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF). But ever since Mubarak’s ouster, protests have tended to be fragmentary, sectarian affairs. Back at the end of July, the ultraconservative Salafis occupied Tahrir Square alongside liberal activists in what was meant to be a show of solidarity. Instead, the Islamists dominated the protest with chants about turning Egypt into a nation run by sharia law. The incident stoked fears among some secular Egyptians that the revolution would be derailed by a religious agenda.
But in the lead-up to Friday’s protest, Islamic groups, including the powerful Muslim Brotherhood, had announced their support for the unified message of the rally. Mansour was busily coordinating between Salafi groups and liberal revolutionary activists to ensure that the protest maintained its focus.
Mansour and his colleagues appear to have succeeded. At the Mustafa Mahmoud mosque in the neighborhood of Mohandiseen, protesters began chanting antimilitary slogans within seconds of the conclusion of afternoon prayers. As a sizable procession began to wend its way toward Tahrir, people wrapped themselves in Egyptian flags or waved banners, stopping to cheer when a rowdy band of youth tore down a massive election banner for an old Mubarak party member. Demonstrators climbed atop stoplights to wave the Egyptian flag. In Tahrir Square, liberals were packed tightly together with Brotherhood members. Mansour noted that today’s demonstration had the old, inclusive feel of the events of Jan. 28. Even though the protest was expected to thin overnight, Mansour thought the right message had been sent to SCAF. “This is a warning shot,” he said. “It’s not the last one.”