Basem Fathi, an organizer of Monday’s protests in Cairo, was scrambling around the capital, trying to buy towels and tents. On a day in which tens of thousands of people thronged the streets in the type of large-scale protests that authoritarian Egypt hasn’t seen in decades, demonstrators had occupied the central Tahrir Square, where they had the Parliament building surrounded. Now they looked ready to stay the night. Fathi seemed taken aback by the success. “We didn’t have a boss for this, but the heads of the protest are trying to supply some logistics,” he said. He added that he had no idea what came next. “Nobody knows. But at least people are starting to believe that they can do something—and not just today.”
Inspired by the revolution in Tunisia, the Monday protests began a little more than a week ago with a campaign on a popular Facebook page. Even as online pledges to participate approached 90,000, however, a large-scale demonstration in the Tunisia mold seemed unlikely. The so-called Jasmine Revolution was spontaneous, sparked by a college-educated fruit vendor’s self-immolation, not an organized activist push. And Egypt is a crushingly effective police state, with a long history of imprisoning dissidents and no-holds-barred crowd control. Attempts to organize large-scale protests in Egypt tend to fall flat.
Mohammed ElBaradei and the Muslim Brotherhood, the two opposition players most likely to draw people to the street, had offered only moral support. The Brotherhood in particular had been viewed as the only group in Egypt capable of bringing big numbers to the streets. “The pattern in the past is that there’s a lot of Internet activism, but there’s not always a big turnout on the streets,” says Jason Brownlee, a visiting fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center who specializes in U.S.-Egypt relations.
Yet protest organizers combined an Internet savvy with hard tactics on the ground. They got online supporters to coordinate with friends and family by text and word of mouth, and to join with traditional activists to put up fliers and reach out to people on the street. In an interview last week, “ElShaheeed,” the anonymous administrator of the main Facebook page behind the protest, told NEWSWEEK that organizing something significant would take more than just activism on the Web. “It’s not just posting,” he said. “To get people to the streets you need to rally. Rally very hard.”
Protest organizers, who also included the April 6 Student Movement and a number of smaller opposition groups, also came up with a strategy for subverting government efforts at crowd control. In the interview, ElShaheeed said protesters would meet in three squares next to poorer areas throughout the city and converge from there on a preselected place. He hoped this would give the protests time to attract ordinary people from the street. Instructions to that effect were posted on the Facebook page. The plan paid off, despite the reported presence of 20,000 police. The Cairo protests began in Mostafa Mahmoud, Matraya, and Shubra squares, before the crowd met to occupy Tahrir Square.
As many as 12 cities across the country, meanwhile, had smaller but like-minded protests underway. In the Nile Delta city of Mahallah, successive protests seemed only to gain steam, according to Ahmad Abdel Fattah, a journalist covering the events for the daily newspaper Almasry-Alyoum. An afternoon march of a couple of thousand had been followed by one three times as large, he estimated, and protesters were taking the bold steps of tearing apart the posters of President Hosni Mubarak that lined the streets, even setting some on fire. By nightfall, a third protest was taking shape. “In the first demonstration it was mainly activists. The second group was normal people,” Fattah said.
That protests so large in scale could be organized largely over the Internet and independent of Egypt’s traditional opposition, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, should give Mubarak plenty of cause for concern, says Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center. It shows the extent to which regular Egyptians are fed up with authoritarian rule, and how quickly that frustration can spread—lending it shades of the uprising in Tunisia. “It’s not an Islamist-organized protest. This really is unprecedented. It’s just everyday Egyptians getting angry,” he says. “If I was a regime official, I’d be pacing in my room right now.”