One by one, the lines of communication that connected Egypt to the 21st century shut down. Twitter, Facebook, and eventually all Internet access were cut off; text messaging became impossible, and then millions of mobile phones went silent across the country. But the protests and riots continued, as they had for most of the week, with thousands of young Egyptians trying to take down the regime of octogenarian President Hosni Mubarak. They set last Friday for their “day of rage,” drawing in supporters from all over the country, including the outlawed but powerfully organized Muslim Brotherhood. In the hours leading up to the demonstrations, the government did everything it could to cut them off from each other—and from the rest of the world.
At the appointed hour, just after noon prayers, tens of thousands of marchers flooded into the streets all over Egypt, only to be met with truncheons, rubber bullets, and tear gas floating thicker in the air than morning mist on the Nile. But the protesters kept coming. In Cairo, security forces turned a water cannon on Mohamed ElBaradei, the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize winner who has tried to inspire a peaceful transition to a more democratic regime. Besieged by police, he and a group of supporters holed up in a mosque for more than an hour before the government reportedly put him under house arrest.
Other demonstrators in Cairo played cat-and-mouse with the cops, hurling taunts and rocks and sometimes Molotov cocktails. The police struck back with an artillery barrage of tear-gas canisters, some landing amid the crowd, some landing in the river, bubbling and spewing as they sank beneath the surface. Late in the day, two large groups surged into Tahrir Square, the heart of the city, near the Egyptian Museum, the InterContinental Hotel and the American Embassy. Suddenly the police pulled out—and the Army moved in. As a nationwide 6 p.m. curfew descended, there seemed little likelihood that the protesters would be able to hold their turf through the night. But the arrival of the soldiers, who command much more respect than the police and security forces, opened the possibility that both sides could retreat a little.
The Obama administration looked on as if caught between the police lines and the protesters, unsure which side to join. “My main hope right now is that violence is not the answer in solving these problems in Egypt,” President Barack Obama said in a YouTube interview Thursday. “The government has to be careful about not resorting to violence. And the people on the streets need to be careful about not resorting to violence. And I think that it is very important that people have mechanisms in order to express legitimate grievances.”
It may be too late for that. From the high-rise hotels around Tahrir Square, tourists and journalists saw the National Democratic Party headquarters, the party of the president, in flames after curfew on Friday night. Worse, fires appeared near the Egyptian Museum, with its priceless artifacts dating back to pharaonic times 5,000 years ago. The Army moved in to secure the site, but the history of one of the oldest civilizations on earth was in danger, the future of modern Egypt completely unknown.
Late that night, Mubarak went on national television to tell his people he was listening and would change his cabinet, but with no hint that he might step down himself. Obama phoned Mubarak, then read his own statement at the White House, calling on Egypt to lift restrictions on the Internet and take more meaningful steps toward political reform. “Going forward, this moment of volatility has to be turned into a moment of promise,” said Obama. But there was no real question that volatility remained the order of the day.
2/1/10: NEWSWEEK's David Botti snapshots the ebb and flow of protests on a single street off of Cairo's main downtown square during several days of revolt., Video muted: click volume for sound
For America, the immediate concern is that through the terms of five U.S. presidents, Mubarak’s Egypt has been Washington’s most powerful and most indispensable ally in the Middle East. It has been at peace with Israel since 1978 and, partly as a reward, has received more than $600 billion in U.S. aid over the past three decades. Mubarak has positioned his government as a vital counterbalance to Iran and helped to isolate Hamas. His enormous Army, with a troop strength of 468,500 soldiers, trains closely with the Americans. Historically, the country has been the keystone in the enormous and troubled arch of Arab and Muslim countries stretching from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean—and if it shakes loose, everything else could crumble. The United States, Europe, and its neighbors have viewed Egypt as too big to fail. But its 82-year-old president has been in power longer than two thirds of his population has been alive, and an odor of decadent tyranny hangs over the country. Obama said he has consistently pressured Mubarak to pursue reform, which he called “critical to the long-term well-being of Egypt.” But if that was America’s policy, it was news to most Egyptians.
Obama’s rhetoric didn’t seem to impress the crowds as they tried to wash tear gas off their faces. They saw no need for American support. Their model was the popular uprising that brought down Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on Jan. 14, an event so unprecedented that it inspired street demonstrations from Algeria to Yemen.
Mubarak’s defenders will tell you that Egypt is not Tunisia, and Mubarak—even in his dotage—is a different breed of dictator. “I don’t think our leadership is going to blink,” predicted prominent Egyptian businessman Shafik Gabr. Despite rumors that Mubarak and his family had fled, the old man hung tough.
The aging intelligence officers and party officials of Mubarak’s inner circle have adopted a posture that’s almost blasé, as if they’d seen this all before. In past crises they’ve always found the right combination of intimidation and cooptation to keep them in power, so why not now? The protesters are a minority, they say, while the government is looking after the neediest people in the land. The implication is that Mubarak’s coterie doesn’t care about the youngsters who sit around making trouble on expensive laptops.
But crowds in the streets aren’t the only challenge to Mubarak’s dictatorship now. For the first time he’s facing a new threat as well: crowdsourcing, a kind of collective leadership, elusive and resilient, the likes of which Egypt has never experienced. Its manifestoes—even the chants shouted in the faces of the cops—have been polished by dozens of anonymous editors on a Google document. “We are Egypt’s youth on the Internet,” they proclaimed on the eve of last Friday’s protests. Mubarak cannot keep Egypt unplugged forever, and they know it.
Ramshackle little offices in central Cairo serve as the makeshift operations center for the April 6 Movement, which started as a Facebook page in 2008. At first the scene calls to mind a college paper’s newsroom more than it suggests a group hellbent on toppling a dictator. But look closer: nearly everyone seems to be nursing injuries of one kind or another. One man has a bandaged earlobe and scabs across the left side of his face. Another has a swollen red eye and bruises beneath it. One dazed supporter walks around the office with a handful of birdshot. It was dug out of his leg earlier in the day, and there’s still more embedded in him.
Ahmad Maher, 30, soft-spoken and stocky, walks with a slight limp from the beating he received during demonstrations on Jan. 25. It wasn’t his first. When he cofounded the April 6 Facebook page three years ago, 70,000 people signed up to support strikers in the city of Mahalla, or at least to “like” them. State security officials arrested Maher soon afterward. They beat him with fists and batons for two days before releasing him. That didn’t make him give up activism, but it did make others who took up the cause a little wiser. Now a key organizer of the protests remains anonymous. On a Facebook page dedicated to Khaled Said, a blogger allegedly beaten to death by corrupt policemen in Alexandria last year, a mysterious figure calling himself “ElShaheed” has taken the initiative—but he’s careful to say he’s not really in charge. “At the end of the day I am a virtual leader,” ElShaheed told NEWSWEEK in an exchange on Gmail Chat. “Once everyone is on the ground each one is his own leader.”
It’s precisely that shift, from sitting down in front of a computer screen to standing up on the streets, that has taken authorities by surprise. Obama showed how it was done in the United States during his 2008 campaign. It wasn’t enough to “like” his Facebook page or visit his home page; all sorts of mechanisms were set up to get volunteers raising money and ringing doorbells. Much the same thing is now being done in Egypt by the Khaled Said site, the April 6 Movement, and other groups that move from the conceptual to the concrete, showing people not only how to click a mouse, but also how to use Coca-Cola to wash away the sting of tear gas. It was all in place even before the Tunisian revolt. But the results have surprised everyone. Suddenly people who had never seen a protest were pouring into the streets, not only hotblooded young men and angry workers, but women, mothers, girls—and many discovered that they were leaders, too.
Amal Sharaf, a petite 36-year-old with light brown hair who is another one of the founders of the April 6 Movement, figures the group handed out more than 60,000 fliers in the days leading up to the first major protests on Jan. 25, when more than 50,000 people filled Tahrir Square. “It was beyond our dreams,” she says. A day later, she found refuge in the April 6 offices. “If I go to the streets right now, they will arrest me immediately,” says Sharaf. “We’re trapped,” she adds with a laugh, but not quite joking. She’s brought her 9-year-old daughter to the office. The little girl, decked out in a pink scarf and proudly showing off her plaid sneakers, plays games on a minicomputer as the grown-ups plot further confrontations. An overflowing ashtray sits next to Sharaf’s six cell phones and a handful of SIM cards. A friend hands Sharaf the handbag of a movement colleague who has been arrested, and Sharaf’s eyes fill with tears. A few days earlier a man claiming to speak for state security tracked her down at a coffee shop with a warning: stop your activism or we’re going to kidnap your daughter. Her tears come full force.
And yet, in that first great rush of popular power on Jan. 25, no one was more exhilarated than the women. A young Christian calling herself Sally says she came home from London to support ElBaradei’s calls for peaceful transition. She’s not pleased by reports that he’d been meeting with Muslim Brotherhood leaders. “I’m wearing the biggest cross I have,” she says. But she talks dreamily of the Jan. 25 demonstrations. “For the first time ever, a girl could lie down on the grass, in a park, and not get harassed,” she says.
Another woman in the square that night was Gameela Ismail, 44, a popular television personality who worked as a journalist for NEWSWEEK for many years. Her former husband, Ayman Nour, who ran for president against Mubarak in 2005, was punished with four years’ imprisonment by the regime. Late on the night of Jan. 25, when police moved into the square in force, their teenage son was swept up along with scores of other protesters. The detainees were crammed into big police vans so tightly that they were barely able to breathe, and were driven into the desert. But the young man had managed to keep his cell phone and texted his location as the van drove on. Ismail and other relatives caught up with it at the entrance to a state-security building and forced it to stop. After an hourlong standoff, the families seized the truck and forced open the door, freeing the prisoners.
“Actually I am optimistic,” Ismail says, “but I am very worried that things will go out of control. I am very worried that these protests will turn into violent ones. Mubarak’s party is not going to stop. They will go for bloody confrontations if they feel they will lose power. But the good part of it is that, you know, the baby was born! Finally, finally, the people feel confident that they can do something good, that they can show their anger, they can call ‘Down with Mubarak!’ They broke this barrier of fear—so the baby is born. Will it be a girl? A boy? Breast-fed or powder milk? How will we raise it? What school will it go to? That we do not know yet. But the baby is born.”
Whether the Mubarak regime can hang on, and for how long, is now a question for the military and the working class. But the military’s motives are opaque, and its midlevel leadership is practically unknown to outsiders, while the ability of the working class to remain passive in the face of misery has assured the stability of many past regimes. If either or both mobilize against Mubarak, he and those around him will have lost.
Near Tahrir Square, 35-year-old Safar Attiya, a mother of four, is asking questions that have gone unspoken for three decades. “What did the president ever do for us?” she demands. “Nothing! Nothing! He didn’t do anything for us. We can’t even find work.” Between her part-time job cleaning houses and her husband’s job as a day laborer, they earn about $60 a month. “We see videos of rich people’s mansions and villas on TV,” says Attiya. “And we are beaten out of the street.” The protests will continue, predicts Ahmad Mahmoud, a 30-year-old lawyer with a small black mustache and slight build. A tear-gas canister lands nearby and he steps back. “Egypt is bigger than Tunisia, and Mubarak is smaller than Egypt. I think he will go to Saudi Arabia like [Tunisia’s] Ben Ali.”
As Friday night gave way to Saturday morning, the Internet was still down. The phones still did not work. But Egyptians were no longer willing to wait to communicate with the 21st century.