Photograph: Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters
By Tamara Wing
For several weeks, the idea of standing together with signs publicly demanding their government leaders to affect change had been a popular topic among Egyptians on FaceBook. The youth felt little hope in their futures as they saw Mubarak’s government—the only national leadership many have ever known—continue to ignore its people’s despair. Unemployment had grown to nearly 10% with well over half of all Egyptians living in poverty. Some desired to force a political change but general consensus was that the time wasn’t right–their numbers would be too small–Egyptians lived in fear of their government. For years, they had witnessed fairly regular isolated occurrences of political activists and bloggers being harassed or arrested by Central Security Police, sometimes beaten, for exposing or criticizing Mubarak’s government in public ways. Egyptians’ apprehension changed to hope after Tunisians were successful in peacefully but forcefully removing their corrupt leaders from government. Inspired by the Tunisians, Egyptians used FaceBook and Twitter to launch their protest date: Wednesday, January 25.
Tens of thousands of Egyptians turned out for the protests on Wednesday and, seeing how wide-spread the support was, organizers immediately began promoting a mass protest for Friday, following evening prayer. At this point, the Egyptian government ordered its four state-run ISPs to block FaceBook and Twitter. Activists continued to spread the word about Friday’s planned rallies; protests slowed a bit on Thursday.
Then came Friday, and hours before the heavily promoted mass protests were to begin, Egypt ordered its ISPs and wireless phone service providers to disconnect Egypt from all electronic communication (land lines were kept on). In spite of this loss of real-time communication, the numbers of protesters in the streets at any given time have remained above 100,000 since Friday morning. A widely-reported estimate of the total number of participants since Wednesday is one million.
Egypt’s protesters come from all walks of life; they are from all professions and political leanings; their common cry is for the ousting of government leaders whose rule has been likened to a dictatorship. “The barrier of fear has fallen,” was a popular refrain by reporters in reference to the numbers of middle class (above poverty-level) Egyptians who have joined in the call for Mubarak to step down.
Throughout the day and evening on Friday, protesters in cities across Egypt were met with force. Protesters whose stated purpose was to march across a main bridge were met by riot police blocking their path. As they advanced toward the police to walk between them, protesters were met with tear gas. Post-recovery, protesters would advance again and were met with higher quantities of tear gas. As Friday went on, deep clouds of tear gas and black smoke could be seen over the bridge on numerous occasions.
In Egypt’s major cities, protests were more chaotic. Police vehicles were burned or overturned, government buildings were damaged, and Mubarak’s party headquarters building was looted and razed to the ground. Protesters threw rocks at police; police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets. Protester fatalities are currently thought to be under 10, most being due to tear gas canisters being fired directly at their bodies; injuries are well over 1200. There have been over a thousand arrests and widespread reports of police beatings of protesters and journalists.
Updates to come.