Tonight in Cairo, the Parliament is Surrounded

Tonight, protesters have surrounded the parliament building in downtown Cairo. There have been two deaths of protestors in Suez; one policeman has died in Cairo, hit by a rock. The protestors in Tahrir Square have been tear-gassed, and Twitter has been blocked within the borders of Egypt.

But this morning, as the sun burned a smoky haze off the face of this city, the streets were open and clear as I rode downtown at 8 a.m.

There had been tweets that protests would be staged in Tahrir Square and in the downtown neighborhood of Mohandeseen. These tweets were received by Egyptian authorities monitoring the hashtag #jan25, and they deployed a massive security presence to deter any demonstrations. Officers stood in groups of 6 to 8, on nearly every street corner. They blockaded the entrance to the parliament building. The teams stood quietly with folded arms watching the empty streets as the sun rose over the Nile.

Around the block, I exited my taxi and sat down at a nearby hotel for coffee, waiting as the hours passed. I saw six trucks of police pass on the highway, heading south to Mohandeseen. I jumped into a taxi and followed them.

But here as well, only a small army of police guarded the downtown commercial district. Not a demonstrator was in sight, and sensing this protest had ended before it would begin, I went home.

When I arrived, the Twitter hash #jan25 lit up. Someone said that earlier tweets had been deliberately planted as decoys to mislead authorities. Now, in dozens of real locations throughout the city, protesters had begun to mobilize.

I ran out the door and took the subway back to Tahrir Square.

When I arrived, the protest had begun. In the street a group of close to 200 Egyptians, mostly men, were standing, chanting and waving flags. Blocking both sides of the street were lines of police in riot gear. Immediately surrounding them, outnumbering the protesters, were older Egyptian men and young women.

They were joined by other young Egyptians and nearly all of them were taking photographs. Watching the bystanders there was a feeling that they almost did not know how to act or what to do. This was something they had never seen in their lives. So they took pictures.

The group pushed at one of the police lines. The officers yielded to them, opening their line of shields in the middle, letting the group pass to avoid conflict. The group marched on through the street, chanting. As they marched, gradually, the voyeurs, seeing that the police were not attacking, joined their countrymen.

In the three blocks they walked, the crowd grew. Many of the photographers became protesters. It seemed that their size had almost doubled by the time the group turned into Tahrir Square. They spilled out into the center of the plaza. There they flooded out into a mass of thousands of other protesters, who had marched to the same point from different locations throughout the city.

At this juncture, the tenor of the afternoon shifted.

Egyptian police blocked both sides of Tahrir Square, pressing the protesters. This began a dangerous tug of war between Egyptians and authorities. Demonstrators began to push into the wall of police shields. In response, police beat them back into position with batons. During these exchanges I saw one police officer pulled into the crowd, tossed onto the ground and beaten before other officers extracted and carried him behind police lines. At one point some protesters picked up rocks and threw them at the police, but they were chastised by others who yelled to them, “stop, stop we must keep it peaceful.”

As the tension escalated the crowd grew loud and impassioned. The chants continued as they yelled, “my country, my country.”

On the south end of the square, a military tank rolled into the crowd. At the top of the tank an officer manned a fire hose that hammered down onto the protesters. But no one moved.

The fire tank had not advanced more than 30 yards before a young Egyptian sprinted up the front of the vehicle and scaled up the side. He proceeded to climb up to the top of the tank, inciting ovations from the crowd. When he reached the top of the tank, the officer manning the hose dropped the nozzle and jumped on the back of the protester. The two men toppled off the vehicle and onto the ground, where the man was taken away by other officers.

The moment they fell to the ground, the front 200 protesters dropped to their knees in unison and began to pray while the rest of the crowd looked into the faces of Egyptians staring at the scene from high above in their apartment windows. “Who will be the next hero?” they chanted as they looked up. Then they burst into a new chant: “Come join us, come join us!”

I tried to get out the protest. I started towards the front of the pack, hoping to find a side alley to duck into, but had not gotten more than 20 yards forward before being warned by an Egyptian teenager: “Don’t go to the front—they’re taking pictures to ID people.”

The fight for territory between authorities and protesters moved back and forth. At the north end of the square, police moved their lines back off to the sidewalk and stood beside the Egyptian Museum—because yet another wave of hundreds of protesters, mostly men, was charging towards them chanting, “Allah help us.” Seeing the retreating police, I started down the street hoping to get out to the highway. As I fled an Egyptian man in his mid 40s stopped me.

“Not there,” he said, “more protesters are coming, this way.” He pointed to a side alleyway.

“Where are they coming from?” I asked.

“Everywhere,” he said, “they are coming in waves, every ten minutes from all over the city.”

“Why?”

“They don’t like the government. No food. No drink for people. Many people poor. This is just beginning. Next group comes out in a half hour.”

“It is planned this way?”

“Yes,” he said.

I said goodbye and ran down the alley. I continued down the street for a few blocks until I could hail a taxi home. We crossed a bridge over the Nile as the sun went down. In the lane beside us, in the place of on coming traffic were hundreds of Egyptians, wrapped in flags, chanting aloud, all on their way to Tahrir Square.

Update: See photos from the protest here.

Previously: Hushed and Growing Dissent in Cairo: “It Is Going to Happen Here”

Gordon Reynolds is the pseudonym of a teacher in Cairo. Follow him on Twitter here.